Playing safe with local craft

Playing safe with local craft

local allure Kondapalli toys. photo by author

The flash of our camera-bulb disturbs him and he looks up but only to smile in understanding and return to his work. The other artisans are similarly engrossed in various stages of making of these colourful handmade toys and figurines called Kondapalli Bommalu or Kondapalli toys.

We had to drive out about 40 km from Vijaywada city to reach Kondapalli. This village of handmade-toymakers is close to the eponymous Kondapalli fort which along with the famous Kanakadurga temple and Prakasam Barrage are the big draws for visitors to this part of Andhra Pradesh.

Special wood

We were told that tellaponiki, a variety of light, soft wood is used to make these handmade products as it is the most malleable and can be easily shaped to make a figurines or toy. The wood is first cleaned and seasoned to make it withstand the process of manufacture and for durability as a finished product. The Kondapalli products are not monolithic but made from a combination of different pieces. So, every toy is made up of several small pieces each of which is made separately –– these pieces are then all glued using an adhesive made of tamarind seeds. We checked out the paste –– it looked gooey and smelt tangy.

The figurine is then painted over in bright colours using a soft, thin paintbrush made of goat’s hair. Both water and oil colours are employed for this while vegetable dyes and enamel paints are used for more elaborate toys. Sudda which is Telugu for white lime is used for a coating. Sawdust and lappum are other ingredients of the toymaking process. The most popular colours used are rich shades of green, bright hues of blue, dark red and pink.  

Animals, birds, deities, village folk and scenes from marriages and daily life are popular themes as is the Dasavataram. The ten incarnations of Vishnu are actually a popular theme in Andhra Pradesh handicrafts –– you find the series depicted in Kalamkari paintings, the famed Pemabarti brassware especially in the wall-pieces and kalasams or pots, and in Cheriyala scrolls,  for example. Other popular Kondapalli products are the Ambari Yenugu or processional elephant, bride and groom set and palanquin-bearers.
You can also have custom-made ones –– these are often created for corporate gifts, explains the cooperative society member, Suryaprakash.  

We found the products not only elegant, lightweight and colourful but very reasonably priced too. Only a thousand rupees and we had two bags of figurines! The only problem –– these figurines tend to be brittle, so we had to have them carefully packed. Lots of straw and some thermocol did the trick and we prayed they would reach home in one piece.

The survival of this handicraft tradition at a time when the winds of globalisation and modernisation are sweeping away many of our traditional arts, is thanks to the grittiness of these artisans and also their willingness to innovate and move with the times.
Besides, of course, lots of help from the state government, NGOs, and individuals like entrepreneur-turned-politician Lagadapati Rajagopal. They have ensured a wider market for these products and thus better living conditions for these approximately 500 artisans belonging to about 110 families who depend on the manufacture of these toys for their livelihood.

In 2007, Kondapalli toys received the Geographical Indicator (GI) certification thanks to the sustained efforts of CII’s Andhra Pradesh Technology Development Centre, and the Lanco Institute of General Humanitarian Trust (LIGHT) which has a creditable record of social service. A GI certificate means that these families in Kondapalli are now recognised as exclusive makers of Kondapalli Bommalu, that is only their products will be eligible to be called so.

Preservation

This is all heartening news in a country where many traditional arts are dying out, and ethnic toymakers, especially, are reeling under the onslaught of synthetic toys ranging from cheap, Chinese-made ones to expensive branded ones. Even Indian handicraft makers of décor items have been hit by western-made or western-style interior décor items. Of course, these foreign toys will always have their market and there is no need to grudge anyone, especially children, their tastes in toys. And as for what a person uses as interior décor in his home, it is entirely a personal choice.

Yet, there is also a pressing need to keep our traditional arts alive and flourishing and this is where the efforts of politicians, governmental institutions and NGOs make a difference. And so can all of us –– every time we buy a Kondapalli toy or any traditional handicraft item as a gift to ourselves or for others, we are contributing to the preservation of our great heritage.

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