Toy carvers threatened by deforestation

A girl busy gives final touches to a toy in Kondapalli. AFP

Artisan wood carvers who have been making intricate toys for Indian maharajas, ministers and their children for generations are facing ruin as the rare wood their unique products rely on disappears.

The highly treasured, brightly coloured Kondapalli toys are under threat from deforestation, and in particular the rampant exploitation of the Tella Poniki tree.

The wooden elephants, soldiers and gods are named after the Andhra Pradesh village of Kondapalli, where artists have lived since the 16th century.

The craftsmen and women produce the figures for royalty and high-ranking politicians, with ministers still regularly giving Kondapalli toys as gifts to foreign dignitaries.

Their tradition depends on the Tella Poniki, a rare tree that only survives around the nearby city of Vijayawada.

The disappearing forests mean the carvers must look further afield for supplies of the white wood, which is prized for its malleability.

The Kondapalli carvers are also battling the threat of digital toys and are wrestling with the quandary of whether to adopt modern machinery to up their efficiency and cut their prices.

“Market demand and curiosity for these toys may be increasing but we are nothing without quality wood at a reasonable price,” Bharani Kota Verma, a 48-year-old fifth generation Kondapalli toymaker said.

Verma said the price of wood has doubled in the past three years because of the shortage. “Our margins have been squeezed,” he said.

“The wood from the tree is very soft and ideal for carving into various shapes,” explained 55-year-old S K Ashra Funnisa, who has been making toys for more than 40 years.

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