A toymaker’s dreams...

A toymaker’s dreams...

Traditional toys

Why would toys hold the undying attention of a tenacious researcher right into his retirement? For professor Sudarshan Khanna, designer, educator, pioneer researcher on India’s indigenous toys, the charm of toys lies not just in their design element, but also in his passion to ‘give back something’ to his community.

As a pioneer designer and design academician at the National Institute of Design (NID) in the 1970s, Sudarshan Khanna felt that designing as a profession did not have much interface with the wider society. Then again, it was being seen through a Western prism. “We had to find our own roots in design, and design has to relate to the community at large,” he felt. And he thought of toys. Designing for children was crucial. Children form a huge chunk of our population, but they are largely ignored by designers.


Sudarshan Khanna

That was when he started noticing the indigenous toymakers who zoomed into prominence during fairs and festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi and Janmashtami. While new designs in factory-made toys were too far and few in between, there were many indigenous toys sold around the country. The Bengali drumcart that makes a drumming sound when pulled, turn-wood toys from Chennapatnam, the paper puppet that flings out its hands and legs, the snake that pops out of the box, the colour-changing ‘Flower Power’ that unravels hidden colours… Sudarshan Khanna recognised in these toys craftsmanship and design. And he travelled across the country looking for more indigenous toys.

His way

He frequented the buzzing melas and collected toys that played with the design element, and built up an engaging collection of indigenous toys. This, he hopes to showcase in a museum someday.

Toys are not just about technology, they are also about sociology, psychology and other paradigms. “Toymakers have to be constantly innovative; you have to keep making new toys to hold buyers’ attention, because no one buys the same toy again. Toy-making also kept an entire network of craftsmen-collaborators in business. It’s a fascinating ecosystem of commerce and creativity,” remarks Sudarshan.

Many traditional toys are ephemeral. But that is not a negative thing, believes Sudarshan Khanna. “It serves a purpose. A modern toy cast in plastic is fixed and relegated to a static existence. But when a toy is ephemeral by design, it offers you a chance to repair, reconstruct, and personalise it, creating for it an identity,” he points out, finding it a pity that toys are no longer seen in cities, though in villages, you come across such seasonal toys.

It was an ecosystem and knowledge fast dissolving and Khanna decided to salvage whatever he could, and embarked on a journey of researching on, collecting and documenting indigenous toys. He also felt the need to reinvent the toy ecosystem in a modern scenario. So he instituted the Post Graduate Programme in Toy & Game Design at the NID. Of course, he has had a long innings as Principal Designer, Chairman of Education & Research and Head of Toy Innovation Centre at the NID, Ahmedabad.

Meanwhile, his work was drawing recognition and he became the president of ITRA (International Toy Research Association) and Founder Chairperson of ‘Toys for Tomorrow’ — the famous international forum.

Sudarshan Khanna also wrote a few books. This includes Dynamic Folk Toys(1983) — that explored Indian toys based on simple science and technology; Joy of Making Indian Toys (1992); Toys & Tales (1999) with everyday materials (1999); and Toys & Play (2018). He also created numerous educational videos and TV programmes, many now available on YouTube. He won the National Award (1996) from the Department of Science and Technology, GOI, for his lifetime of work on design-science among children, and the BRIO Award (2013) from the Bronx Council on the Arts, for his lifelong contribution towards research and innovation for toy design and development in India.

Toy, a teacher

“As a child, I knew how to make at least a dozen toys. Today’s children have no clue about making their own toys, and that’s a pity,” he muses.

Some of the indigenous toys are innovative and well-designed, and instructive too, if you are curious about it. “Children are innately curious, until that curiosity is trampled, over and over again. The first basic instinct of any child is to play, and play plus curiosity ends up in learning… So toys play a huge role in education, in sparking off a child’s thirst,” points out Surabhi Khanna, his daughter, a designer-educator and architect.

This father-daughter team is taking the toy-based learning to workshops, schools and universities, for teachers and for students, in India and in countries like Colombia, Denmark and Thailand.

“A simple paper plane demonstrates aerodynamics better than a lesson of a thousand words,” she says.

Sudarshan Khanna’s desire for extending design to a wider society, a desire further powered by interactions with Siegfried Zoels, a German designer who specialised in creativity workshops for people with special needs, led him to fashion new toys as well employ existing toy designs for the education of children and adults with special needs. Perhaps, his most famous design-paradigm motto is ‘To make something happen, make it simple.’ Although a toy seems a simplistic idea, it does package a complex mix of learning that’s not so easy to communicate verbally.

Toys also hold life lessons, especially when a child can be encouraged to make them at home with junk, with the help of a friend or a parent. Therein is their charm. 

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