A Glimpse into the Life of a Handicraft Artisan

Arts & Culture Bangalore Business Capstone COVID-19 Economy

We might have started living our lives normally but it’s still a long way for the artisans

Channapatna: “I started making toys with my father during the school time only but I will not teach the art of making these toys to my kids,” said Jaffar Khan, 34, a toy-making artisan while giving a final touch to the hands of a doll. He made this statement with a smile on his face but one could see and feel the pain in his eyes and voice while he said that. Jaffar Khan is a toymaker in the city of Channapatna and has been making toys for 17 years and has had a home manufacturing unit since the times of his father and grandfather. He is the eldest brother in his family and lives together with his wife, two children- a girl aged 4 and a boy aged 8, and his two brothers. One of his brothers works with him and the other brother works at Cipla. He, his brother and the other three men prefer working during the night time owing to the heat and warmth during the day. He says that working at night is easier for him and his men. “The nights are comparatively cooler and we feel comfortable while working in the nights,” said Khan.

Jaffar Khan’s brother in the process of making Channapatna toys

While having a conversation with Jaffar Khan, he kept stressing one statement: “Madam, ham to ye kaam kar rahe hai lekin apne bachho ko ye kaam nahi karne denge.” (Madam, we are doing this work but we won’t let our children do the same). Jaffar Khan had a small room in front of his room where there were five machines used for making toys. The floor of the room was all filled with the remains of the Beppale or ivory wood, the wood which is used to make the renowned Channapatna toys. 

Jaffar Khan’s main aim is to educate their children and wish to see them working in higher positions. Currently, his children go to private schools in the neighbourhood. When asked whether the fees at private schools aren’t high, he said, “Private schools are costly but the quality of education is much better than government schools. I don’t want to compromise on the education of my children…I want them to have stable jobs so that they don’t feel insecure at times of crisis.” Jaffar Khan plans to educate his children and even send them outside of their city once they attain a mature age. Currently, his main focus is on making savings for his children’s education. 

His son said shyly, “I love the work that Abbu does. He makes such beautiful toys. Even I want to know how the toys are made but Abbu says that I have to study and do a job.” Saying this, he ran away. Jaffar Khan said that due to lockdowns, the schools were closed and his children faced difficulty in their studies. But somehow, he managed. Now, he just wishes that the schools don’t get closed again. “How do you expect children to study online. They don’t focus in classrooms; how one can expect them to focus on online classes? This pandemic has affected us a lot, be it in my business or my children’s education.”

Won’t you be sad that the art of making toys will not reach your children and might get lost? He replied, “I know how important it is for us to make toys. It is something which is going on in our family for a very long time. Our place is famous for its toys but when a situation like covid comes up, it becomes difficult for us. Living becomes difficult for us. Art is at its place but filling our stomachs is equally important. We cannot compromise on that just for art.”

Jaffar Khan along with his brother working to make Channapatna toys

The working conditions of artists here are not much safe. Working with machines, they don’t have any safety equipment to protect themselves. A few months back, Jaffar Khan’s thumb was cut while working. The artists don’t even wear masks to protect themselves from the wood dust. 

Channapatna is located between Bengaluru and Mysuru in Ramanagara district at a distance of about 60 km from Bengaluru. The city is also known as “Gombegala Ooru” or the “Toy City” of Karnataka. The place is famous for its wooden toys made out of ivory wood. The paints used on these toys are safe and eco-friendly and don’t harm children. As per the website of Google Arts & Culture, Channapatna is home to 6000 artisans within 1200 families. 

Reminiscing the old days, Jaffar Khan went on to talk about how before the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his co-workers used to go to exhibitions at places like Delhi, Rewa, and Bhopal. He also took part in a handicraft exhibition at MG Road in Bengaluru. After the onset of the pandemic, he has not been able to display his works outside of Channapatna. At the time when he used to go on exhibitions, he used to earn a good amount of money. At present, he only receives orders from customers and some handicraft shops located in Bengaluru. “I miss the time when there was no pandemic and lockdowns. The last exhibition I went to display my works was in 2019 in Delhi. I went to the Dilli Haat and Pragati Maidan’s India International Trade Fair. Big cities like Delhi give you opportunities to showcase your talent and skills. Waha exhibitions me bade bade log aate hai aur bina koi molbhav kiye saman khareed lete hai” said Jaffar. (The people coming to the exhibitions are rich and they buy the products without any bargaining). 

He went on to share his experience at the exhibitions he was a part of before the pandemic. “The exhibitions lasted for 10-20 days where I used to make a good profit. Through that profit only, I was able to renovate my home. I have also trained some workers at Delhi for which I was paid by the government.” Feeling nostalgic, he showed his pictures on his phone of the places he visited in Delhi when he went there for an exhibition. “I used to see these monuments on television. But when I went to Delhi, I visited Qutub Minar, Lal Quila, Taj Mahal,” added Jaffar. In Bengaluru, he participated in the exhibition held at MG Road before the pandemic only. At that time, he was provided with the space and stall by the government which helped him to earn a good price for his hard work and skills.  

Dilli Haat is located in South Delhi with the nearest metro station being the INA metro station. It was inaugurated in March 1994 and since then; it has become a place for thousands of handicraft and handloom artisans. The craftsmen registered with D.C. Handicrafts are eligible to put up their stalls. The stalls are allotted to the artisans on a rotational basis who come to this place from various parts of the country. Jaffar Khan recalled that his father used to make toys alone and that he had no one to help him out with the work. Therefore, his father never participated in any exhibitions. All his time went into making toys and looking after them. But Jaffar Khan feels happy that he has the support of his brother and other co-workers which led him to move out of Channapatna and showcase his work and participate in exhibitions in other cities. At the same time, he feels downhearted that the pandemic restricted him to take part in exhibitions that helped him to earn more and is waiting to take part in them as soon as possible. However, one can see that with situations coming back to normal, various exhibitions and fairs have started to take place in various parts of the nation. Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Textiles organized a pan-India programme called “Jharokha- Compendium of Indian handicraft/handloom, art and culture”. The first event was held in Bhopal on March 8, 2022, to celebrate womanhood and the contribution of women in the field of art, craft and culture. The celebrations at the event included showcasing handicraft and handloom products from across India. The 52nd edition of IHGF-DELHI FAIR — AUTUMN 2021 was held from 28th to 31st October 2021 at India Expo Centre and Mart, Greater Noida Expressway. During the inauguration, Shri UP Singh, Secretary Textiles, Ministry of Textiles applauded the EPCH for contributing 60% export growth in the first half of 2021-22. The handicrafts exports during April-September in the fiscal year 2021-22 were Rs 15995.73 crores. 

One Station One Product: Can It Become A Game Changer For Channapatna Toys?

Indian Railways in its budget for 2022-23 launched the “One Station One Product” scheme intending to make railway stations a promotional hub and a place for showcasing local products giving a significant push to local industry. The Railway Board advised one station on each zonal railway to implement this project on a pilot basis for 15 days. Tirupati Railway station was identified for promoting “Kalamkari Sarees and Textiles” as the first railway station for the implementation of this scheme for 15 days starting from March 25, 2022. In Karnataka, the Bengaluru Railway station in South-Western Zone was identified for the promotion of Channapatna wooden toys under this scheme. 

report by Financial Express mentioned that on a pilot basis, Bengaluru Division gave a stall to V Prakash, a local craftsman associated with Channapatna Handicrafts Artists Association for the growth of toys.

Life After Lockdown

Life after the lockdown has brought a little bit of relief for Jaffar Khan. He now receives orders from people for toys but still, but the number of orders has still not been restored to the pre-pandemic levels. “The effect of the pandemic is still there. The number of orders I receive has increased a little and I am still waiting for the time when I will get orders like before!” Jaffar Khan further went on to explain how he earns money apart from making toys. “You see the leftovers of the wood on the floor. I collect these remains, pack them in sacks and sell them. These are used in making agarbattis (incense sticks). The earning is meagre but still, I earn around Rs 1000-2000 depending on the amount of wood remains collected.” 

While talking about his work and sharing what else he wanted to do to expand his business, he said, “I wanted to take a loan from a bank to expand my business and train young boys this art but I was denied, I wanted to take the loan in lakhs but the bank officials agreed to only provide in some thousands. A loan of some thousand rupees won’t help much.” 

On being asked why didn’t he ask those bank officials to give him the required amount of loan, Jaffar said, “They simply said that we cannot give a huge amount of money. We can give only up to a certain amount. If you want, you can have that much or else you can go.” Jaffar Khan received similar kinds of replies from three-four government banks. The banks Jaffar Khan approached denied him to give the amount of loan he wanted.

Rati Priya, Assistant Manager at Vijaya Bank when told how a craftsman was denied a certain amount of loan, expressed her concerns. She said, “Technically, any bank cannot refuse to provide loans. We give loans after checking their business and other related documents. We check whether the person will be able to repay the loan or not otherwise in case of non-repayment, it is the person who will suffer. And now, there are multiple kinds of loans available at banks which cater to different needs of people.” 

When asked in what conditions a bank can refuse to grant a loan, she explained, “If the bank feels that the person will not be able to repay the loan and that giving them the loan might get them in loss, in that case, the banks deny but even after that, banks explain and give proper reasons to their customers.” She further said that many times, the banks don’t pay attention to customers belonging to low-income profiles. “They like to cater to big parties from whom profit is guaranteed and in such situations, people in need many times get sidelined,” said Rati Priya.

Do Channapatna Toys Have Buyers? 

Shilpa Trust was established in 1992 for the social and economic development of rural artisans, both men and women

Shilpa Trust, a self-help initiative linking progressive artisans had five-six artisans busy making toys at the time of the visit. On one side, artisans were working while the other side of the place had the room filled with final toys for sale. The place didn’t have many customers, just three to four people. A customer, Lakshmi Reddy, said, “I like the different kinds of items made here. These are not only limited to toys but they make a variety of items like incense stick holders… However, I find these items costly. I know that the artisans put in a lot of hard work to make these items and that they have been affected by covid but still, I find them expensive.” She further said that she came here to buy something for her daughter and will buy something which fits her budget. “I cannot spend Rs 600-700 on these items, no matter how good they look,” said Reddy.

Another customer, Emmanuel had come from Bengaluru after listening about the town of Channapatna. “I am just amazed looking at these toys. They look good and I am just stunned by their creativity. But these toys and other wood items are costly.” Laughingly, he said, “I will have to limit my purchase here although I wish to buy most of the items.”

A worker making toys at the Shilpa Trust

“Handmade items are generally expensive owing to the time and hard work done by the artisans,” said Jaffar Khan over the issue of costly artefacts. He further said, “I have heard many times customers saying that the products are costly…But people need to understand that they are costly because it’s a lot of hard work. Also, many times, the items are unique and of different designs. To make such things, extra effort is needed.”

City NGOs offering a helping hand

To help the handicraft artisans, a city-based NGO, A Hundred Hands had the 11th edition of Handmade Collective at Bangalore International Centre in Domlur last year where around 120 artisans from 25 states participated to help themselves, reported Times of India. However, since the onset of covid-19, Jaffar Khan has not participated in any exhibitions and is waiting for the situation to be normalised as soon as possible so that he starts earning the way he earned before the pandemic.


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