The name “Land of the Toys” either makes me think of an upcoming Pixar movie, an abandoned tourist trap in South Jersey, or perhaps some lost Shirley Temple musical. In this story, however, it refers to Channapatna toys, traditionally crafted wooden toys made in the Indian town of Channapatna.
The World Trade Organization now protects these toys with “geographical indication” status, but these little wooden toys once faced an uncertain future.
The toys also have a rather interesting history. A local ruler known as Tipu Sultan was so enchanted by a wooden toy he received as a gift, he arranged for Persian artisans to train his people into developing wooden toys of their own. To this day, many families in Channapatna are still dedicated to the production of these toys.
The toys are produced using the wood of the local Haale Mara tree, which is said to be too soft to be used in furniture production. The wood often has to be sun-dried to remove traces of moisture, before ultimately being transformed into toys. The lacquer used is even created with natural dyes, such as turmeric for yellow, indigo for blue, and vermillion for red. This all paints a picture of the meticulous effort that goes into the handiwork of Channapatna toys.
However, in recent years, the industry was beginning to face competition from China, whose inexpensive, machine-made toys were proving to be quite popular within the country. Added to that, producers of Channapatna toys usually lack the marketing ability that their Chinese competitors have. Things began to improve, however, when certain machine-made toys were found to be unsafe for children.
They say that monopoly ultimately proves good for business, and this turned out to be the case, to a degree. The harsh competition led to some innovations in the development of the Channapatna toys, which were now designed to be more sophisticated and contemporary in order to compete with the Chinese. And, as mentioned, the World Trade Organization would also eventually protect the toys with a “geographical indication” status.
According to Atlas Obscura, toymaker Mohammad Shariff explained that, “Earlier there were limited designs, and everyone used to make and sell the same things day after day. Now, there are new designs we are taught every few months, so there is more demand outside [the country].”