The Bangalore-Mysore highway in southern India gleams in the sun. As the urban sprawl slips away, acres of empty spaces beckon. Villages start to dot the landscape. Nestled just 38 miles away from India’s bustling tech capital of Bangalore is a nondescript hamlet. Channapatna. A small town with global ambitions.
For almost two centuries now, this tiny village has turned a craft into a skill, the skill into passion – the passion into a living. From the characterless environs of this small town emerge lovingly crafted, colorfully lacquered wooden toys. Baby rattles, vintage cars, spinning tops, Russian dolls, and hobbyhorses – a collage of life captured in wood.
Around 6,000 workers carved their living with these toys, earning around $4 dollars a day, a relatively big sum for an Indian village. Then China happened. Cheap, imported mass-produced toys flooded the Indian market, and traditional toys lost their allure. Demand trickled down, dust collecting on the shelves of the toyshops.
Then China happened again. In 2006-07, in a series of safety scares involving Chinese products, well-known toymakers such as Mattel and Fisher Price were forced to recall more than 21 million Chinese-made toys worldwide. In October 2007 alone, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recalled more than half a million toys made in China. It was feared that these products contained toxic lead paint or tiny, detachable magnets that could be swallowed. In fact, some states in the U.S., such as Washington State, have already passed new legislations that require toy manufacturers to meet the most rigid standards of permissible levels of lead, cadmium, and phosphates from January 1, 2009. With the controversy over the quality and safety of such Chinese toys, toymakers in Channapatna are finding a new market. These toxic-free Indian toys, which are painted with vegetable dyes, are being exported to the U.S. and European markets, and innovative designers are even starting to use them as tabletop accessories for the interior design market.
As dusk settles the dust in this sleepy Indian village, somewhere in the U.S., a small child looks wonderingly at the dancing wooden toy on her table. Little does she know that this simple toy carries the weight of centuries – the weight of a small town – and the weight of the future for the toy industry in Channapatna.
Postcards from Around the World
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