It’s nine in the morning and Srisailapu Chinnayachari is fitting a lathe machine between two crossed pieces of wood at his home-cum-workshop in Etikoppaka village, about 65 km from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. He fits the other side of the machine with raw wood, which will be shaped into toys. As the wooden log starts rotating on the machine, Chinnayachari gives it shape and curves using a chisel.
Alongside, his wife mixes natural colours with lacquer or lac to create bright reds, browns, greens and indigos for painting Etikoppaka toys, which received the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2017. For colouring, the toys are once again put on the lathe and Chinnayachari skillfully applies the colours as they continue to move on the machine.
Colourful wooden toys that can’t be exported
By evening, the couple creates a dozen colourful mobile holders, toy bikes, cars, tic-tac-toes and figurines of men and women which will be shipped across India.
In 2007, countries in North America, Europe, Australia and other developed markets issued guidelines banning imports without this certification.
“Previously the conditions were not this stringent; I used to export my products to the US, Canada, Germany, Finland, Switzerland with the help from Madras Craft Foundation. But after 2007, these countries would not permit us to export without the toxicology certificate,” toy-maker CV Raju told 30 Stades.
Indian Institute of Toxicology is the authority that certifies the absence of heavy metals in products. The fee for the certification was Rs5,60,000 earlier but has been reduced to just Rs7,000 now. Yet getting the certification has not been easy for the craftsmen.
From the 18th century to the present
The Chinnayachari couple says they use natural colours for the woodcraft that dates back to the 18th century. Artisans who then lived in the Nakkapalli village, about 25 km from Etikoppaka, migrated to this village in the 20th century because of the abundant availability of the soft ivory wood, locally known as Ankudu Kurra, in the nearby jungles.
Back then, wood was used to make temple carts and some other items like vermilion boxes.
The craft grew in the 19th and 20th centuries under the patronage of local landlords who asked the artisans to make toys for children, kitchen utensils and other utility items.
But once the landlords passed away so did the patronage. Over time, the toymakers began using chemical colours instead of natural colours and failed to improvise or contemporise their craft. They went into decline.
The non-profit trust Dastkar Andhra, which has been associated with natural dyeing since 1990, introduced late K V Chandramouli to Etikoppaka artisans. A world-renowned expert in the field, he taught them how to make and use natural dyes for painting the toys.
But the absence of certification is just one of the problems. “We still need to revamp the working conditions of the artisans; currently they work in cramped houses, with small machines. None of the skill training, or design development schemes have been beneficial,” says Raju.
Making the craft contemporary
In 1988, Raju introduced new items so that artisans could find new markets. He worked with NIFT, NID and Craft Council of India besides teaming up with designers to experiment with jewellery such as bangles and hairpins fashioned from the wood. “The government schemes rolled out to sustain the art have mostly failed,” he says.
With time, the craft has found new uses.
Raju also helped toymakers set up a cooperative to develop new tools and ideas and find a better market for their products.
He is now trying to create awareness regarding the science behind the art. “I want to share my knowledge with other communities, especially the tribals,” he says.
“I am working to create board games and toys for pre-primary students to assist them in eye-hand coordination, learning shapes and colours,” Raju says.
Surishetti Srinivas Appanna, the owner of Appanna toys in Etikoppaka, has a collection of more than 250 Etikoppaka artefacts including pen holders, clocks, tabletops, wall hangings, nameplates, door panels, bangles and bowls.
The artisans get a decent income through the regular inflow of orders from the local merchants but Covid-19, he says, has affected those too. “Last year, we couldn’t work for 5-6 months, and again, our orders and money are stuck due to the sudden rise in Covid cases,” says Appanna.
The process of making Etikoppaka toys
The villagers collect the softwood Ankudu Kurra from forests about 30 km from the village. It is left to dry for three to six months before the carving begins.
The dried wooden slab is fixed on an electric lathe using (badhiti) an axe-shaped tool. It is then carved into the desired shape using a long metal chisel. Any remains of wood scrap are smoothened with emery paper.
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It is mixed with eco-friendly dyes obtained from different parts of the plants like roots, stems, leaves and flowers.
Like seeds of bixa orellana, commonly known as lipstick tree, give orange and red colour while bright yellow is obtained from the fruit rind of mallotus philippensis or kapila tree and also turmeric. Grey colour is derived from the dried pulp of amla (gooseberry) while brown is made using the bark of ratan jot or alkanet tree.
“The lacquer is mixed with different dyes. The colours are available in 12 different hues,” says Chinnayachari.
This lacquer mixed with colour is applied to the spinning wood slab on the lathe. The friction generated during the application melts the lacquer, ensuring a smooth application.
The lacquer is then dried and polished using a fragrant leaf named Mogule Aaku. The leaves, mostly found in coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh, are first dried in the sun and then used for final polishing of the toys. Once the paint dries, additional detailing of facial features is done using paints.
The craft, just like many other traditional handicrafts, brings the family together. While men are responsible for collecting and carving wood, women usually work with lacquer.
Most of the artisans work from 9 am till 5 in the evening.
The artists sell their products to the local merchants who either send them to other states or sell them in nearby tourist spots or pilgrim places as souvenirs.
“E-commerce platforms don’t generate bulk orders. We get customized orders but the handicrafts are fragile, and if they break, we suffer a loss,” says Chinnayachari explaining why the artisans choose to trade with the local merchants rather than establishing their own e-commerce platform.
Chinnayachari has designed the artefacts for the Palm Beach hotel in Visakhapatnam. The intricate designs of Etikoppaka art including intricate setups beautifying the bedpost, walls, wooden furniture, and the beads used in fabric runners have generated much interest among tourists.
“The response has been great. We had amazing reviews. A lot of people who come in to stay in these rooms have a new experience as they learn a story about the local art, which is currently gaining more and more momentum,” said Soumya Bellubbi, PR Manager of Palm Beach Hotel.
Chinnayachari earned a tidy sum for his effort. However, such windfalls are far and few between and toy-makers are still waiting for a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. And that light may come in the form of the non-toxic certificate, which will once again take the craft across the world.
(Rishika Agarwal is a Patna-based writer specialising in art, culture and human interest stories)