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For many years, Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh was considered to be one of the largest toy-making centres in India. This ancient craft is believed to have received great patronage from many kings as well as from the Mughals and British. There is not much information available about the origin of this craft in Varanasi but Varanasi as we all know is synonymous with mysteries.
The colonies of craftsmen in Kashmiri Ganj, Khojwa and Varanasi have been practising this traditional craft for many generations. It is quite common to see a circular saw embedded in a cemented platform in all the houses engaged in this craft. This traditional craft of wooden toys uses wood that is locally sourced like mahua, mango, ecualyptus, kemah, chilbil and haldu. Locals say that earlier sal and sheesham were used in making these toys but these days due to increased prices, cheaper and lighter wood is sourced.
After the size of the toy is determined, a wood block is cut from the log. Each cut piece undergoes a process of slow heating to remove all the moisture. The piece is then cleaned and sanded to get a smooth surface. A tracing of the design of the toy is made on the piece. The piece is chiselled according to the design and smoothened with a file. Ordinarily, a whole toy is carved out from a single piece of wood but in certain designs, different parts are carved out separately and joined with an adhesive.
After the toy is carved out, it is dipped in distemper. When it becomes dry, it is painted evenly with Duco white paint. Generally, the toy is given two coats followed by a last coat of lacquer to bring the sheen to the surface. A brush made out of the hair of squirrel’s tail is used for detailed work. The toys of the same design are painted together where they prepare one colour and paint all the toys of that batch with it. Then, it is left to dry before the next colour is prepared. These gaily painted toys of a batch follow the sample though with slight colour variations.
The lacquerware is done on a lathe and the lacquer is blended with the colours required for the woodware on a stick and pressed against it. As the lathe keeps revolving, the heat generated melts the lacquer making the colour stick to the surface of the wood. Some of the lacquered pieces are painted with a brush. Bright non-toxic or acrylic based colours are used for these.
The themes that are very popular are wooden utensils, spinning tops, birds and animals, butterflies and complete sets of orchestras and dance ensembles as well as dolls of all shapes and sizes with sets of furniture according to their sizes. These beautiful toys also depict social life, rural activities, religious inferences as well as traditional Indian motifs and culture.
It is very heart-warming to see these hugely popular sustainable wooden toys are in great demand in India and exported to various parts of the world in large quantities. Varanasi wooden lacquerware and toys received the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2015.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)