Thursday, April 14, 2016

Unusual occupations - Lacquer wood Toys of Kashmiriganj

Lacquer Wood toys from Kashmiriganj

Godavari Singh is a state award winning artist and an influential person in the lacquer wood toys business from here, says my host as we are travelling in a scooter criss crossing the narrow lanes of Kashmiriganj.  Nearly every house has machinery installed and men are busy carving out wood in different shapes from the eucalyptus tree barks that have been stocked up in plenty.  The lanes are long winding and we pass though at least a hundred workshops before we arrive at an unassuming workshop where we ask for Godavari Singh. A few men gather around us and ask for our identity and the purpose of our visit.  My host who is a local explains and a man greets and welcomes us. I am Godavari Singh’s younger son Yogendra Singh, he says.

Yogendra Singh and three other men are busy carving out trinket boxes and lacquering them with red and yellow paint.  Long pieces of Eucalyptus wood have been stacked up outside the entrance.  Each piece of that wood can carve more than a hundred trinket boxes.   The noise of the machinery is deafening. 

However inside the room in a corner high on top of the wall, a small portable television set is playing  an Amitabh Bachchan movie.  The top Bollywood star comes from the nearby city of Allahabad and he is worshipped like God in these places. 

The court scene dialogue in the movie is running into high melodrama and everyone is hooked on to it, while simultaneously  going about their work. In the din of all that machinery I can hardly hear any of that dialogue. From the actions, I figure out that the Big B has won a point over his opponent and is now saying something funny and the four men at the workshop  laugh.  I hardly comprehend the reason, but quickly figure out that this is possibly not the first or last time that they are watching this movie.      

After my host takes leave leaving me in care of Godavari Singh’s family I am led through the workshop into a door with a low entrance. After what looks like a godown filled up with wood, boxes full of semi-finished toys and other items the place opens into a center courtyard square in shape with a small alcove that has a Tulsi (Indian Basil) plant planted over there. The light for the entire house comes from here.  Surrounding the inner courtyard are many rooms and I am lead into one of them.  

A Man is sitting on an ancient wooden rocking chair watching a Bollywood movie over the television while his wife is seated on a cot with a plate full of green peas that needs shelling. Her eyes watch over the movie while her hands do the work.  The room is dusty strewn with saw dust, windowless and filled with boxes as though they were packing up something over there.  It is their living room.

I am introduced to Godavari Singh, the famous craftsman whose name leads me here to Kashmiriganj.  He folds his hands in greetings without getting up from his rocking chair asks my name, the purpose of my visit and where I am from.  He tells me I need not have travelled so far, as the wood lacquer toys from Channapatna near Bangalore enjoy a great deal of commercial success and are way ahead in terms of business compared to the ones from Kashmiriganj. 

The wood lacquer toys  in Channapatna travelled south about 200 years ago with the soldiers of Tipu Sultan from these parts, I say.  Your people have been practicing this craft for over 400 years now.  These are possibly the oldest in terms of heritage that I could ever lay my hands on and the designs here I guess are very different,  I say, trying hard to flatter him as I sense a kind of disinterest  in the old man.   

He takes me to the next room besides the living room. Surprisingly this one is air-conditioned and  serves as an office. All over the 10 foot walls are showcases that display hundreds of different designs of lacquered wood toys. It is mind boggling.   The air conditioning is comforting; the chair that I am offered across the table where Godavari Singh sits on his swiveling leather chair is too much of uncalled luxury and a far cry from the room adjacent and the workshop behind the courtyard.

Various characters from Indian mythology have been carved and intricately painted that hang across the wooden shelves; there are Russian dolls of different designs, sizes and colours displayed. There are modern utilitarian items from pen stands, beer can holders to wine bottle packages designed and hand painted for worldwide audience.

As the times have changed, the designs have evolved from the traditional ones to more modern and utilitarian ones.  The concept for the design comes from retailers all over the world and then they respond with prototypes. Some new designs sell like hot cakes while many fail. Godavari Singh’s eldest son has a shop at the five star hotel in the nearby tourist city where tourists from the world over buy goods and suggest new designs. The family also exports the toys to other shops and franchised outlets in airports, shopping malls of big cities and tourist centers through a network of middlemen.  

Lacquered wooden toys from Kashmiriganj have obtained a Geographical Indication (GI) tag, which now helps them patent the creations from Kashmiriganj in order to avoid fakes and duplicates being sold spuriously.  Godavari Singh has been instrumental in getting the GI tag which is displayed prominently behind his table in the air-conditioned office.  Atop the shelves is his photograph with the Prime minister who incidentally is also the Member of Parliament for this constituency. 

It is a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood. In and around three to four kilometer radius there are about 3000 families who are engaged in the various stages of the wood lacquered toys.  Some work in cutting, shaping and lacquering the wood while others are involved in painting and designing the toys. 
I ask him if there are women engaged in this occupation. I am told that women normally have household responsibilities and cannot do this job full time.  There of course are women who help out their men, and these are ones that are not young and do not have much of household responsibilities.  I ask if I could meet anyone of them.

I am directed to Kishore Painter’s house.  Young boys on the road playing cricket effortlessly direct me through the long winded lanes and I am a little intrigued to find Kishore painter’s name board that calls out his surname as painter. 

At the entrance a woman is sitting and painting a Russian doll’s Indian version of a demure bride.  Kishore Painter is seated inside the house working on the same design  but a bigger version.  Together the husband and wife would paint about a 100 sets that equals about 500 dolls in a day that extends to about 10-12 hours.  This would fetch them about 150-200 Indian rupees. They buy their own colouring material from the market which then eats into the profit and the net earnings for the day hardly equals about 100 Indian Rupees for two people’s work of about ten to twelve hours a day.

Kishore painter’s wife, Sreekumari thinks this money is hardly anything to make ends meet given the inflation.  Their elder son works as an accountant in an oil refinery in the neighbouring state and the younger son apprentices at a mobile phone repair shop in the nearby town. It is that money which runs the family that consist of their sons, two daughters in law and their young children.

The daughter in law who has completely covered her face and head with a saree appears at the door and brings me a cup of sweet milky tea.  Straddling behind her is a toddler and standing near me is a girl barely 3 years old. Clearly the toddler, the boy is the apple of the eye for his grandfather and grandmother and they wax eloquent about his naughtiness and his antics.  I ask if the Daughter- in-law also does the painting work.  Her mother-in-law replies that she helps if there is a bulk order to be delivered within stringent timelines but otherwise she is normally preoccupied what with these  little children and all the household work.    

Sreekumari herself learnt the art from her husband over the years. In the early years of her marraige she would help out after the household chores were over. Then as her children got older she started spending more time learning the intricate drawings seeing her husband paint. Now with daughter-in-laws taking charge of the household and their children, she spends most of her time hand painting the wooden toys when the orders come by. 

I ask Kishore painter, how they create new designs and patterns.  Godavari Singh’s eldest son who has a shop at the five star hotel selling Indian handicrafts, come overs to explain a new design which they then put into shape and produce a prototype. 

There is a coarse  wooden figurine of Durga, the Goddess of power in Indian mythology that he has handed over to them today. Kishore painter explains how he would paint this in different colours and hues.  He has painted many such figurines in the past and can construct the colours and the designs in his mind before giving it the actual shape.

He draws on the floor a pattern to explain how he would go about drawing the vahini   (vehicle ) for the Durga which is a lion with his paintbrush.  

As soon as he has explained the pattern he clears if off from the floor. It is believed that art is about the worship of Saraswati – the goddess of Art in Indian mythology. It would not do if they were to inadvertently step on such a drawing and disrespect the Goddess of art. Therefore any such rough drawings would always be cleared off.  Similarly one would never step on a piece of paper because it has the potential to carry knowledge.

I am then redirected to other painters who do similar work like theirs and live in the bylanes on the other side of the main road.  I take directions and set out for the neighbourhood where almost every household is engaged in either painting or carving out the lacquered wooden toys.  Currently there seems to be a bulk order for Russian dolls. I wonder why they are called Russian dolls if they are made end to end over here in Kashmiriganj.  These dolls come is a set of five or seven and can be kept one inside the other.  While Sreekumari and Kishore were painting one in the style of a demure Indian bride, Anil Kumar another painter at the other end of Kashmiriganj  has bulk orders from Godavari Singh’s family for Arabic designs of the same Russian dolls.  He has about hundred dolls of size three spread out before him and is busy painting their eyes in exactly the same shape and size.                        
It is a back breaking work to be sitting 10-12 hours painting hundreds of these dolls in the same precision as the previous one.  It is siesta time and many have decided to take a quick nap while giving their back some rest before they start off for another six hours.  I notice that he also has an order to paint a set of five dolls with the famous Indian cartoon character Chotta Bheem and  his four other friends. A computer aided graphic has been printed and given to him so that he could paint the designs in that exacting way as they cartoon characters are depicted in television and in the movies.   

Pushpa is a young woman with four children.  She is feeding the youngest one at her workshop when her niece opens the door and introduces me abruptly to her and explains the purpose of my visit.  The room is filled with dolls coarsely painted in yellow and pink. This is the first coat and  they have been set to dry. The intricate paintings on these will commence once the first coat has dried out. 

Pushpa had taken a break and had refused orders for painting for a few months since it was getting difficult for her to manage with her four children.  She and her husband had decided that the painting work was not worth the effort since there were other avenues to earn more money that was so badly needed to feed a family of six.  Her husband took to manual labour at the local market where a day’s work fetched him more than double the money compared to painting the dolls. His job would involve offloading and carrying gunny sacks filled with vegetables from the trucks to the wholesale shops in the market.  It was arduous labour and he is still getting used to it. For generations he and his forefathers have been doing the hand painting of lacquered wooden toys.   

Pushpa reasons out that with the population growing there are more people in the trade and therefore they are all undercutting each other.  That is the fundamental reason why the painting work is hardly remunerative.  She agreed to take up this order because her husband has not been able to cope up with the physical labour at the market and would like to take a little break before he gets better to try his hand at some other work. For now they have an order for a set of 100 dolls.  Between the two of them they would paint and send this across in a week and earn some money.

Pushpa married into the family that made its living hand painting of lacquered wooden toys for generations. She herself grew up as a farmer’s daughter in a village a 100 miles away from Kashmiriganj and is used to hard physical labour in the fields. However she feels that the hard physical labour in the fields or housework is not as tiring as this one.  Sitting in one posture and one place for three to four hours at a stretch saps the energy if you do not take breaks often.   

She reckons women put on weight and become obese when they do this kind of work day in and day out. But then she does not have a choice for now, she sighs.  While she is getting her husband to look at other avenues to earn money, this work came knocking at their door since there was a bulk order. Moreover in her infinite wisdom her mother-in-law had opined that it would not do to refuse work from Godavari Singh’s workshop.  They do not want to burn bridges with the boss since the entire extended family had been working for them for many generations over.                

I am back at Godavari Singh’s house and sit over watching  the artisans carve out the wood.  Akash, Yogendra Singh’s son is back from his college and strikes conversation with me.  He asks me to his home where his mother prepares us some hot tea and serves it to us with savouries.   He goes to the university and is studying for his Bachelors degree in commerce.  Akash helps out his father on and off and travels with him if and when there are exhibitions held outside their city. He has travelled with him all over the country.  He says he will eventually get into this business since all his forefathers have been doing this, but would like to explore the world after college and not remain stuck here. He says he would like to start something online. 

Times have changed, economies have tumbled over, rulers have been usurped,  but for 400 odd years craftsmen in Kashmiriganj have been upholding this art.  Much as we listen to the laments of the skilled artisans about poor pay and rising inflation, threre is one thing for sure. The art is instilled in the very essence and social fabric in this ancient neighbourhood of  kashmiriganj. No matter how oppressive and regressive a regime it currently is, it has been an art form transmitted along for about four centuries now. While it will transform and reinvent itself, the art will stay on for generations to come.    

1 comment:

  1. Ah! I loved the Russian doll versions that these toy makers create! Indeed it takes a lot of patience to paint the same face and expressions. It aint easy to churn out exact replica one after another.

    Russian doll is just one of the toys right? Would love to see other unique toys they make and are famous for! Thank you for introducing this unusual occupation!!!


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