Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Revisiting Chennapatna Toys after 30 Years: DCC students return with insights & current status.

Revisiting Chennapatna Toys after 30 Years: DCC students return with insights & current status
Image: Ranjan with students of NID Bangalore just back from a field visit to Chennapatna Toy cluster
This is a story that needs a bit of historical background. I was assigned the task of visiting Chennapatna as a young faculty from NID in order to assess the development needs of the crafts community there and to suggest the way forward with the use of design, This was in early 1978 and the client was the All India Handicrafts Board and its Chairman in those days was Mr L C Jain who being rooted in the Gandhian tradition was well suited to empathise with the needs of the crafts community across India and as a visionary he saw a role for design as well in this and his views on the subject are clearly expressed in his paper in Seminar titled “Securing the Future”. I met L C Jain later in the year thanks to the enquiry regarding the study of bamboo crafts of Northeast India which I had already started preparing for in late 1977 by visiting the Forest Research Institute, Dehra Dun, and as a result I was chosen to visit Kyoto, Japan to attend the World Crafts Council conference and got a briefing from LCJ on my way out to Kyoto. In Kyoto I met Kamla Devi Chattopadhya for the first time and on my return started the planning for the field survey for the study of bamboo crafts of Northeast India which became a book in 1986. At this time the Jawaja project was in full swing and Prof. Ravi J Matthai and his teams were in and out of NID exploring the role of design and management in the development needs of the rural producers in India under the initiative called The Rural University. Ravi had a clear vision that all those who intervened in the crafts sector should eventually withdraw if those who got the benefit of structured inputs were to learn to stand on their own feet. The Jawaja project had three major components, that of leather crafts, Weaving crafts and agriculture of local vegetables besides educating the craftsmen and farmers to learn to work together and to build skills needed to face the threats of globalization and urbanization which were both seen as major causes of disruptionm in the simple lives of the local people in Beawar and Jawaja. I was involved in the Jawaja project, once removed, as the faculty guide to Nilam Iyer who was responsible for the creation of the Jawaja leather bags and other products and our product strategy was informed by the insights gained through a number of crafts related projects that had been done at NID as well as my own life experience in my father’s toy factory before I came to NID as well as from 1974 to 76 when I was compelled to return home due to problems at NID.

Image: Naina Jain from the Handicrafts study group trtying her hand at wood turning at Chennapatna.

This is just to set the agenda for the Chennapatna Toy development story since it had as its basis the experiences mentioned above and these had influenced my views on the crafts sector in India and in the possible strategies that could be embedded into the design action so that the people involved could fend for themselves in the years ahead. I journeyed to Chennapatna by train through Bombay, Guntakal and Bangalore in the very hot summer months of 1978 and that too in an unreserved compartment and sitting on top of a berth in the Dadar Madras Express and ended up with sores from sweating all the way to Bangalore. However this did not deter me from taking the first bus to Channapatna on the day after arrival in Bangalore to see the famous crafts cluster for the first time. My father, who was a small scale producer of toys in Madras, had been using the Chennapatna craftsmen as vendors for wooden beads that were used in the educational products such as counting frames and abacuses that were supplied to schools from our factory. Further, he had landed a very major contract in the sixties for supply of turned wood containers in rose-wood to a German importer, again as a vendor of the wooden parts which were further processed with the addition of metal components and finishes all done at the German end. From this experience I had a sense of the value addition that came to vendors and the high potential for exploitation in such ancillary relationships, although it did provide a sense of security and sustainable employment for the producers which may have been illusory in the long run. The power equation was sharply in favour of the buyer and not the maker-seller in this relationship.

I studied the existing producers and categorized them into three broad groups, namely, small hand-lathe user producers, small and independent entrepreneurial mechanized lathe users and the semi-organised small scale factories which employed 30 to 50 craftsmen and purchased from a number of contract producers as well. There were also the traders with shops and national linkages who purchased in bulk and distributed across the country and all of these had certain products which suited their financial and technical abilities. The small hand-lathe producers could make very small turned wood parts, usually from branches and converted these into very small components such as beads on a string (sold in 100 lots) and small pencil caps with face painted for effect, a child’s stationary product. Most of the others produced decorations for export and the shaking head dolls with spring inside (crudely attached with rusted metal nails) and the then popular “Choppu Set” – a typical Indian kitchen set of vessels and grinder aimed at the girl child in rural and urban India. There was the occasional train and car whose wheels came of if the child were to play with it and the user of rusted nails was a common feature, no-one seemed to care, and the products sold well. I decided to demonstrate the role of design by embedding desirable qualities (which I now call the Iceberg Factor) both visible (aesthetic and manufacturing quality) and invisible (empowering features that helped the crafts man ward off exploitation by the market forces and the established supply chain) which was a stated objective in the Jawaja leather products as well which were articulated in my conversations with Nilam Iyer during her Diploma Project at NID.

Image: Turned wood rattles designed and prototyped at NID in 1978: Design: M P Ranjan, Craftsman: Dalsukhbhaui

Image: Race Car prototypes made in 1978 and the first batch produced in Chennapatna in 1980 for the CCI Exhibition

On my return to NID after the survey I decided to develop a product strategy that made sense in the context of seeding entrepreneurship amongst the Chennapatna craftsmen as wee as to embed the qualities that could make it sustainable, particularly in a socially relevant sense. I chose to design toys that could be made and sold directly by the producer with very low marketing overheads, no advertising, no retail shops, no middlemen, say from the street directly to end users in Bangalore or Mysore, both 40 km away from Chennapatna and well connected by bus. Further the products had to meet the category quality requirements to compete with products from other producers such as wood, metal and plastic toys on the basis of performance alone. Further the product category had to be perrinnial in nature and therefore toys for infants was taken as the area of exploration and in this category I wished to show that design could help produce market variety as well. The area of wooden rattles was chosen and many sketches were derived based on my past experience with selling toys in my father’s toy shop called Rockytoys in Madras. These rattles were to be offered in three finishes, the first range using only natural wood and no finishes, the second using stained and dyed white wood and the third with the traditional lacquer finish. I did not offer any painted decorations on the surface since I would leave this to the sensibility of the individual craftsman who would then differentiate his product with his own offering of decorations. The first set of prototypes were made in the NID workshops by the mastercraftsman Dalsukhbhai and I had experimented in our dyeing studio to explore the staining finishes that we were to propose to the Chennapatna craftsmen when the products were launched. However this took place only in 1980 when the CCIC New Delhi decided to support an exhibition-cum-sale of four crafts that were awaiting formal launch after the respective design tasks were completed and prototyped. These were the Chennapatna Toys, the Pipli Umbrella collection, Leather products from Kholapur and Cotton Durries from Panipet. Thjis gave me the possibility of traveling again to Chennapatna with a firm order for supply of a batch of toys from several producers and this visit was used as a training module to get the craftsmen that were willing to produce these on their existing lathes. When the first batch of toys came in to NID there was a great deal of excitement since we had managed to break a jinx of many past projects when the prototypes are the end stage of the design collection which was then destined to vbe shown in numerous exhibitions but very few of these made it into production since the producers could not take them up due to many market related factors including risk, lack of finance and tested markets, lack of conviction in the products or not appreciating the potential demand that the designer had in his imagination.

Image: C S Susanth, Coordinator of Retail Design Experience programme with two new rattles produced at Chennapatna. These toys provide a better ROI to the crafts producers and offer a direct access to markets.

I have not been to Chennapatna after this visit for over 25 years (except my visit in 2004 for the Handmade in India field study) but I have been getting samples of my products from many centres across India and I am gratified that the products are still in production 30 years on and that they have been transmitted to the other wood turning centres such as Banares, Udaipur, Etikopaka and Calcutta. These products have been through a degree of metamorphosis in the imitation and reproduction but they have helped many generations of entrepreneurs to move out of poverty and go on to other activities. My students from the Bangalore centre visited Chennapatna yesterday and brought back images and samples of products being made there and two of the products show traces of their origins in my design collection of 1978. One other product that I had designed was intended for the larger producer with many power tools at their command and this was the toy Racing Car which required a more sophisticated method of production as well as the use of several jigs and fixtures if they were to be made in a high quality. All products were made using all wood construction without nails or glue so that the craftsmen would be insulated from the usual supply chain of the bazaar traders. Of the products that the students brought back from Chennapatna the toy rattles and the tops gave the craftsmen the highest margins and they could be sold off the street as was originally intended, giving a very high rate of return if they were produced in an entrepreneurial manner and marketed by the producer himself or by his family. The lessons of Chennapatna and Jawaja do show us that design intentions embedded in the design process can indeed bring sustainable results as well as promote social equity which can help offset exploitation and promote self-reliance and confidence building in our huge crafts community across India.

L C Jain, “Securiing the Future”, in CELEBRATING CRAFT: a symposium on the state of handicrafts, SEMINAR 523: New Delhi, March 2003 (see SEMINAR article here)

Prof. Ravi J Matthai: The Rural University : The Jawaja Experiment in Education Innovation, Popular Prakashan, New Delhi, 1979 (more about the book)

Image: Prof M P Ranjan at NID Bangalore Centre

M P Ranjan< "Craftsmanship in Education: Towards a Creative India in the Knowledge Economy" NID, 2005 (download word file here: 165 kb)

M P Ranjan, "From Craftsmen to Craftsmanship: Towards a Creative India in the Age of the Knowledge Economy", NID, 2005 (download pdf file of visual presentation 486 kb)

M P Ranjan, "The Thick End of the Wedge: Skill Building to Support Livlihoods", CEE, Ahmedabad, 2005 (download paper as word file 35 kb) and the two part pdf visual presentation here Part one pdf 2.6 MB and Part two pdf 2.9 MB)

M P Ranjan, "Crafts Study & Design: Some Case Studies from NID", A lecture for students from NIFT at NID, Ahmedabad 1999 (download visual presentation as pdf file 3.6 MB)

M P Ranjan, "Chennapatna Toys: Case Study", NID, Ahmedabad 1999, (download visual presentation as pdf file 429 kb)

1 comment:

  1. Great to see a blog like this sir!!

    I hope you wouldnt mind me adding it to my blog rolls


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