Thursday, February 14, 2008

Rockytoy story: Reflections on the building of a micro-enterprise with design in India

Image: My father, M V Gopalan is standing in the middle dressed in white as always and my brother M P Manohar is the one on the right sporting a beard standing with colleagues at the factory with some of the wooden toys on display. This picture was taken sometime in the early 80's when I had returned to NID as a faculty.
Having written about the Lego story in my last post below, I felt that it would be appropriate to continue the toy-story thread with some reflections on my own life and my personal interface with toys and toy making. By the way, I was born in 1950 on the 9th November and on that same eventful day, according to Rene Spitz in his book “hfg ulm: The View behind the Foreground”, the Ulm School of Design got its name, a significant moment for design, the naming of the great school in Germany, not my birth. I was born in the humble house of a carpenter, nay a young engineering teacher turned carpenter-entrepreneur by choice and I am told on that same day the house and the factory attached to our house got connected to the electric power grid for the first time. It was also an auspicious day for all Hindus’ since Deepavali (Diwali – the festival of lights) happened to fall on that day in that particular year, which was the 9th of November 1950, I am told. My full name is M P Ranjan, where Ranjan is my first name and "M P" stands for my family name when expanded, but this is never used except on my passport document. "M P" stands for Mundon Pandan. My students call me "Ranjan", my first name and in most formal situations I am Prof. Ranjan or Mr. M P Ranjan. This is a very personal story.

Image: Rocking horses in wood documented in 1975 after I had changed the colour schemes and added polka dots to make them contemporary for the market
By the way, the toy factory was called "Modern Agencies" and was set up by my father, M V Gopalan, in 1942 in Madras in South India (now called Chennai) with a capital investment of Rs 350/- after he chose to “retire” young from his engineering college teaching job to become an micro-scale entrepreneur. I have not written about my toy experiences much before but I think that it is now time to add this dimension to my website and the blog. The toy factory made wooden toys and playground equipment and included toys for home use as well as many educational products and furniture for the local school markets, over 400 products were on the price list and as the factory grew it became the biggest toy company in South India with supplies going to all major cities of South India by 1964. At this time it employed over 400 full time workers and many others on contract labour who worked from their home and this community may have numbered over 1000 individuals who worked from home to carry out these contract tasks. The product line included papier mache dancing dolls, wooden toys, educational aids, school furniture, office and domestic furniture as well as flush doors and specialized industrial wooden products of many descriptions.

Image: M P Ranjan as a child and one of my favorite toys that was made in my father's factory and one that I got to redesign in 1974 when I returned from NID.
The product range, which started with Rocking Horses, in wood, were the most popular product line in the fifties and the early sixties, The other items included school counting frames using wooden beads, outsourced from the town of Channapatna in Karnataka State. The next most popular item that I remember is the Papier Mache Dancing Dolls that sold in the hundreds of thousands at local exhibitions and they literally flew off the shelf and these were all made by the contract craftsmen families living in the city of Madras, near Saidapet, Velecheri (near our factory located in Guindy) and some as far away as Royapettah and Perembur across the city and quite far away to the North of the city. My father was quite proud of the fact that he had managed to provide stable employment for so many people when getting an honest days wage was an uphill task in most Indian cities. In the late fifties he had set up a toy retail shop under the brand name of "Rockytoys" after the popular rocking horses that he had innovated and produced from 1942 onwards. He had designed his own jig-saw "machine" in 1942 that used a bullock-cart wheel that was used to power the cutting machine, which was operated by a person who turned the fly-wheel using a hand-crank, and a stout rope then transferred this power through a system of pulleys to work the simple “machine”. He developed a similar sand-papering machine and with these two creations set about the making of his single product, in those days, the hugely popular wooden rocking horse. The rocking horses that were made in the early days were sold in the city of Madras directly by my father who used to take the finished product on the back of bicycles and later in larger numbers on hand carts when the production and sale grew in response to demand and these were first sold directly off the streets and later in stores that kept regular stocks as the market expanded for these products.

Image: The old and new jeep toy as seen in the old Rockytoys photo album in my mother's house. The new jeep was a redesign done by me in 1974 and I will detail the design strategy and more about it in my next post.
From these humble beginnings his factory grew and prospered and the product range was diversified further into furniture and school equipment. Many new machines came in and the production then included the making of wooden components for railway coaches for the fledgling coach factory in Avadi, Madras and the manufacture of plywood flush doors using a new lamination technology that he learned from an Italian engineer, Bottichelli (pronounced Butty Jelley in those days). With the help of his expertise the company took up the fascinating task of building 14 plywood houses for the faculty and an auditorium for the experimental dance school of Rukmini Devi Arundale at the Kalakshetra Foundation in Madras. I was fortunate to watch these developments at close quarters as a child and to visit the construction sites with a sense of wonder at all this adventure in small-scale manufacture and entrepreneurship. This is a long story of entrepreneurship that has been repeated many times in India and it is a true rag to riches story that I will try to tell later in some detail when time permits. I did not know it then, but it was design and innovation that was the driver for my fathers efforts and when I look back I realize how fortunate I was to experience these events and I wish that many more of our young students in India would have such exposure which their schools just cannot or do not provide today.

From the perspective of my real world education the story gets interesting here, In 1964 to 1967 my father’s factory and his network of suppliers faced their first major labour unrest. The city of Madras and the whole of South India discovered Red flags and Communism in a big way and due to the associated trade union action and the factory was closed down for over a year and then in smaller sessions due to the labour strikes and follow-up court action. Needless to say my father lost all his money. I was 14 years old then and old enough to understand first-hand what he was going through in his moment of crisis. Some production however continued through the network of outsourced contract labour and his business survived (another long story waiting to be told) and as a result I decided in 1968 not to join either the local Engineering College or the School of Architecture, where I had obtained admission after completing my one year Pre-University course from the prestigious Madras Christian College at Tambaram. My childhood education was the best that money could buy in Madras in those days. I went to Church Park, Presentation Convent at Thousand Lights in Madras for my junior nursery to fifth standard classes (seven years of Convent education by Irish Nuns - my language competence came from here, I am sure) and then to high school at the Madras Christian College High School as Chetput in Madras where I did engineering as my major subject. However, I now realise that I had lived a double life, one with great schooling and academic rigor and the second with a terrific grounding in real world skills at our factory and our business on toy design and manufacture and marketing. In 1969 I applied to NID’s Post Graduate programme in Furniture Design as an "Experienced Cabinet Maker" after working full time with my father in his business for one year, although I had been involved in his business already from 1964, if I look back and my childhood experiences.

Image: A collection of toys made during the "Bamboo Boards and Beyond" project at NID in 2000 as part of the range that I designed based on my Rockytoys experience.
At NID most of the products that I designed as a student were for children, I made a stackable fibreglass chair and table and prototyped it in 1970, a Tier-bed for children in metal tubes and wood which was knockdown and many toy ideas that were sketched and built as concept models. In 1972 I was inducted on to the faculty at NID and I decided to follow my growing interest in research and education and my disillusion with Indian business climate as a whole from my early experiences in the field. I hit a road-block in 1974 when I was asked to leave NID abruptly, in my view unfairly, but I had no option but to go back to Madras while I continued to argue my case with the then NID management for redress. At Madras, I realised later, that this was a blessing in disguise, a trial by fire if you will, and I set up my own design practice from my bedroom and using my fathers phone, I took on all sorts of design assignments on the basis of my very broad education and exposure at NID, interiors, Graphic print brochures and symbol design for a local advertising agency and exhibition design which resulted in a very healthy cash flow, far in excess of my NID salary. In the nights I worked on design of a new range of wooden toys for my fathers factory to pay back for the lunches, dinners and for the roof over my head. In two years at Madras I had designed more that a hundred new toys (some redesigned or with new colour-schemes) and this transformed the profit profile of our company and our sales from the Rockytoys Showroom sky-rocketed in those days, thanks to the design inputs which became visible and appreciated due to the real demonstration that was taking place. But I was however restless and continued to follow up the NID dream. I was finally re-inducted at NID on the faculty in 1976 and among the first project that I took up independently was the Chennapatna Toys collection for the crafts community there with sponsorship from the All India Handicrafts Board (now called the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, Government of India). The toys that I designed then are still in production at many centres across India since they are made using wood turning and are easy to make and sell with very little capital to start a new company. In the bamboo range we have designed many toys and children’s furniture, which are now being promoted as poverty busters that can help Rural India survive the globalisation pressures. I now realize that I had intuitively embedded certain qualities into the products that could support start-up entrepreneurship and this is perhaps the reason why these products are made and produced at so many locations around India by small producers who like my farther have tried to find their feet and survive in a situation of poverty and absence of capital.

My brother, M P Manohar took over our factory and businesses after my father passed away in 1988, since he was already helping him for many years in the business at Madras. However the manufacture of wooden toys was coming under serious competition from plastics and the labour situation was not easy either nor did our family have the capital to grow the factory to the next level of sustainability with the introduction of automation and new quality standards that markets demanded and it was therefore closed down and eventually sold out in the mid 90’s. My brother continues to live and work in Madras (Chennai) and is now with the Dakshin Chitra Foundation to help build a Toy Museum at the Foundation's exhibition site outside Chennai. My brother too had studied with me through all the schools, just one year behind me in a junior class, and then he too joined NID as a student of Graphic design in 1973 although he too was a skilled craftsman having made over 100 or so Aero models, ships and many many other things together through our very rich childhood experiences together, including plastic scale models of architectural projects and buildings which my father had started as a side business to the toy factory. Life was tough but we can now look back and cherish the finer points of the rich experience, no regrets whatsoever. My mother too had joined the family business when the going got very tough in 1964 and stayed on with the shop in the city till my father passed away in 1988. She now lives in Bangalore in her own home near that of my sister (M P Meera - Meera Nandanan) who also lives there, having moved back from Kolkatta to Madras and then to Bangalore after our business was closed down in the mid 90's. She too contributed and managed the Rockytoys showroom during her stay at Madras from the early 80's. So in all it was a true family saga that needs to be told in some detail, hopefully sometime soon, with pictures.

This is a short version of our Toy story and I think that it is now time to blog my experience on toys and to share my experiences. By the way, since I got passionately involved in each of my activities as they unfolded I used to be called "Dr.Toy" by my friends and acquaintances in the early 80's before I moved on to acquire new skills to become "Dr. Geometry" and "Dr.Computers" "Dr. Publications" and now-a-days "Dr. Bamboo" and "Dr. Design Theory"....... By the way, I have never completed any degree qualification in my entire career but I have managed to attract these taunts, nevertheless.


  1. It pierces to my heart so why not to say....
    You are the best teacher students can have..........
    we do not have one....

  2. It's absolutely wonderful to read this story now. From the time I was probably too young to grasp all aspects, I have heard bits and pieces of it, from various family members. It always left me with wide-eyed wonder then. And it does much the same today. I am fortunate to have my own set of associated memories as a kid -- from long summer vacations running around in a toy factory (it can't get better than that!) to my very own rocking horse (orange with blue polka dots).

    Corny or not, I must say, it is something I will never take for granted. Maybe one day I will write my own version of it. As of now, I'm still soaking it all in. :)

  3. Nice blog. Nice item. May I invite you to and also

    Came across your site because of your Creative Commons license. Was searching for material under the CC license from India.

    Frederick Noronha

  4. Dear Fredrick Naronha

    Thank you for your comment and invitation. You can write to me at my email ID ranjanmp(at) if you wish. My website link is Home Page


  5. thanks for the great story
    was wondering where u were after the lego toys post but his makes the wait more than worthwhile
    thank u so much for a loowing us to share a very preciuos part of u...

  6. I assume you went to church park in the 60s? You said you were born in 1950? I was in church park in the 50s left in the 8th grade in 59.Let me know about who your teachers were and the nuns like sister Celine?
    Sundari Ramachandra

  7. I am really happy to read this as it remind me of your live narration when you visited IICD. At that time I could only imagine and after going through roctoys article visuals and text picture got clear.
    I really learn a lot from your blog.
    Its a rich library for me.


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