Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his monthly 'Mann Ki Baat' broadcast on Sunday, mentioned Etikoppaka toys, bringing into focus Andhra Pradesh's famous craft and the efforts of local artisan C.V. Raju to bring innovations and restore the past glory of this 400-year-old art.
Etikoppaka, a village 80 km from this coastal city, is famous for the trademark wooden toys. As Modi mentioned in his speech, these toys have no sharp edges. They are rounded on all sides and hence present little chances of an injury to children.
Etikoppaka toys are known for their softness, rounded contours, polished colours and the overall craftsmanship. The artisans make wooden bowls, toy trains, idols of gods and goddesses, wooden cannons, bullock carts, spinning tops and many other toys.
The mention of Etikoppaka by the Prime Minister is significant in the wake of growing demands for a ban on import of Chinese toys and the government's thrust on promoting local toys.
Despite several challenges including the drop in demand due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the artisans in Etikoppaka are hoping that a ban on Chinese toys would revive the demand for their unique craft in the market.
The pandemic has hit hard the traditional and eco-friendly wooden lacquer-ware and toy craft industry of Etikoppaka. About 300 families from the village, located near the banks of the Varaha river, have been dependent on the profession for over four centuries. Already facing numerous challenges, including competition from plastic toys and flooding of Chinese products in the market, they were hit hard by the pandemic with no fresh orders from traders and online retailers for the last five months.
The artisans in the village used to produce toys worth Rs 20 to Rs 30 lakh every month but production came to a complete halt with the outbreak of Covid and resultant lockdown.
The artisans are now looking for support from the government, and want it to extend financial assistance on the lines of 'Nethanna Nestham', a scheme for handloom weavers.
The tensions with China and the demands from various quarters for ban on Chinese imports have given fresh hopes of revival to Etikoppaka artisans. With the Prime Minister stressing on local manufacturing of toys, they feel that Etikoppaka can regain its past glory by again emerging as a key hub of toy-making as they expect renewed demand for their products.
The dumping of identical cheap Chinese wooden toys was a big challenge for the traditional artisans of this Andhra village as they could neither compete with their pricing, nor their marketing.
The wooden lacquer craft toys or 'Etikoppaka Bommalu' has a long history said to be dating back to Bahamani times. The craft was originally started in Nakkapalli village but was later moved to Etikoppaka after the area's landlords resettled the artisans there.
The artisans mainly use the wood from trees locally known as 'ankudu' (Wrightia Tinctoria) and lacquer, a colourless resinous secretion of a certain species of insects, collected by tribals from surrounding forests. Clarified lac is blended and oxidised with natural dyes and is applied to lathe turned wooden articles.
However, the mushrooming of plastic toys, fierce competition from China and scarcity of raw materials such as wood due to shrinking forests threatened the very survival of this craft.
Raju is one of the artisans who came forward to save the craft with their efforts to procure raw materials from the Forest Department.
A local landlord himself, Raju negotiated with the forest authorities to make the wood more accessible. He encouraged the artisan families to participate in the government sponsored community forest management programme to grow more ankudu trees and other dye bearing species. He went to greater lengths to find organic dyes suitable for blending with lac and succeeded in obtaining a new range of attractive blends.
Raju's innovations which also helped in product diversification, have been documented by the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad.
According to the document, Raju initiated the process of creating a separate co-operative association of the artisans called "Padmavati Associates". His key strategy has been to strengthen local knowledge traditions of making vegetative dyes, develop new tools, techniques and methods for increasing shelf life of the dyes and generate new uses.
In addition, he has also received the vegetative dying traditions for local textiles. He has developed many new toys for which market is slowly emerging in India and abroad.
In 2002, Raju received the President's Award. He also won the National Innovation Foundation Award from the Union Department of Science and Technology, the Centenary Awards, the UNESCO Seal of Excellence and Lifetime Achievement Award from INTACH for reviving the Etikoppaka craft of making toys.
Raju mentored and trained several artisans and continues to do this. He is now training tribal youths from Araku as the area has natural resources such as black berry and jackfruit trees for the wood and natural colours.
Raju, who is the director of Padmavathi Associate of Artisans, has set a target of training 100 skilled artisans to produce Araku crafts using local material and native talent. One of them will be selected as master craftsman who will train more locals.
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