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Memories of a childhood

Sawantwadi toys from Maharashtra are facing the onslaught of commercialisation

Memories of a childhood

Shoma Abhyankar

The piercing sunlight makes its way through the kaleidoscope of foliage and falls on the grey cement floor where an array of bananas suns itself. A basket of bright red pomegranates sits next to these. The rest of the floor is strewn with chisels among other tools, wood shavings and carved wooden pieces, all suggesting an artiste’s unfinished craft.  These fruits made of wood are the handiwork of 75-year-old Suresh Mahadev Chitari and his assistants.

Master craftsman: Suresh Chitari with a low sitting stool or paat.

Memories of playing with colourful wooden kitchen utensils gifted by my grandmother in the childhood landed me at an obscure street named Chitari Aali in the little hamlet of Kolgaon in Sawantwadi, Maharashtra. The street derives its name from words chitar or one who draws chitra or images and aali or street. Popular for wooden toys and colourful Ganjifa cards, Sawantwadi was once the capital of Sawant-Bhosale Maratha ruler and still boasts of a ‘Rani Sahiba’ and her well-kept palace. It is at Kolgaon that most wood workers reside. The craft became popular around 1627 and was patronised by the Maratha ruler of the region. The then simpler lifestyle called for simple toys and the artisans made typical traditional toys, mostly string-pulled bullock carts, kitchen utensils, rocking horses and wooden fruits.

With abundant trees around, the raw material for toys was usually sourced from mango, jackfruit and pangara or Indian coral trees. The artisans would chop the wood into small pieces and stack them in the sun. The pieces were than fashioned by hand into various fruits and kitchen utensils. A laep or paste of tamarind seed powder and clay was applied to smoothen the wood grains and to make a base for efficient application of dye. The laep-daubed wood fruits were then sun dried again. Lac resin sourced from secretions of insects was used to colour and give a shiny finish to the various fruits and toys.

The process of making toys is still the same, but the raw material has undergone a change. The lathe machines now used for shaping the wood are making things easier and faster. However, it is a struggle to procure wood due to depleting forest cover. Jackfruit trees are fewer in number and so is pangara. The lac resin, mainly sourced from Bihar, has also become rarer and expensive. The artisans have thus taken to cheap powder paints and wood varnish that fail to match the grace, grandeur and glaze of lac-dyed toys. 

Sawantwadi toys: Rocking horses

Suresh Chitari and his son Amit Chitari own and run Kamalnayan handicrafts. Theirs is among the last few families still involved in the craft. Amit is the fifth generation in this occupation. Realising the winds of change, he has added laser cut designs and products fashioned out of MDF boards. As I wander through their workshop, I see stacks of customised name plates, decorative wall panels, a row of freshly painted rocking horses and paat or a low sitting flat stool mostly used in religious ceremonies. Suresh says they are also trying to experiment with sawdust to save on any wood going waste.

However, despite all the efforts, septuagenarian Suresh knows his craft is dying. He laments that the younger generation is looking for work elsewhere and not showing interest in toy making. While the craftsmen from nearby villages have off and on come to learn from him, they have lacked dedication. Chinese products have flooded the market and attempts to get the Geographical Indication for Sawantwadi toys have not borne favourable response. Like several other arts and crafts facing the onslaught of time, Sawantwadi toys need to be saved, for childhood memories’ sake.

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