Gifted Toy Makers of Varanasi

There is magic in their hands and dedication in their actions. The narrow streets of Khojwa, in Varanasi, delight you with an ensemble of wooden toys – birds, animals, orchestras, soldiers, idols of deities and more

Interestingly, I had never been enamoured so much with a piece of wood but there was something very special about the cultural theme of these toys. Each one of them was a gem and spoke volumes about the artistic legacy of Varanasi. Since the city is a pilgrimage center, these toys mostly represent deities from Hindu mythology. The wood that had been chiseled to perfection into numerous different objects told unique mythological and religious stories of the city and its people. The tiny wooden gods and goddesses were carved and painted in flawless detail, thanks to the traditional know-how. More so, the finish, the colours and the final products were unrivalled. Each piece was a labour of love and reflected cultural diversity and skills of the craftsmen. In times, when we are looking for ways to recycle plastic, these toys are biodegradable.

KHOJWA

This colony of craftsmen has been practicing wood carving for generations. For someone, who had associated the ‘city of salvation’ only with Banarasi saris, zardozi work and gulabi meenakari, it’s a revelation. Wooden toy making is one of the oldest crafts of the city and has survived despite the changing and challenging times.

HOW DID IT START?

From time immemorial, the ghats of Varanasi have been considered pious for religious celebrations. People from different cultures, communities, religions and traditions came and settled here. As the settlements thrived by the banks of river Ganges, variety of art, craft and music became an intangible cultural heritage of the city and it became the home of many artificers and craftsmen.

Originally, the toy makers did not excel in wood carving. It was ivory carving that gave way to wood carving and it happened only after the use of ivory was banned by the government. From the procurement of wood to hand-carving and lacquering, it is traditionally a man’s job. Some of the artisans involve the women of their family in the colouring and decorating part. The artists prefer to play their own parts. There is a set of artists who are only skilled to make the toys of wood and finish the structure. There are separate families of artists whose sole job is to paint the toys.

THE ART OF TOY MAKING

I met several people of different age groups who practiced this craft professionally. The youngest boy was aged fifteen and I was fascinated with his beautiful carving. He was making fine strokes of the hammer on the chisel and giving shape to an idol of Ganesh. He had learnt the art from his father and grandfather. Together, they made around 30 toys in a day.

The most important aspect of this craft is selecting the right kind of wood for toys. Care is to be taken to dry out all the moisture from the wood before it is worked upon. Sal and Seesham are the preferred wood but these days Gular wood is the most used one. There are three most important stages of toy making – carving, painting and lacquering. To make a design, the artist cuts, peels and shapes the wood with the help of knives. Carving is followed by painting. The process entails two coats of bright colours. The final coat is of lacquer to add shine to the toys. The irony is that artisans of these world famous toys don’t even know in which cities and countries their products are sold.

So, next time when you visit Varanasi, do not forget to bring a little bit of Khojwa with you.

Text & Photos: Manjulika Pramod

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