The bride, eyes doe-shaped and hips flared, stands next to her groom with his jet black moustache and headcloth. They sit on a shelf overlooking carnivals, holidays and modest terracotta houses. Narrating their silent tale of south Indian art, these 'Etikoppaka Toys' embody the pride of Indian handicraft
Origin and ongoing legacy
The practice of lacquering comes from a period of antiquity ranging back to 300 BCE. One such hometown of artistic heritage prevails twenty kilometres south of Yellamanchili, Andhra Pradesh. The fine craftsmen of Etikoppaka and her neighbouring villages have gained mastery over the art of taming wood. Speaking of origin, most artisans practising this craft belong to the Vishwa Brahmin, Devanga, Gouda, Padmasali, Setty Baliga and Kapu castes. The artisans are spread throughout the region of Etikoppaka, into the villages of Kottam, Kailasapatnam, Rolugunta and K.D Pet.
Etikoppaka wooden toys stand out among other techniques of toymaking, with their perfectly rounded heads, their cylindrical bodies glistening and smooth. As unexpected as it may seem, these toys could be interpreted as symbols of vernacular modernism. The facial features, volumes of the body and their two-planar ornamentation all point to classic abstraction. As a result, they never go out of style.
Signature themes of Etikoppaka Bommalu
Recurring themes are marriage scenes accompanying processions of Shehnai troops, canons, automobiles, birds and religious figures.
They adopt the role of virtual storytellers, starting from the bride and groom shots to marriage festivities and priests on the scene. It becomes hard to believe that toys of such precision are the achievements of a few men and women, with primitive tools in their hands. Clearly, giving up is a concept untaught to this community of makers.
The Making of Etikoppaka Toys − a tale of skill and persistence
Diving into the process behind the making of these toys, Ankudi Karra plays the central role. In the local language, it refers to softwood obtained from the Ankudi tree native to the region. Large toys use the tree trunk while toys with smaller cross-sections are made with the branches. Further, Lac − either Rangeen or Kusumi variety, natural dye pencils, the lathe machine, Badithi axe, and the five types of chisels known as Vuli are required in the process.
- The artisan gathers raw materials Ankudi Karra, Lac, Natural dye pencils.
- The equipment used are Lathe machine, Badithi Axe and Vuli (Different types of chisels)
- Firstly, the artisan seasons to meet the requisite quality, he cuts them into suitable lengths. Now, he takes the block of softwood and shapes it with the help of a lathe machine. With the rotation of the lathe tool, the artisan skillfully smoothens the outer surface of the wood. Before you know it, a beautifully crafted piece of wood takes shape. Joints are sealed, and the toy is only two steps away from achieving its final glory.
- Lacquering is done on the hand or machine-operated lathe, while the toy is in motion. For making toys of elaborate detail, a hand operated lathe is considered more suitable by the artisan.
- A dry lac made of natural vegetable dyes is pressed onto the spinning surface. The friction causes a release of heat which in turn melts the lacquer, thereby bonding itself to the wooden toy. The Etikoppaka artisan's bold strokes of lac tell us one thing. Only years of practice and ages of inherited artisan blood can achieve the task of lacquering with this amount of confidence.
Weighing down the pros and cons
Etikoppaka craftsmen have certainly benefitted the switch from manual chiselling to lathe machines, cutting down on valuable amounts of time and manpower requirement. Today, more toys can be generated per hour using the same resources as the artisans of the past did. Support from concerned online portals and government initiatives has helped revitalise this ancient craft.
With a scant population of around 12 thousand, Etikoppaka craftsmen have commendable fame but meek fortune. Despite the few advantages, the occupation undeniably faces challenges. Topping the list is the availability of 'Ankudu', the wood required for the production of these delightful toys. The Forest Department fines the artisans for obtaining wood by the felling of trees. Clearly, the objective of the Forest Department does not complement the growth of the Etikoppaka community since toymaking is their staple occupation. Abandoning this traditional artform would mean leaving behind their identity. The only legal way to obtain 'Ankudu' is through vendors who often exploit the artisan's lack of alternatives.
The Forest Protection Committee promises to rectify the situation through the plantation of the Ankudu species over the last four years.
Foreign demand for handmade Indian lacquer toys resulted in a yearly export of 50-80 lakhs to Europe and USA. Suddenly, due to duplicating Chinese products entering the market, importers insisted on GI certification and heavy metal analysis. They wanted a guarantee that toxic substances such as lead weren't used in toymaking. Getting a heavy metal analysis is quite expensive, well beyond the influence of Etikoppaka artisans. Fortunately, the GI certification was passed on Etikoppaka Bommalu in November 2017. These hard-labouring artisans need to be preserved by the citizens of the country before it can gain international acclaim.
The story behind Etikoppaka missile toys
British India saw the rise of weaponry themed Etikoppaka toys from the region. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution during the 1800s, new trends have picked on. Artisans silently rebelled against the revenue-based capitalist society that the Britishers created. The government stopped extended support to local handicrafts, causing them to undergo a notable recession. The British government has somewhat succeeded to transform the country from a handicraft-society to an industrial one. Despite centuries of oppression under foreign rule, the beloved craft of Etikoppaka made it out of the dark period. Still hoping that one day, they shall see brighter days, the Etikoppaka artisan's plea is not to be silenced.
Preserving the identity of Etikoppaka
Today's India is slowly transforming itself from a healthy community of interaction into a society propelled by technology. The British ideal of 'manufacture over handmade' deeply wounded the working of Indian handicrafts. As sad as it sounds, children think of iPads and not wooden toys when they hear the word 'play'. The British rule has caused the common artisan to undermine the worth of his skill. At Artsytribe, we aim at making a change in this pattern of society and bringing people closer to their roots by reintroducing the lost artforms of India.
With endurance as unchanging as stone, the sturdy Etikoppaka craftsman sets an example in quality and standard. One would think that such a degree of precision with hand tools is inconceivable, but not this experienced artisan. Like his grandfather did before him, he wields a Vuli in his hand, picks up a log of Ankudu and sets forth to gouge a metaphor of grace.
To explore and buy Etikoppaka toys online, please visit Artsytribe Etikoppaka Collection.