It’s getting colder. It’s also raining; it has been for the last two days. The leaves have all fallen and I can see the windows, and bulbs, of the houses across the hill again. The day feels as bare as it is grey. I hate such days; days that even multiple cups of coffee can’t save. I rummage through folders of photographs on my computer looking for pops of colour and bits of inspiration to keep my day on track.
This photo was taken in December 2006 in Kerala at a souvenir stall selling traditional (Indian) wooden toys. Such toys were once common all over the country. Today they are a dying art kept alive by artisans in select pockets. Each toy is work of art, and unlike conventional toys that have distinct comforting (or addictive) elements in their design, these have a sense of regale formality to them. The figurines here are of animals – tigers, cows and elephants, brightly painted as is the custom during festivities and festivals. Where the real creatures are swathe in velvet and bells, decorated with paint and vermillion on select days in a year, the wooden versions remain forever in celebration.
On a more recent holiday in the south of India I passed through a small town called Channapatna, between Bangalore and Mysore in Karnataka. This town is known locally as Gombegala Ooru, toy town, and its claim to fame is that it continues to make traditional wooden toys, one of the surviving pockets in this era of mass produced toys. While the toys are slightly different in artistic style as compared to the photo above, they are equally well crafted, and colourful.
All along the highway and at every rest stop stalls and souvenir shops offer a variety of wooden toys. They are stacked one after the other, a wooden army that dares you to leave empty handed. The collection includes tourist oriented designs like key-chains, toy trains that look a bit too much like Thomas, and automobiles that are anything but traditional. And then there are the ornate rocking horses (I craved for those as a kid), Indian musical instruments, and figurines – the men are fashioned as soldiers and farmers, the women are housewives busy in their chores – saddled for a lifetime with a grinding stone or drawing water by the well. Some wooden women even have a toddler clutching on to their wooden sari pleats. Each expression, each fold, each action is life-like, grooved in small scale units across this tiny town, mirroring a way of life that still continues beyond the new booming economy.
I picked a doll. A lady in a yellow sari with a green blouse. Her hair is parted in the middle and pulled back in a bun. She wears a bright red bindi and red bangles. Her eyes are lined with kohl. She is seated on the ground, one leg stretched out and the other is folded. Her hands are working a traditional circular grinding stone. In some era this was my grandma. Today it’s a kitsch addition to my décor.