Reviving a 200-year-old Toy Making Craft

lacquer turnery natural materials sustainable products Wood craft

Last season, we worked in collaboration with Varnam Craft Collective, a multi-award winning social enterprise in India, to promote sustainable Christmas decorations, home accessories and gifts and therefore Introduce the 200-year-old traditional lac (short for lacquer) turnery craft to the UK.

What truly inspired us to work with Varnam, are not only it's striking and aesthetically beautiful products, but this social enterprise's true dedication to preserving the traditional methods and materials employed in the craft of lac turnery and the efforts taken to provide employment for Channapatna artisans. 

History of Channapatna Toys

Channapatna toys are a particular form of wooden toys (and dolls) that are manufactured in the town of Channapatna in the State of Karnataka, India. As a result of the popularity of these toys, Channapatna is known as Gombegala Ooru (toy-town) of Karnataka. The origin of these toys can be traced to the reign of Tipu Sultan, a 17th century ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore based in South India, who invited artisans from Persia to train the local artisans in the making of wooden toys.[Source: Wikipedia]

Innovation is at the heart of this revival story

Since 2012, Varnam has been working with Channapatna artisans of lac turnery to revive the dying industry. Known to be a unique toy-making tradition, lac turnery has been hard hit by several factors leading to its near-demise. The factors cited for the decline of the lac turnery industry are the inherent lack of variety in terms of products as it is focused mainly on toy production, the absence of design innovation, and the availability of cheap, mass-produced imitation products.

In fact, Varnam's strength lies in it’s innovative design and how it’s managed to adapt a toy-making tradition into functional products with a modern aesthetic. Through the joint efforts of the Varnam Craft Collective and participating craftspeople, lac turnery products have now expanded to include home and lifestyle items.

Video credit: Varnam Craft Collective

It's no wonder this Social enterprise, has won several awards for it's design innovations such as the Kyoorius Design Awards 2013 in Design Craft and Packaging, and Confederation of Indian Industry(CII), Design Excellence award for its ‘Oinkston tableware’ series 2013 and the CII Design Excellence award for visual communication and packaging 2014. All of Varnam's products are Craftmark-certified. Craftmark is the highest certifying body in India and implements standards and norms for labelling authentic handmade products that are ethically created.

Socially-responsible and Sustainable

In an industry where more than 90% of the artisans are men, many of Varnam's products have been handcrafted by women artisans. Proceeds from the sale of Varnam products go into the design and production of more innovative products while striving to keep the craftswomen employed.

women making Varnam toys

Image credit: Varnam Craft Collective

All of the aesthetically beautiful products are not only handcrafted using age-old lac turnery methods and materials, but are perfectly safe and make use of all sustainable materials. The wood used to make their products is a combination of seasoned beechwood, rosewood, neem wood and wood from Wrightia Tinctoria (a medicinal plant).

The lac or lacquer used in their products is sourced from a resin secreted by the Laccifer lacca or the common Indian lac insect. Traditional ‘kumkum’ sourced from saffron is used to produce bright red hues, whilst dry turmeric powder serves as the base for the sunny yellow colours you see on lac turnery products. Other colours employed in lac turnery are also sourced from various natural vegetable dyes.

lac being melted

Image credit: Varnam Craft Collective

When you buy a Varnam product from The Elephant Head, you can be assured that you are not only helping revive and sustain an age-old craft form, but are buying something that is aesthetically beautiful and has been created keeping the environment in mind.

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