One Man Is Reviving Channapatna’s Age-Old Woodcraft with an Award-Winning, Design-Based Philosophy

Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, introduced the Persian craft of wooden toy making to the small town of Channapatna, around 200 years ago. Today, when the survival of many Indian arts and crafts is bleak, this small town is seeing the revival of this art form – with a touch of modernity.

For more than two centuries now, Channapatna in Karnataka has been known for its wooden and colourful lac-turnery toys that the craftsmen so deftly manufacture and bring to the market. But the new generation of youngsters, which has grown up in these very households seeing how the toys are made, is now educated and does not want to be confined to Channapatna continuing the work of ancestors.

However, one of the people who is working hard to bring this craft back to life is Karthik Vaidyanathan. Karthik is an engineer by profession and after doing his MBA he has been working for various companies in Bengaluru.

Varnam Channapatna toys

Karthik Vaidyanathan

On one occasion, work took Karthik to Mysore. En route, he encountered Channapatna and the toys of this little town. Something about the craft fascinated him so much that over the following weekends he kept finding himself back in Channapatna, learning more about the people and their craft.

It was during one of these visits that Varnam took birth in 2011.

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“Varnam is an ode to colourful India. My attempt has been to bring my own aesthetic sensibilities and design philosophy to traditional crafts. The idea is to reorient our crafts to the modern context by ensuring that each design has utilitarian value and hence some relevance in today’s world,” says Karthik, founder and principal designer of Varnam.

Though not a designer by education or profession, Karthik has always been interested in crafts and design. He has been getting the craftsmen of Channapatna to make useful items of contemporary design, instead of only the standard design toys they have been used to making for many generations.

“Initially there was a lot of resistance from the artists. They found it very difficult to accept something new. The first small lamps that I designed and got made were a major success. When the artists found that people liked the new products, they accepted my designs and soon I had eight artists working for Varnam,” he says.

The Varnam family has grown since then to a strength of 20. Interestingly, in an industry which is predominantly male dominated, most of Varnam’s products are hand crafted by women artisans.

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The entire process of creating the products is carried out on a lathe (a turning handheld machine, and hence the circular symmetrical shapes and the term lac-turnery). This craft involves several independent steps. The soft wood of the Wrightia tinctoria tree, or Aale mara (ivory wood) as it is colloquially known, is first turned into circular shapes with the dexterous use of hands, power lathes and suitable cutting tools.

The turned wooden items are then lacquered by means of frictional heat. Painted lac deposits itself on the turned wood and gives it a bright and colourful appearance. The colours used are from natural extracts and hence are non toxic. To finish the process, the lacquered pieces are buffed with the leaves of the Umbrella tree (Pandanus odoratissimus), which gives them that glossy finish.

This is a 100 percent eco friendly craft where there is very little wastage of wood and even the residual wood is used in the incense industry. The wood is also known for its various medicinal properties.

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Over the past four years, Karthik has managed to get the craftsmen to create various lamps, salt and pepper shakers, boxes of various shapes and sizes, other home accents, jewellery, and originally-designed toys. For his work with Varnam, he has received the Kyoorius Blue Elephant Design Award for packaging design and craft design, and the CII Design Excellence Award for industrial design (home products). In 2014, he received the CII Design Excellence Award for visual communication and packaging and this year he has been named as one of the top 10 craft design studios in the country by POOL design magazine.

If these were not enough feathers in his cap already, Karthik was one of six Indian designers picked by Create Culture, a London based company started by Arpna Gupta, who are bringing culture and commerce together. As part of the curated show, ‘INfluence’, which is a museum-quality exhibition of the Indian Design platform of Create Culture, Arpna Gupta chose to have these six Indian designers display their wares during the London Design Festival in September 2015.

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Explaining why Varnam was invited to be a part of the curated show at the London Design Festival, Arpna Gupta said, “The selected design studios represent the next generation of Indian designers that continue to work with local craftsmen, in order to preserve centuries old traditions and skills. I instantly liked Varnam’s philosophy of social enterprise, its clean design aesthetic and focus on functionality. I think Varnam’s designs will have a wide international appeal and my intention is to increase commercial opportunities for such Indian design studios.”

At many retail stores in India, as well as at the London Design Festival, visitors are impressed with the quality of the craftsmanship and the excellent standard of the goods produced by Varnam. The studio’s design, attention to detail, and focus on the welfare of the staff are commendable. No wonder Varnam is earning national and international applause.

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For Karthik, who still works at ACT, an internet company in Bangalore, what started off as a way to satisfy his creative urge and help the artisans is slowly turning out to be a strong social enterprise, which is a for-profit organization. It gives Karthik a lot of happiness and satisfaction to know that the artisans trust him and his designs and that he is helping an age-old craft thrive.

For more information on this organisation log onto www.varnam.co.in

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About the author: Aparna Menon is a freelance writer, writing for various newspapers for the past 10 years. Her main fields of interest are wildlife, heritage and history. A keen traveler, she loves to read and write and does a lot of art work too.

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