“Today, the younger generation doesn’t take any interest in the traditional art form, but to keep it alive, artists need to work for at least 12 hours on a daily basis,” says 71-year-old Subhash Balkrishna Chitari.
Sawantwadi is a town in Sindhudurg district and has a history of nearly 400 years of wooden toy making. Subhash is the fifth generation in his family to enter this line of work. He started working as a toymaker at the age of nine and till date continues to do so with the same passion and dedication.
With an experience of 62 years, Subhash has been working for more than 13 hours daily which makes it over a quarter million hours of toy making.
Subhash has exhibited his toys in several cities of India like Hyderabad, Delhi, Surat, Haryana, Mumbai, Madras, Kolhapur, Solapur to name a few.
The toy makers of Sawantwadi are known for the wooden models of fruits and vegetables, and these works of art resemble original fruits and vegetables. The highest demand amongst all the toys is for the fruit basket consisting of 27 different fruits.
Artists charge somewhere between ₹ 850-₹ 900 for the same. “Earlier I used to make the fruit basket consisting of 60 fruits, but now barely anyone demands a basket of 60 fruits because it is huge and people don’t know about many fruits as well,” says Subhash.
Along with fruits, he makes several toys, musical instruments, miniature railway models, and bangles. If there is any leftover wood, he uses it to make decorative artwork.
Apart from his toy making skills, Subhash is passionate about painting. “Give me a photograph, and I will make a sketch of it,” says Subhash proudly.
He won a national award in an exhibition in Mumbai for crafting the wooden toys and has won several awards across India as well. While he is trying hard to keep the art form alive, there are several barriers that he has to face.
“Sawantwadi toys earned fame for the government, but sadly, it has not taken any measures to preserve this dying art form,” he says. Subhash estimates that less than ten artists from Sawantwadi are into the art form now. Several fake toys sold in the market under the name of Sawantwadi wooden toys have added to the plight of artists.
He explains “Artificial toys from China have disrupted the market now and have had a tremendous impact on the sales. Earlier artists used to sit continuously for hours to make toys, but now there is a dip in the amount of hard work and concentration. Also, customers need everything at the earliest — sometimes they demand that the toys be ready within a weeks’ time.”
Subhash rues the fact that customers do not realise is that it takes a lot of time to make authentic toys that last for several years.
Another major hurdle for the artists is the lack of availability of wood. The toys are made from the wood of the Indian Coral tree (Erythrina variegata), which is known as ‘Pangara’ in Marathi. “Earlier, people used to plant Pangara trees outside every farm which acted as the border.
These trees were essentially meant for the toy makers, but today instead of planting trees, people are cutting them. It is difficult to find the tree these days owing to which the costs have skyrocketed” says Subhash.
Despite all the obstacles, Subhash is happy. His son is following in his footsteps, and Subhash is content with the knowledge that the legacy of the craft will continue into the next generation as well.
(Written by Sanket Jain)