Thursday, 22 November 2012

Art of transforming wood into master pieces - The Kondapalli way

Art of transforming wood into master pieces - The Kondapalli way

Block of wood
What do we see here?
A simple block of wood?  
What can we do with this wood?
I can think about using it as a paper weight or to block a door etc..Probably that is my limitation, but pose this question to a Kondapalli Karigar. A whole world -  comes the answer. The possible outcomes is innumerable and  only limited to the imagination of the Karigars.

 Male & Female Door stoppers

Enter to the world of  “KONDAPALLI TOY MAKING”

Brief about Kondapalli & Kondapalli toys:
Kondapalli is a small town / village near Vijayawada and the name is synonymous with  soft wood toys. The toys made here are distinct on various factors - The material being used, method of making, look and feel and themes on which these toys are made. Kondapalli toys has been famous for quite a number of decades and the history seems to be that few Rajasthani karigars settled over here and started making these figur. I still remember collection my grandmother had.  The themes of these toys were primarily depecting rural background  & Hindu mythology with backdrops like Churning of Milk / Curd, Bullock cart riding, Elephants with Ambari, Dasaavatar set, Radha krishna combos etc..

Tella Poniki tree - Kondapalli toys are made from wood from these trees
What is so special about these Kondapalli toys?

First and foremost it is completely hand made till date with primitive tools  and is still a cottage industry with only a few families in and around Kondapalli carrying out this business.

Second  the raw materials required for making these artifacts are – Wood, Chisel, Saw dust, Muslin cloth, Tamarind seed powder, Deer horn spade, Water & Vegetable dyes / Paints. The wood they use is very light, when I first touched it, it gave me a feeling of lifting a slightly heavier Styrofoam block/sheet. The wood that they use are from the tree called “Tella Poniki’ and this grows in the forests nearby. The wood is heated / Sun dried and I am given to understand that on heating / drying  the weight of the wood reduces to 1/3rd of the original weight. Initially the karigars used Vegetable dyes for coloring and then migrated to synthetic paints and now they make in both the flavors. Vegetable dye based artifacts are bit costlier than the paint ones. The only dis-advantage of vegetable dyes are that when exposed to air conditioning for a longer duration they tend to absorb the moisture and become sticky. To avoid this the karigars apply an coat of sheenlac polish which gives a gloss finish but takes away the a bit of natural beauty of the natural look of the vegetable dyes.

Finally the process of making itself is so good to witness that you will fall in love with those toys even more.

Now lets look at how these beauties are made ?

Planks of Tella Poniki wood
Step 1: 
Tella Poniki timber is cut and heated and again cut into suitable blocks/ pieces.

Karigar holding trunk of an elephant
Step 2:The target artifact is decided and component breakdown structure is arrived(Something like Bill of materials). For e.g if it is an elephant with ambari.. the components would be Body, Head, Ears, Trunk, Tail. 
Step 3:
The poniki timber blocks are then chiseled into these components (Body, Head, Ears, Trunk, Tail).

Step 4:
Chiseling  instrument
The chiseled components are then filed to remove uneven edges

Pieces glued together now gets the shape of an elephant
Step 5:All the pieces are fitted together through  a simple ball and socket attachment with some glue
The brown colors are the tamarind resin paste
Step 6:
A thick resin is prepared from Tamarind seeds (Yes you heard it right.. Pulian kottai ) & Saw dust – The beauty is it dissolves in water and it lends a helping hand to the karigars to shape it the way they want. Once it is glued together it looks like the elephant picture on the top and then they apply the tamarind paste to the bring out the magic in each of these toys. Essentially the tamarind + saw dust paste is used to close the cracks, even out the rough edges and also to bring the subtle forms like the crest & Dewlap of bull.  Once this is done it is allowed to dry.
Note the even finish the face got after application of the tamarind paste

Step 7: 
Once the individual motifs of the bigger picture is readied they are all attached ( Ambari’s with elephants, bulls with bullock carts etc). Essentially all the pieces fall into the big picture.Upon drying vegetable dyes / Paints are applied in parts 

Step 8: 
Finally if there is a need they are then glazed using polish 

End result - These Kondapalli beauties
Wife of village leader
Village leader

Dancing Ganesha

Ambari on top of elephant - Natural vegetable dyes

Bullock cart
People riding elephants - Acrylic paint
Current state and what is in store:
Today the number of people devoted to working on this art form has come down drastically and i am given to understand that there are around 30-40 families in Kondapalli who undertake this as a lively hood.

The art is taught / rather learned by observation only and there are there doesn't seem to exist a formal way of preserving the traditional knowledge and passing it on to the next generations. If this knowledge is not preserved, documented then there are umpteen chances that the art will die a slow death. 

The other disturbing aspect is that the younger generation of these karigars are not too keen to pursue this profession primarily because of profitability of the operations and the sustainability of the operations.

The other important aspect is the missing element of innovation in  Kondapalli toys.. Even today a majority of these toys are based on the age old themes, there is definitely scope  for innovation where new themes and products could be introduced. The challenge is that the life style of these karigars are confined to a small place and their exposure the the developments is minimal. They need to be exposed to the changes that are happening and probably i feel that institutes like NIT, CCI should take active part in conceptualizing new themes for Kondapalli toys.

The AP government is trying it's best to preserve them through co-operative purchases, Skill training on preparation of Vegetable dyes etc.. As a matter of fact it seems it was the great NTR who realized that the art is diminishing and constructed houses for these karigars in a concentrated place in kondapalli and provided it to them free / subsidized way. Currently bulk of these toys are procured by Lepakshi (AP Govt) and few private merchandisers.

What can we do & how can we ?
 As the case with any art, the longevity and sustenance depends on the patronage. I do feel that this art is worth preserving and patronage. In these times of plastic and machine made toys these Kondapalli toys do give us a refreshing look particularly the ones with the vegetable dyes. May be we can contribute our bit by buying few of these toys for ourselves and for gifting purpose.