Toy-making artisans of Karnataka's Channapatna struggle to stay afloat without government help in lockdown
Karnataka's Channapatna craftspersons lead precarious lives like any other artisan in the country. And with the onset of the pandemic-induced lockdown, their woes have only increased through the months.
“Subah huyi phir din nikla, raat aa gayi aur phir agli subah aa gayi (The morning was followed by the day and night and then came the next morning)," Shah Salim, a 58-year-old Channapatna craftsman, is not stating the obvious. He was answering my question on his Eid celebrations this year, and his response was deceptively insipid, as behind it lay pain and agony.
“Udhaar ki zindagi jee rahe hain. (We are steeped in debt). This is not just my story; all of us are going through this,” the artisan added.
Sixty kilometres from India's Silicon Valley Bengaluru, is the town of Channapatna in Ramanagara district. Known as the 'toy town' of Karnataka, it is home to 3,000-5,000 artisans who practice the unique craft of making wooden toys protected under a GI (Geographical Indication) tag. Like any other craft practitioner in the country, artisans in Channapatna too lead precarious lives. The pandemic has only added to their woes.
It has been some years since Lucknow-born designer Atul Johri shifted base to Channapatna, to live and work among the artisans. His brand Atul Johri Designs is all about innovation and revival of the craft, particularly the complex lacquering technique. Johri is witness to their plight. “An artisan who I had worked with earlier walked seven kilometres to borrow money from me. I distributed food items and other essentials among 35 artisans, especially women artisans, and I didn’t want it to spread but it did, and I started getting calls from artisans I had never known. They wanted ration but hesitated to say it. A few came to meet and asked for money upfront, and others couldn’t. Their faces have been haunting me. The situation has always been bad, but COVID-19 has hit them really hard,” the designer says.
The lockdown meant pulling the brakes on the functioning hundreds of units and factories in the town, which in turn meant loss of income for thousands. 44-year-old Syed Hameed underwent one year of training in lacquerware crafts under a government programme, to become the first in his family to take up Channapatna crafts. He works independently for various units and charges per piece. On an average, he would earn anywhere between Rs 8,000 and Rs 15,000 per month, but during the lockdown, the artist remained without any work.
“During the first lockdown, we got by on loan. During the second lockdown, Atul Johri gave us rations, and in the third phase, I had no option but to look for work to support my family of five, and then worked for a few days in a local food stall making samosas that are consumed during Ramzan. But Eid is also over now. Everyone is trying to earn a livelihood by doing odd jobs. So many of us are plucking mangoes, but what will happen after the mango season gets over,” ruminates Hameed, who is awaiting the payment of a 15-day training session he conducted. The lockdown was announced the day after the training session concluded.
Twenty-two year old Pallavi, one of the few female artisans in the craft, supports a family of six with her monthly salary of Rs 12,000. During the lockdown, she didn’t receive any salary. “I received ration from Atul sir and the government, but I still had to take a loan of Rs 8,000 for our expenses,” says Pallavi.
The Bengaluru-Mysore Road is home to a plethora of Channapatna toy shops attracting a steady stream of tourists. Several artisans supply their wares to these shops that have remained shuttered during the lockdown. “Even when they open, the demand won’t be like before. People will spend on essentials first and then on decorative stuff,” says Shabir Mohammed.
The 32-year-old craftsman earns anywhere between Rs 15,000-20,000 per month, but April onwards, he had to dig into his savings to get by. “We got ration from the government — rice, pulses and sugar. But you need much more than that. I have a toddler and a five-year-old girl. To earn a livelihood, I have been engaged in plucking mangoes and loading the fruits into vehicles transporting them, but it can’t sustain me forever.”
Maya Organic, a social enterprise that works for the upliftment of artisans by generating livelihood, has been operational in Channapatna since 2004. Their unit resumed work this month, but is working with 30 artisans as opposed to 60 artisans that it usually works with. “Firstly, we have to maintain SOPs which mandates distancing, and then there aren’t any new orders. 20-30 per cent of our products are exported to European countries, and due to COVID-19, our orders have been cancelled. For business to get back on track like before would require a year. Right now, we are just creating a stock of regular items in order to help the artisans,” says Shaheda Noorie of Maya Organic. She further adds that in order to bail out the artisans, Maya Organic distributed dry ration and gave 30-40 per cent of the salaries to its workers.
Noorie is now the CEO of Artisanpride Producer Company Limited formed in 2019. “We are trying out a model in which artisans are the owners, with 100 per cent stakes. Only self-help groups of artisans could become members. The company had started generating good sales but, then COVID-19 struck us,” she says.
The average monthly income of a Channapatna craftsman is between Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000. It does seem enough, but in reality is far from it, as a large section of artisans are debt-ridden. Sharing insights on the situation, Johri reveals that as they "keep taking loans, the interest keeps piling up and the loan never gets over." "Within this money, artisans also have to buy the raw material, and for all those who work independently, the income varies, depending on the orders they receive. So there is no surety.”
After agriculture, textiles and handicrafts sector is the second largest employer in the country. According to a 2019 press release by the Ministry of Textiles, India’s textile exports, including handicrafts in 2018-19, amounted to roughly Rs 2.5 lakh crores.
M Bhupathy, secretary of Channapatna Crafts Park and CEO of Shilpa Trust, a manufacturer, exporter and supplier of lacquerware, is not satisfied with the government’s help to the sector.
The BJP-led government in the state has announced Rs 1,610 crore package for flower farmers, weavers, industries, construction workers, auto and taxi drivers, barbers and washermen. The toy-making cluster of Channapatna, a stronghold of JD(S), is missing from the list. The central government too hasn’t announced anything for the handicrafts sector.
The Indian Railways, however, undertook an initiative to support local craftspeople. As part of its ‘put back the smile’ programme, the Bengaluru division of South Western Railway distributed over 700 Channapatna toys to children of migrant workers who have left Bengaluru by Shramik trains so far.
“No government cares about artisans and weavers. There should have been some help,” says Bhupathy.
Shilpa Trust has been operational in Channapatna since 1992 and employs 35 artisans. It has extended help to around 60 members of the community through advance payments. “We raised Rs 60,000 to help the artisans, and have also done health insurance that covers COVID-19,” he adds. The unit has resumed operations and is currently working on a sample order for the Government of Karnataka, and another export order for Germany, besides finishing a pending order.
While things are not too bleak for Shilpa Trust, individual artisans are staring at difficult times ahead. “Since people couldn’t repay their loans, moneylenders have stopped giving fresh loans to them. So they don’t have the funds to buy the raw material.”
To make matters worse, prices of raw material like shellac, a natural varnish used to paint over wood to give it sheen, have been raised by sellers. “They are not even selling it to artisans who want 2-3 kilograms. These hoarders are waiting for the lockdown to open entirely, and then sell it at exorbitant prices to them, because then the artisans will pay up anything to resume work. Right now, it is being sold to bigger manufacturers. According to me a one-time package is not a solution. We have to make it a sustainable model,” Johri says in conclusion.
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