This story is part of a series on the everyday heroes of rural Maharashtra.
The open workspace attached to Narayan Desai's home in the Manakapur village of Chikodi taluka in Karnataka’s Belgaum district mesmerises children. Here, the triangular cutouts of neon yellow, green, pink and orange-coloured sheets are all kept together in a huge basket. He picks up a bunch of these papers, and within no time, turns them into a paper pinwheel.
Narayan speaks of the days when he used to make flutes and shehnais. When I ask him if he had written about the measurements and calibration of the flutes, he smiles and says, “What will I gain by writing about this? This occupation is dying, anyway.”
The frail 60-year-old Narayan undertook toy making to make ends meet after his ancestral occupation began to fade away.
He belongs to the Valhar caste — the traditional flute and shehnai players.
Every day, he starts his work at 8 in the morning, which goes on for ten hours. On an average, he manages to earn Rs 300 daily.
Narayan doesn’t need an introduction. He asks me to carefully observe his origami skills and folds a piece of paper several times — I lost the count of it because of his speed. After making as many as 64 creases in the paper, he starts folding it. “This is a peacock,” he says, smiling. “I don’t have other colours to make it more attractive.”
He doesn’t refer to any origami books. “I never went to school because I was always travelling with my father and grandfather,” he says. He shows me a simple toy comprised of two sticks and a little wrestler; pressing the two sticks makes the wrestler jump. He calls it ‘pehelwan’.
Narayan’s father, the late Tukaram, was a renowned flute and shehnai player. At the age of 12, Narayan would travel across villages with his father and grandfather and watch them play. They would cycle hundreds of kilometers to the villages of the Belgaum district in Karnataka, and Kolhapur and Sangli in Maharashtra. “I would dance then,” he recollects with a wide grin.
Soon, he learned the art form but performed it for less than two years. With the rise of bands and orchestras, people stopped calling the traditional Valhar singers. “I gave up the ancestral occupation,” he says, “No one values our traditional art.”
In the early 70s, the performers were paid Rs 100 for 12 hours of performance. In their free time, they started crafting flutes and shehnais to make ends meet — a skill that Narayan picked up soon. Meanwhile, his mother worked as an agricultural labourer in the Bolavi village of Maharashtra’s Kagal taluka in the Kolhapur district.
Around 30 Valhar families (150 people) stay in the Manakapur village, and none of them practice the traditional art form now, estimates Narayan. Only three artists play the instruments, and they get this chance only once each year. The other members of the community have joined music groups in the nearby towns and cities of Ichalkaranji and Kolhapur in Maharashtra. A lot of them now work as masons, agricultural labourers, and industry workers to make ends meet. “There is no [government] support for poor people. What can we do? Everyone needs some money to survive,” he says.
He says that the art form became obsolete in this village three decades ago.
Many villagers from his birthplace Bolavi in Maharashtra have invited him to settle there for a year and play the shehnai. During religious festivals, weddings and other auspicious occasions, the Valhars would be invited to play. “They pay us Rs 5000 yearly, but I don’t go there because of this [toy making] work,” he says.
For the last two decades, he has been staying in the Manakapur village. 45 years ago, he started off by making a paper pinwheel but had to expand his skills to learn how to make innovative toys like the stick wrestler, toys that make sound, the damru, the dafli, and origami. Earlier, he would cycle hundreds of kilometers to the villages of Belgaum and Dharwad, districts in Karnataka and Kolhapur, Sangli, and Sindhudurg districts in Maharashtra to sell these toys. He had to abandon his cycle and resort to using state transport buses two years ago, because of old age.
Every week, he goes twice to the nearby Ichalkaranji town (10 kilometres from his village) to sell his toys. He’s a known face in all the nearby village melas now. On an average, he makes 6000 paper pinwheels in a month and sells them at Rs 10 per piece. “In the 1970s, I used to sell it for 50 paise,” he says, laughing.
Now, selling toys has become difficult because of the emergence of cheaper, machine-made counterparts. He gives a lot of his toys to ‘agents’ who travel to villages and sell them. “I have
to give them at least Rs 3 per pinwheel as commission,” he says.
At the age of 18, he worked as a barber for three months in the Nipani taluka of Karnataka’s Belgaum district, for which he got Rs 3 daily. “People used to pay chaarana [25 paise] for a haircut,” he says.
He takes an hour to handcraft each flute, and continues to use traditional equipment for the process. He travels all the way to the Ajra taluka in Maharashtra to buy the bamboo required to make the instrument.
“In one day, I manage to make six such flutes,” he says. He sells the children's’ flute, which is six inches long, for Rs 20. The ones used by professional artists are 18 inches long. “I charge Rs 500 for it, but people bring it down to Rs 250,” he says, adding that the demand for the shehnais is the least. “Only artists pay us a fair price because they understand the importance of musical equipment,” he says. He suffers from Hypermetropia now, which puts a strain on his eyes when he crafts the musical instruments.
Every year, he manages to get only five orders for the instrument. “Not many people use shehnai now,” he says sadly. Artists from Dharwad, Belgaum, Hubli in Karnataka, and the villages of Kolhapur are some of his shehnai customers. If maintained properly, the instrument can last for a decade, he says.
His wife Sushila, who is in her mid-40s, and his younger daughter Rekha, in her mid-30s, work as labourers in an industry in Ichalkaranji. Alka, his elder daughter, passed away 13 years ago. In her free time, Sushila helps Narayan to make toys. His grand-daughter, Neelam, 16, who dropped out after Class 10, also pitches in.
“Today, the younger generation doesn’t even take the flute and shehnai into their hands,” says Narayan. He doesn’t want to retire anytime soon. “It’s over if you stop; work until you can.”