The stone chariot was gorgeous. The Tungabhadra River — its banks strewn with boulders — looked as beautiful as it did in photographs. And a golden sunset on the ruins of Hampi, a place beloved of history buffs around the world, was stunning enough to hold my attention for the entire evening.
But there was something more that my heart was set on: A visit to Kinnal, a village that is two hours from Hampi by road. It wasn’t that I was yearning to see more villages in the area, pretty and serene as they are. Kinnal is the home of the eponymous wooden toys — mostly Hindu gods and goddesses — that I have grown up seeing in emporiums and people’s living rooms. The intricate carving on Hampi’s famous stone chariot, inside the Vittala Temple Complex, is said to be the work of Kinnal artisans of the Vijayanagar era.
Despite the Hampi connection, few in Hampi know the way to Kinnal. I relied on Google Maps for directions. The road was bumpy but the farmlands that lined both sides were lush and green. The first sight of Kinnal — a village with over 10,000 residents (according to Census reports) — is relatively free of signs of human activity. The strong overhead sun could be one of the reasons people were mostly indoors. A few queries later, the car rolled into a lane where toymakers were at work.
My first stop was at a rather rundown workshop, where 32-year-old Anand was giving shape to a female figurine. Outside the workshop, wooden logs were stacked against a wall. Without looking up from the object in his grubby palms, Anand informed us that he belonged to one of the 25 kshatriya families in Kinnal that still make toys. “I was trained by my father; my father learnt it from his father,” Anand said.
The lightweight poniki wood for the Kinnal toys comes from the nearby Gangavathi area. The wood is first soaked in water and dried, in order to make it lighter. And then starts the work of crafting deities and animals. Among the most commonly found Kinnal idols are Kamadhenu, Hanuman, Garuda, Shiv-Parvati and Ganesha. There are also figurines of men, women and children, apart from fruits and vegetables.
At another workshop, a few feet away from Anand’s, I met Savithri who was busy making a red adhesive-like paste applied to the wooden base of the toys. The red comes from the seeds of tamarind, which are mixed with sawdust and pieces of jute. Santosh, an artisan in his 20s, said that what he found most challenging was the chiselling of the face of the toys. “We have to get the right expression in the eyes; the shape of the nose and the mouth, too,” he said while applying chalk powder to whitewash a doll.
Ranging from a few centimetres to several feet in height, each Kinnala toy keeps an artisan busy for at least a week on average. A doll I picked up for my living room — about 1.5 ft tall and bright in red-and-green paint — set me back by ₹2,000. The larger dolls, used in temple festivities, are three times the size.
The money is barely enough to keep the artisans motivated, rued Ekappa (70). In this line for the last 48 years, Ekappa has trained many Kinnal youngsters in the art of making the toys. But he admitted that the returns were too small to hold the young back in the village or in the trade. “It involves a lot of hard work, and no art can survive without due recognition,” he said before returning to a group of dolls waiting for a coat of paint (a combination of water colours and the extract of seeds, fruits and leaves).
What Ekappa finds most awkward is the haggling that precedes every purchase. “People like to bargain because they don’t see the long hours of work that go into the making of a doll the size of your palm,” he said. It is not uncommon for tourists and collectors to leave the village without buying a single toy. Like him, most of the other toymakers in the village work on toys only after a buyer confirms orders.
The price I paid for the doll I took home may not have made a difference to the plight of these artisans, but there was a tinge of satisfaction as I drove back to Hampi that evening. If nothing else, I had spared the elderly artisan the unpleasantness of settling for a price that didn’t do justice to the heritage he was struggling to preserve.
Bindu Gopal Rao is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru