It was no less than the Nizam, the ruler of Hyderabad, that the toy-makers of Nirmal had caught by surprise.
The fifth Nizam, Afzal-ud-Dowla, ascended the throne in 1857, when India’s first war of independence was being fought up north. On his first visit to Nirmal soon after coronation, the toy-makers created a huge wooden banana bud with gold-coloured petals and had it placed above the throne.
As the Nizam took his seat, the banana bud unfolded, showering the petals on him. For the next one hundred years, the Nizams showered patronage on the toy-makers.
But that ended more than 60 years ago, with the Nizams losing their throne. Now, the art of giving life to wooden figurines that had originated sometime in the 14th century in this small town, 210 km north of Hyderabad, is in crisis.
The industry is struggling with only about a dozen artisans still clinging to their trade. Meet R. Narsaiah, well past 70. For 55 years, he has been squatting on the same floor and using the same chisels to give shape to the same toys.
But Narsaiah said, “Both my sons have joined government service. This is hard work, and not much paying.”
Typically, the toys range from Rs. 15 to 5,000. Some specially commissioned ones can go up to Rs. 25,000.
The art began with figurines from Hindu mythology. Later, the range expanded to birds, animals, fruits and vegetables. Mobile stands and key chains were added later to remain relevant.
But the craft is fast losing its visibility, as one can buy the toys only at Nirmal, where the Nirmal Toys and Arts Co-op Society has its only sales outlet. Earlier, however, the toys were available at all branches of Lepakshi, state handicrafts emporium.
The threats were perceived as long back as in 1955, when 50 artisan families formed the society. Earlier this year, Nirmal toys secured geographical indication status that will help save the toys from copycats.
A Lepakshi official, who refused to be identified, said, “The society has stopped sending us toys for more than a year now.” Clarified D.C. Poshetty, 65, president of the society: “They demand credit that rolls on to months and even to years.”
The society makes an annual profit of a mere Rs. 1-1.5 lakh on a turnover of Rs. 35 lakh. Even middlemen, who generally prey on traditional trades, don’t find it lucrative.
The real threats lie elsewhere, though. During the past 10 years, not a single new person has joined the trade, as one can’t make more than Rs. 150-200 a day after putting in 12 hours of work.
“If I am approached, I would ensure Lepakshi pay for the toys in cash and not insist on credit,” said V. Venkatramaiah, managing director of AP Handicrafts Development Corporation.