Clusters have wonderful and rare skills, says toy designer Surabhi Khanna
Surabhi Khanna, 34, has a rather unique perspective on toys. Her mother Sulbha, a development consultant, would give her a bit of anything she was working with — a piece of cloth, some dough — to play and make her own toys with. Her father Sudharshan, a researcher and professor of toy design and traditional crafts at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, would tell her stories every night, of things he had read or experienced in the course of his day. “He would also bring back toys he had made or found. And I was always allowed to break them,” she says.
These exercises helped shape what Khanna does today. She’s a toy designer and researcher who works primarily in the area of product design, with a focus on toy, game and play design. She is also a professor of industrial design at NID Haryana and conducts workshops on modern designs for traditional toys. Excerpts form an interview:
What will it take to make sure all India’s traditional toy clusters survive?
I have noticed that turn wood toy clusters like Channapatna in Karnataka have been doing a little better than others. This is because independent designers have paid attention and have brought out new ranges of products. Other craft centres also have the potential; design intervention will bring it out. Traditional toy clusters also need financial support so they can concentrate on developing quality toys relevant to the contemporary scenario.
What would you say are the biggest challenges these clusters have faced?
Trends of playing. Clusters have wonderful and rare skills. Craftspersons have an innate understanding of their materials and mechanisms. Traditionally their themes related to mythology and everyday life. There is a need to create new stories too.
The demand-supply chain is also not in place. Hence the clusters are not able to sustain themselves as well, and the next generation of toy makers is sceptical about taking it up.
What would you say are the principles of a good toy?
A toy must make you curious. Its aesthetic (form, color, material) must make it attractive as well as safe, add some mystery, and balance ease of play with an associated challenge so that one plays for longer. That said, a toy is also like a person. Each toy has unique characteristics and no one toy can have it all. Hence any two of the characteristics above would make a toy interesting enough to be chosen to be played with.
What is your favourite toy?
The jigging (palm leaf) puppet of Orissa! I can play with it for hours! I also love the Thanjavur Dancing Doll. There are so many of these dancing characters!