Did you know that animals, birds, reptiles and humans learn the lessons of life through play? Any object can be used as a toy. Lion cubs even play with their parent’s tail! Human children play with objects of daily life, like spoons and cardboard boxes. But toys remain the favourite playthings of most children.

In India, the oldest toys belong to the 5000 year-old Harappan civilisation. These toys were made with natural materials like clay, wood and stone. They depicted ordinary men, women, animals, birds, fruits and vegetables as well as the important professionals who existed in those times – the potter, carpenter and farmer, among others. And these ancient toys are surprisingly similar to the handmade toys of a later date.

Many regions in India specialise in making toys. In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh for instance, the names of places such as Kondapalli, Nirmal, Ettikoppakka and Tirupati, are associated with wooden toys crafted with great style. A peep into the world of Kondapalli toys.

Magic of Kondapalli Toys
Magic of Kondapalli Toys [Illustration by Shinod AP]

Note the image of toys on the right. Don’t the figures give an impression of lifelike charm, like they are little people ready to jump out of the page any minute? Welcome to the world of Kondapalli toys.

Kondapalli toys are made in and around Kondapalli, a little village in the Vijayawada district of Andhra Pradesh. The traditional craftsmen who make the famed toys are called Aryakshatriyas. The toys are made at home and the work involves the entire family. This traditional art form has been handed down from one generation to another. It continues to be the main livelihood of the people of Kondapalli.

The craftsmen specialise in themes taken from their immediate surroundings. Scenes from rural life are carved and made into sets of various sizes.

How are they made?
Although it is difficult to infuse life into small blocks of wood, the Kondapalli toys are exceptions. They are very lively. Every small detail, including the appearance of the face, is looked into and carefully carved.

Making these toys is no child’s play. It takes a very long time to fashion each one. The toys are made out of the locally-available soft Puniki wood, which is easy to carve. It is subjected to a process of slow heating, to draw out all the moisture. The limbs are carved separately and later joined to the body.

The glue used consists mainly of paste made from tamarind seeds. The brushes used to colour the toys are very fine and sharp, made of goat’s hair. Both watercolours and oil paints are used to paint. The carving tools used are drill, hammer, axe, bagudari, aakrai (file) and chisels for finer work.

From Mythology to Animals!
Mythology, rural life and animals are the main themes on which the toys are made. Swans, peacocks and parrots are popular themes too, as are slice-of-life themes: women drawing water from a well, snake charmers, elephant with a mahout (trainer) on its back, potters, etc. Mythological figures are great favourites. Lord Krishna, the playful God, is shown playing the flute with a cow listening on.

Kondapalli toys bring colour and joy. They create awareness about rural life and folklore through play. Can you think of a better way to learn about the richness of Indian mythology?

In these days of mass-produced Barbie dolls, these beautiful folk toys are a reminder that each one, made by hand and so painstakingly, is unique – and it creates a beautiful connection with the world around for the child.