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Innovative traditional toys, July 2002

When one goes looking for a book or a toy for a child, one often ends up buying slickly-made exorbitantly priced, imported stuff. But the price of pears or cherries that the book carries may make little sense in our cultural context. The easily available Indian alternative in the neighbourhood shop is more often than not disappointing, with the pictures of pineapples, mangoes and bananas uniformly painted on a virulent shade of orange! The toys often have sharp edges and are made of suspicious-looking plastic material. Though the flood of well-made and yet reasonably-priced Chinese toys have changed the complexion of the toy market to an extent, there are really few alternatives if one is looking for non-electronic toys.

This is where an organization like Sutradhar steps in. With its outlet and documentation cell in Indira Nagar in Bangalore, the non-profit organization, supported by CRY, offers a unique range of toys, games and teaching aids put together from various sources. Sutradhar grew out of the need to respond to the dearth of innovative educational material on the one hand, and the wealth of such material that lay scattered across the country. Its efforts are focused at distilling the best of these innovations and showcasing them under one roof.

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The large crowds that Sutradhar’s annual exhibition-cum-sale managed to draw was proof of the demand for alternatives. It was a virtual stampede, with children and adults alike craning their necks and elbowing each other to reach out for the adorable coiled snake made of cloth or the beautifully crafted puzzle made of wood.

There was a larger crowd for the toy-making demonstration. For those who could find their way through the crowd, a trip around the exhibition proved a delightful experience. Ranging from string beads that aid a child in developing hand-eye co-ordination and acquaint a child with shapes and colours and to specially designed science experiment kits for school-goers, the range was indeed vast. One came across particularly interesting items such as a toy loom that teaches a child the basics of weaving, or the clay cart that moved with a clanking noise, bringing to one’s mind the contraption that the toy-seller (played by Sandhya) uses in the Shantaram classic, ‘Do Ankhen Barah Haath’! There were two versions of the traditional game Alaguli Mane, quite unrecognizable in its polished avatar, accompanied by an instruction manual in English. While one was shaped like a fish, the other was a foldable version. In these, shiny, plastic beads took the place of traditional tamarind seeds. How good is the market for such a game, a relic from a grandmother’s era? The volunteer manning the counter said: ‘A lot of people are interested because it is a traditional game.’

It was the stuffed toys section that was by far the most popular, with coiled snakes, elephants, fish of different shapes having kids throng around the table. The Humpty-Dumpty toy seemed a particular favourite with many kids. The books section had major publishers—such as National Book Trust, Scholastic, Kali, Tara and Tulika—displaying a range for both children and teachers. One found attractive books such as ‘Hensparrow Turns Purple’ by Geeta Wolf, made to resemble a traditional scroll, using hand-made paper and miniature paintings.

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But how does a venture such as Sutradhar sustain itself in the larger toy market? Mandira Kumar, the Director of Sutradhar says: ‘We differ in the quality of interpretation we offer. We are more a centre for educational resources, rather than just a toy store.’

The staff has a background in human development and can guide the parent of a differently-abled child, a teacher from a rural school or a person with limited purchasing power to find things suited for his or her needs, she adds. ‘Sutradhar is more a service-oriented initiative,’ Mandira says. A project on developing an early learning kit with 13 items, for anganwadis, has already been field tested.

In the exhibition-cum-sale, quiet predictably, it was the Kannada book section that drew the least crowd. It strikes one as an irony that indigenous ventures tend to end up having a rather elitist reach—those who have a penchant for the ‘ethnic’ and the ‘politically correct’. Mandira says that it is a pitfall one consistently battles against. She explains that the enterprise of making a traditional toy accessible a larger public, outside its location, is a difficult task. Balancing the economics, quality and cultural resonance is indeed a tricky task. Says Mandira: ‘No one has been able to resolve this issue comfortably.’

Bageshree
The Hindu, July 2002

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