Cubby and the disappearing toymakers

Updated: Apr 30, 2019, 05:43 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

How can one toymaker support a family of five on Rs 15,000, put two kids through school, and still stay true to his craft?

Cubby is the star of the show, easily selling about 2,200 units a year for Rs 565 eac
Cubby is the star of the show, easily selling about 2,200 units a year for Rs 565 eac

C Y GopinathCubby is a multi-coloured bear about six inches high. He comes in a bio-degradable cardboard box and is made from hale (pronounced ha-lay) wood, a tinder stock which grows wild in parts of Karnataka. He really is most at home with children one to two years old; they take him apart, ring by ring, till all you have is a bear head on a pole. Then they put the rings back. Again and again.

Cubby is really popular outside India, with fans in Japan, the USA, Germany, and the UK. Kids love the clean primary colours and the smooth lac finish is like satin to their fingers. Cubby is completely cute and literally edible — hale wood requires no chemical treatment; it gets seasoned by sunlight.

The colours are all non-toxic, all-natural vegetable dyes. Maya Organic, the NGO behind the bear, is a member of the World Fair Trade Organization and very conscious about staying sustainable and delivering high quality.

Cubby is one of the dozens of toys and lacware products made by the 30 or so workers at Maya Organic's little factory in Channapatna, about 1.5 hours drive from Bengaluru. He's the star of the show, easily selling about 2,200 units a year for R565 each.

The R12.5 lakh Cubby brings in might be a big deal for a little bear, but Maya Organic, trying to secure the best livelihood they can for the artisans, is barely staying afloat.
Mubarak Pasha, 30, a toymaker with Maya Organic, could push out about 75 Cubbies a month, worth a little over R42,000, if he did nothing else.

The NGO, focused on creating a reliable income for artisans like him, assures him a take-home salary of Rs 15,000, but it's unlikely he'll be earning more than that anytime soon.
I am instantly all ears. This is the heartland of crushing poverty, and I am in the presence of people for whom living every day on a knife's edge is normal reality. One wage-earner's death, a single cancer, a bad storm or a road accident would collapse their lives like a house of cards.

There are four faces in front of me in this brightly painted, tubelit room — Mubarak, his father, wife and recently married sister. A 6-month-old is caterwauling nearby. Two other children, 9 and 7, are brought in, strike shy poses, and leave.

How do you feed seven people on Rs 15,000, sending two of them to school, ensure nutritious food for a newborn and a respectable marriage for two sisters? How do other toymakers manage?

They don't. Nearly every toy-making family here is devastated by deep debt. No one wants to send their children to a government school, which are described as bereft, barren places with disinterested teachers and hardly any children. But keeping a child in a private school could easily cost R20,000 a year. Or R40,000 if, like Mubarak, you have two children.

Already drowning in rising water, the artisan's next stop is the money lender. Mubarak chose to send his children to the desolate government school — but only because they needed the moneylender's loan to provide decent weddings for his two sisters.

The interest rates are merciless — the Pasha family pays R5,000 each month on every lakh rupees. Oh, and the loan may not be repaid in instalments, so they must keep shelling out R5K until they've saved R1 lakh out of the wretched R15,000 they can barely survive on.

A highway sign screams Welcome to Channapatna, India's Toy Town, as you enter. Whatever you imagine a toy town should look like, Channapatna will let you down. There is no toy museum, no toy street, no giant toys in the public square. It might dawn on you that there are hardly any toymakers.

Nasir, a lacware master craftsman who left the profession to sell crockery instead, estimates that there might not be more than 700 or so people still left making toys in Channapatna. That number was estimated to be 6,000 back in 2006. Today, they're rolling beedis, driving autos, keeping accounts. You would not believe that these artisans were torchbearers of a tradition started by Tippu Sultan, who brought in master craftsmen from Persia to train local craftsmen. The World Trade Organization protects Channapatna's toymaking as a GI (geographical indication).

Except that with the toymakers disappearing, by 2000, India's toy town may well be no more than a ghost town where colours once danced and children squealed with joy.
You can buy your child a Cubby here — https://mayaorganic.com/shop/1-2-years/cubby/

Or buy three. You'll be giving another toymaker a reason not to go wash dishes in a restaurant.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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