Feature story

Toy story shining

The villagers of Kondapalli in rural Andhra Pradesh have found a new way to preserve their centuries-old tradition and enhance their incomes by selling toys online

Striking colours and vibrant hues are part and parcel of Panuganti Lalitha Kumari’s everyday work routine, and now there is a bit more of both in her life as well.

The 48-year-old from Kondapalli village in Andhra Pradesh’s Krishna district is a toymaker, one of few keeping alive a 400-year-old tradition of making wooden toys by hand. The reason for her cheer is simply down to her self-help group (SHG) securing an additional source of income from their undervalued craft.

Ms Lalitha’s SHG has just received orders for toys worth 28,000. The figure may seem meagre but the route it has come through — by way of an e-commerce site — and the potential for further gains this points to are no small comfort, for the artisans involved in the endeavour.  

What Ms Lalitha and her toymaker mates are up against sets the context for their struggle to stay afloat. The influx of modern, mainly plastic toys from abroad, especially from China, has sounded the death knell for artisan communities in India that craft handmade toys. These people needed support and that has now been forthcoming.

P Satyanarayana with a village scene; Kondapalli toys often depict Hindu mythological figures or rural life
P Satyanarayana with a village scene; Kondapalli toys often depict Hindu mythological figures or rural life

The Andhra Pradesh government has backed the Kondapalli toymakers by granting their unique craft a GI (geographical indication) tag. That was encouraging but far from enough. Things got better two years back when an e-commerce platform — launched by the Tata Trusts in association with the Andhra Pradesh government’s Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) — began providing a more fruitful avenue for the artisans to enhance their income.

Launched in December 2018, the eBharathi platform aims to empower rural entrepreneurs by facilitating access to online markets and developing sustainable sources of income. “Our objective was to create a scalable and sustainable model that enables SHGs to list their products online and maximise sales,” says Yogeeshwar Reddy, a programme officer with the Trusts.

Connecting rural entrepreneurship and the handicrafts sector, which employs nearly seven million people in India, made sense. The eBharathi platform has shown why by delivering multiple benefits. It has enabled local artisans to explore newer markets, helped break the stranglehold of manipulative middlemen, and increased the visibility of handcrafted products.

The handicrafts and handloom offerings on the platform are marked by high levels of skill, attention to detail and originality. These have fuelled demand but not enough to benefit the artisans to any great extent. A big problem here is access to markets.

Maker as seller

For centuries, Kondapalli’s artisans have relied on intermediaries, more often than not large shop owners in their village, to sell their handicrafts. This saved the artisans the hassle of finding buyers or vending their wares. It also left them open to exploitation. The shop owners purchase the toys at very low prices and sell these for much more, in Kondapalli itself and in places such as Hyderabad and Bengaluru.

The other challenge has been developing scale. Kondapalli toys are made by individual artisan families in which young and the old work together. Collaboration with other families is rare and that, while fostering creativity, put a lid on scale and volumes, resulting in disadvantages in marketing. Mobilising the artisans through SHGs has been the chosen way to get around the handicap.

The power of the collective has ensured better pricing for the toys and the market linkage part has been eased by the e-commerce site, which has provided an open and transparent sales channel. Getting Kondapalli’s artisans to embrace the e-platform idea has been a challenge, though, and that is where the Tata Trusts team has had to bring its rural entrepreneurship experience to bear.

Training was a key element, with the SHGs being educated on various aspects of digital selling and more. They were taught about pricing, packaging, labelling, branding and promotion. Towards this end, Hyderabad-based Kalgudi, a network interaction platform with experience in collaborative rural e-commerce models, was roped in as technical consultant.

Technology proved to be a daunting challenge for the Kondapalli artisans, many of whom are illiterate and lack knowledge about smartphones, a prerequisite to access e-commerce platforms such as eBharathi. Kalgudi stepped up with help here, setting up an SMS-based communication mechanism to ensure that artisans using lower-end mobile phones did not miss out on sales orders.

The efforts have paid off over time. Ms Lalitha and her SHG mates now list their products on eBharathi and, most recently, they received 38 orders. The eBharathi platform has helped the artisans access new markets in Bengaluru and Hyderabad and also in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. There are now three Kondapalli SHGs that sell online.

As with communities around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have affected the lives of Kondapalli’s artisans. Sales stopped completely in compliance with government guidelines but the easing of restrictions has seen normal service resume, with the platform receiving orders ranging between 10,000 and 15,000 every day.

The eBharathi platform has helped artisans like Pushpa Gade augment their income and preserve their craft
The eBharathi platform has helped artisans like Pushpa Gade augment their income and preserve their craft

Handy skills

Pushpa Gade’s home in Kondapalli is filled with toys, all of them of her family’s making. Many of these represent Hindu mythological characters and there are also animals, birds, depictions of rural life and dancing figures. Enough, in fact, to drive a child — and a few adults, maybe — to distraction.

Kondapalli toys are an integral part of the Dusshera and Sankranthi festivals in Andhra Pradesh. Rows upon rows of these toys are ceremoniously displayed as part of the celebrations (called Bommala Kollu).

What stays hidden is the effort that goes into making such finely crafted products.

The crafting of toys is a family business in Kondapalli. Men handle the woodcutting and carving. The more delicate aspects of the process are the preserve of women. The skills needed for the task are handed down from generation to generation, and the schooling begins at a young age. Ms Gade, for instance, began making toys at age seven. “Special toys need small fingers to carve and craft,” she explains.

The toys are made from a soft wood known as Tella Poniki. Large blocks of it are carved into rough shapes and each part of the toy is then crafted separately. The pieces are assembled using makku (a paste made of tamarind seed powder and sawdust).

The next step involves colouring with oil, water colours or vegetable dyes. The colours come almost entirely from natural materials: yellow from dried marigolds, deep red from pomegranates and peach from palm leaves. Some artisans use enamel paints to make the colours more intense.

Despite the hardships involved and the challenges of finding a fair price for their products, the artisans remain passionate about preserving the centuries-old craft. “It would be a shame if we allowed this tradition to die. We have to preserve it at any cost,” says Panuganti Lalitha Kumari, a Kondapalli artisan who is part of a self-help group.

Programmed for benefits

It’s not just the Kondapalli artisans that have benefitted through eBharathi. The platform serves as a sales avenue for a spectrum of Andhra Pradesh’s small entrepreneurs. Among the products marketed through it are Atreyapuram Pootharekulu (a sweet delicacy), traditional woven sarees, Kalamkari hand-dyed paintings and showpieces crafted from Etikoppaka wood.

The platform has generated more than 4 million in sales through over 1,900 online orders for handicraft and handloom artisans. And the success has been noticed (the Odisha government plans to launch a similar platform, to be called Mission Shakti, to improve the lives and incomes of the state’s artisans).

The story of eBharathi shows how technology can change the lives of India’s artisans for the better, while helping preserve the country’s rich legacy of handicrafts. For Kondapalli’s toymakers, the takeaway is less lofty and a lot more immediate — their skills, and they themselves, have found a way to survive.

G Kannamma assembles toys at her home; Kondapalli toymaking is a family activity in which the young and the old participate
G Kannamma assembles toys at her home; Kondapalli toymaking is a family activity in which the young and the old participate