The art of saving craft
‘Lattu’ focuses on a unique but dying craft of Varanasi — wooden toys — by thinking up new applications for the talent of artisans without compromising technique or quality and creating new markets, writes Aditi Phadnis
The colours are jewel-like and glow brilliantly. There is not a child who will not reach out longingly to the tops, miniature utensils, dolls and other wooden toys made by the craftsmen of Varanasi. Kaushiki Agrawal has set out to revive this dying art to make the craft available to other cities in India and abroad through her business called ‘Lattu’ (spinning top in Hindi). Lattu is an effort to save a craft, use the talent of the artisans to create new products and take these products to the rest of India.
“I always had an inclination towards art and craft and being from Varanasi, the Varanasi wooden toys were the closest to my heart. Owing to my parents’ insistence, I finished my MBA and soon after, chanced upon a larger project that was striving to uplift the entire woodcraft industry. I personally researched over a 150 artisan families, met some excellent craftsmen, a few of whom were willing to try something new with the craft. That is what got me started” she said about a town best known for its temples and its silk. Agrawal says the artisans made wooden toys and showpieces which didn’t have much of a market and their craft hadn’t evolved enough with time. “I decided to get together with the artisans to design new products that can be used in our contemporary daily lives and that would quickly build demand in the market, thereby increasing their livelihood” she said. The idea was to add utility to the craft, giving it a new life and the artisans a new sense of pride in their work. “And that’s how Lattu began” she said.
How do you preserve a craft? By reinventing its applications. Without changing the techniques of a craft that has been refined and perfected for over 2,000 years — wooden toys are made as ‘ prasad’ for the Gods in Varanasi: It is usual to include them as an offering, especially in functions such as weddings — Agrawal sat with them, watched them do what they do best and tried to find basic products from everyday lives that could be made or embellished with their craft. “We are constantly improving our products and making sure that while the craft gets its due and looks attractive, the functionality of the product is not compromised” she said.
“Woodcraft was essentially a means of story telling. The craftsmen made wooden dolls representing the culture of the society then, miniature versions of their everyday tools and utensils for children to play with. There is also a fair amount of religious influence in the form of small dolls made of characters from the Mahabharat and the Ramayan. Over time they also started to make dolls to recreate the scene of the birth of Christ” she explained.
Using the same toy making techniques, Lattu enabled the artisans to make napkinholders, pencil tops, cake stands and more and sold at exhibitions in Mumbai, Chandigarh, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. “I was fortunate to get an interest free loan from my father so didn’t have to struggle when it came to raising capital. I was delighted that Lattu was able to repay that in less than a year of being in operation” she said.
Agrawal says that although no one from the Prime Minister’s secretariat in Varanasi has reached out to her, the city, being his constituency has brought more focus and resources to Varanasi and that has kick-started a start-up revolution centred around cultural tourism, backpacker hostels, heritage walks, activities on the ghats and so on. “The city always had a lot of tourists in the form of pilgrims but now it is bubbling with a new age of tourists and a dynamic young zeal”.
She sees her intervention as one way to prevent the craft from dying out, because it is becoming harder and harder to survive. “Electricity supply is getting better but that seems to be the biggest challenge. The numerous levels of middlemen increases the gap between what the customer pays and what the creator is paid for his craftsmanship. That results in lower incomes and fewer people from every following generation staying with the craft” she says. She is trying to include more art forms into the Lattu fold, like artists working with Moonjh grass to expand their expertise and grow their income.
LOVE FOR ARTKaushiki Agrawal (left) is trying to include more art forms into the ‘Lattu’ fold, like artists working with Moonjh grass to expand their expertise and grow their income; (Top) A set of utensils made by crafstmen in Varanasi