“Stories from Channapatna”

A Chettinad boy, Karthik Vaidyanathan is excitedly reviving their 200 year old toy-craft with VARNAM- a social enterprise that works with the Channapatna artisans to create lifestyle products, jewellry & toys.

This traditional craft was originally brought to India by Persian King Tipu Sultan in the 18th century. Varnam smartly imbibes the buzzwords of the 21st century- eco-friendly and sustainable, for it’s practical and aesthetically trendy products. Their lac-turnery uses natural resin secreted by a microscopic tiny insect, ‘laccifer lacca’ and moulded out of ‘wrightia tinctoria’ wood which is locally cultivated and known for its medicinal qualities. Being socially proactive they have employed the local women who are mainly self-taught despite being in the pre-dominantly male industry.

Wanted to know few stories behind the products…….

Since this craft is associated with toys, and most toys find inspiration in the everyday birds and animals as seen in our product collections e.g. the “Kuruvi’ collection which is inspired from the little sparrows, the cat-n-mouse series of pen stands, bookends and paper-towel holders. And the more recent ‘Oinkston series of tableware’ that is inspired from the piggy bank has won us the CII Design Excellence Award 2013.

What has your childhood been like?

Like any other normal one, I was born and brought up in Mumbai. We didn’t have the lure of internet and satellite television then. Hence life was, I think, far more interesting. We would indulge in healthy competitive plays with kids from neighbouring societies or create games based on popular TV serials like Star Trek. Play, then, was far more imaginative and fun than for the children today whose lives seem to be more centered around learning ‘activities’. Holidays were at my maternal hometown in Chettinad, Tamil Nadu, while spending idyllic time with several cousins.

What were your favourite childhood games and toys?

As children we indulged in very sporty games like Kabbadi, Dodge ball, Lagori or ‘seven stone’ as it was called. In the village there were more traditional games. Coming from a middle class family our access to branded toys was very limited, I guess that’s what reflects in the kind of toys that I design…. simple push and pull toys that inspire kids to create a fantasy world of their own and indulge in plain fun.

How do you plan to cultivate your clientele?

My attempt had been to do design products with an utilitarian value that appeals to my senses. Hopefully my sincerity will attract enough people who can identify with it. There is no conscious effort to cultivate a clientele. It just happens as I guess people identify with the imaginative work being done with this craft and they can see through my passion.

Your reasons for reviving the craft other than providing work for the artisans?

The work that I do at Varnam gives me a chance to explore my creative side which keeps me sane; and the fact that it supports a dying craft while providing sustainability to the artisans in Channapatna since the past two years now, is an added bonus.

Channapatna’s traditional toy craft is protected as a geographical indication (GI) under World Trade Organization, administered by the Government of Karnataka. The lack of innovative design and an influx of cheap imitations limited this crafts’s product appeal, earlier. Varnam’s attempt has been to enhance the sense of pride amongst the skillful master craftsmen and ensure this craft’s continuity by becoming a Fair Trade Associate; so they don’t leave their traditional crafts for industry/factory ‘jobs’. All proceeds from our sales is routed back to designing and funding more products from these artisans. 

Your reasons of shifting careers after working for big companies like Sony Music, Worldspace Satellite Radio, Radio City?

I have always wanted to be associated with design and crafts. I believe there is a time and a place for everything. And one must look at reinventing oneself time and again. After a point I did not feel the need to live the busy corporate life. My reasons to work went far beyond the usual financial ones and hence Varnam happened, gradually… step by step. I still have one foot in the corporate world so that my basic needs are met for as it gives me the freedom to be true to the craft and not run it for commercial reasons alone.

How do you plan to expand in terms of variety?

The product range at Varnam explores all areas of possible product design from lighting & home accents to toys & jewellery. The idea is to keep creating interesting and functional products within this realm. The very fact that our products have been winners of two Blue Elephants at the prestigious Kyoorius D-AD Design Awards and the CII, proves that we are headed in the right direction.

Varnam is also certified by Craftmark, which is initiated by All India Artisans Welfare Association (AIACA) that endorses authentic handmade products with a reassurance of quality and integrity.

   “Persistence. Perfection. Patience. Power. Prioritize your passion. It keeps you sane.”  – Criss Jami




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