Sawantwadi’s Traditional Handmade Toys Struggle for Survival

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Shashikant Rane with his wooden fruits. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Shashikant Rane with his wooden fruits. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

PUNE, Jun 14 2024 (IPS) – Sawantwadi in Maharashtra, on the western coast of India, bordering Goa, has always been known for its wooden toys. A picturesque town amid hills and lush greenery, Sawantwadi retains an old-world charm to this day.  The regal Sawantwadi Palace holds pride of place, with colleges, schools, and temples cloistered around the periphery of the lake, which was once an extension of the royal grounds.  In the centre of the town is the Ubha Bazaar, or Hanging Market, which houses rows of shops selling the iconic wooden toys that are a hallmark of Sawantwadi.

The wooden toys of Sawantwadi are a legacy that the previous rulers nurtured, and they reflect the spirit of the area. Generations of children in Maharashtra and Goa have grown up playing with the life-like depictions of fruits, people, and the pull-along toys that were a necessary part of growing up. But today, these painstakingly carved, hand-made toys made of Pongamia and mango wood are struggling for survival. The once-bustling hilltop market in downtown Sawantwadi, known as Ubha Bazaar (Hanging Market), is now a ghost of what it once was. The artisan families who manufactured and sold these toys from their workshops-cum-homes are now reduced to a handful.

So, what caused the busy hands of these artisans to fall silent?

By the looks of it, several factors are responsible.

Female musicians in concert. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Female musicians in concert. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS


Unlike the cheap machine-made toys that flood the market today, toys are a traditional craft in India, commanding a hoary lineage from the era of the Indus Valley civilization. Like many other centers in India, Sawantwadi always boasted gifted artisans capable of painstakingly breathing life into wood and carving out an array of life-like figures inspired by everyday life. Over the decades, the life-like depiction of fruits and vegetables was always been a specialty of Sawantwadi craftsmen. Of course, there were other toys too, for every age group of children: pull-along toys for toddlers, kitchen sets for little girls, bullock carts and other vehicles for bigger children, as well as spoons, cutters, and ladles used in the kitchen. What always made these toys stand out was the environment-friendly techniques and colors that were used to produce them.

Toy-making in Sawantwadi had its origins in the arrival of  Telangana Brahmins in the 17th century, who visited the kingdom to take part in religious debates with the then ruler, Khem Sawant II, who was extremely well-versed in Hindu religious scriptures and philosophy. The Chitrali artisans who arrived with the Brahmins brought the craft of toy-making and ganjifa (playing cards) to Sawantwadi.

Ideally suited to the greenery and scenic landscape of Sawantwadi, toy-making here made use of Pongamia and mango wood, which thrived in the thick forests here. The wood used for the toys would be collected in the summer and, after being washed and dried, left out to get thoroughly soaked during the entire monsoon. After thorough drying, they would be carved as per the desired shape. Once the toys were carved out, they would be covered with five layers of earth and left aside for a certain period of time. The lathe would then be used in this stage to impart the desired shape and finish. They would be painted with a powdery mixture made of tamarind and other seeds once dusted off and smoothed with sandpaper. After applying several coats of paint, a coat of lacquer and natural gum would add the finishing touches.  To this day, the lacquer used in Sawantwadi toys is their special feature. It is durable and never fades or chips away, no matter how roughly the toys are used. When toy-making was on the verge of fading out at one point in time, the local royal family gave it an impetus in the early 1970s. Primarily responsible for this shot in the arm were the Queen, Maharani Satvashila Devi and her husband, the reigning king, Rajesaheb Khem Sawant VI, Lt Colonel Shivram Sawant Bhonsale. The reigning royal family also set up a workshop to make hand-painted ganjifa cards at the palace, which is functional to this day.

Sawantwadi Palace grounds. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Sawantwadi Palace grounds. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Difficulties in Procuring Inputs

Historically, Sawantwadi was a vassal state of the mighty Maratha empire. When the British defeated the Marathas, Sawantwadi continued to exist as a small principality with a benign ruler during the British Raj.  The erstwhile British Resident’s home in downtown Sawantwadi, at a stone’s throw from the Palace, testifies to those bygone days. The early years of the 20th century saw Sawantwadi thrive in matters of education and culture, with the rulers also making efforts to nurture traditional crafts and artisans.

In recent times, however, deforestation has made it difficult to get adequate supplies of pangara (Pongamia) wood, while mango is not suitable for products that need the lathe machine.  Artisans have now turned to Acacia, Shivan (Gmelina Arborea) and Glyricidea, compromising on the quality of the toys.  Glyricidea has particularly emerged as a favorite, notwithstanding its being environmentally unsound and causing rats to overrun homes.

Lack of skilled artisans

The painstaking nature of the job, the difficulties in procuring wood and other inputs, and an uncertain market that cannot guarantee earnings in keeping with the efforts put in have resulted in many skilled artisans moving out of the industry and opting for employment elsewhere.  Industrialization in the neighboring districts has also been a big draw, while government initiatives to train young artisans in wood carving have been lackadaisical at best.

Very few can carve wood now, unlike in the past. So, instead of carving out a toy, the prevailing trend is to fill up sawdust into ready moulds. This also helps keep costs low and is not labour-intensive.  Shashikant Rane, one of the very few remaining master craftsmen in Sawantwadi, who the government approached about opening a Hastkala (handicrafts) Kendra (centre), tells me, “I entered the profession in the early 1960s, thanks to my father, who had received special training from Abha Gawde, a well-known master in the craft. Traditional toy-making requires a great deal of patience, starting with the procurement of the right wood. You procure the wood in May but cannot work on it until a few months later. In these times of quick turnarounds and massive profits, few are willing to put in the effort,” he points out.

Rane has been training 30 youngsters in the craft every year at his modest workshop-cum-home and is a much sought-after craftsman for prominent projects all over India. Referring to the government’s lackadaisical approach to training artisans, Rane tells me,  “The Minister-In-Charge had identified the venue for setting up the Hastkala Kendra and spoken to me about his vision at length.  But it is over a year now, and the plan still awaits finalization.”

Unfair Competition and Dwindling Demand

There are other factors, too. Cheap Chinese machine-made toys have also made consumers move away from these beautiful, hand-carved toys, which, owing to rising input costs, sell at higher rates. One also perceives a change in taste. P D Kanekar and Company, a prominent seller of toys in Sawantwadi, has moved to manufacture non-traditional toys in recent years.  Ankita Kanekar, from the Kanekar family, tells me, “Pangara (Pongamia) wood was always used to make life-like fruits and vegetables in the past. But no one is interested in playing with those now, unlike the previous generation.  Pangara trees are only available in a few villages now. Besides, a single set takes around one and a half months to be made. The work is painstaking and exacting, and the return is very little. There are very few good artisans practicing the trade.”

She also blames the current transport infrastructure for dwindling sales. “Earlier, the road links from Mumbai and Pune passed through Sawantwadi. But the highways now skirt our town.”

Changing tastes are evident when one browses through the shops today. Imitations of machine-made toys hold pride of place as compared to the artistic depictions of musicians, vegetable -sellers, or fishermen in traditional attire. It is tough to spot a bunch of bananas or betelnuts either.

Lack of government support is another major factor.

The active support of the ruling royal family had bolstered the toy industry in the previous century. This kind of support is no longer forthcoming. The lack of a strong toymakers’ cooperative or guild is also partly to blame. “There is no unity among the various people in the trade to negotiate in one voice with the authorities and demand guarantees or protective subsidies,” rues a prominent toymaker, requesting anonymity.

Consequently, Sawantwadi toys were devoid of geographic identification (GI) until now.

Light at the End of a Tunnel

As I write this, toymakers are jubilant about a GI tag having been granted to Sawantwadi wooden toys on March 30, 2024. This opens up a new vista for them. Toymakers like PD Kanekar have already taken to selling their toys online. “ We started selling online during the pandemic when everything shut down,” Ankita Kanekar tells me. The Kanekars sell through the DirectCreate platform to buyers all over India. Otherwise, sales are made to wholesalers based in Goa, who, in turn, sell to those traveling to India. This is because “international courier services are not yet developed from Sawantwadi. ”

Even so, with Goa’s newly-opened MOPA airport just 15–16 km away, international tourists often come down to Sawantwadi to buy these iconic toys.

One could well say that the GI tag and the inclusivity it bestows on these beautiful handcrafted toys are a good beginning. However, a lot more needs to be done if these toys are to capture the attention of a global market. Improving the courier services as well as government subsidies to the makers could go a long way here.

IPS UN Bureau Report

IPS UN Bureau, IPS UN Bureau Report, India


Haiti: Transitional Administration Faces Stern Test

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Gender Violence, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, TerraViva United Nations


Credit: Bruna Prado/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, Jun 14 2024 (IPS) – There’s been recent change in violence-torn Haiti – but whether much-needed progress results remains to be seen.

Acting prime minister Garry Conille was sworn in on 3 June. A former UN official who briefly served as prime minister over a decade ago, Conille was the compromise choice of the Transitional Presidential Council. The Council formed in April to temporarily assume the functions of the presidency following the resignation of de facto leader Ariel Henry.

Upsurge in violence

Haiti has seen intense and widespread gang violence since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021. Henry was finally forced out as the conflict escalated still further. In February, two major gang networks joined forces. The gangs attacked Haiti’s main airport, forcing it to close for almost three months and stopping Henry returning from abroad.

Gangs took control of police stations and Hait’s two biggest jails, releasing over 4,000 prisoners. The violence targeted an area of the capital, Port-au-Prince, previously considered safe, where the presidential palace, government headquarters and embassies are located. Haitian citizens paid a heaver price: the UN estimates that around 2,500 people were killed or injured in gang violence in the first quarter of this year, a staggering 53 per cent increase on the previous quarter.

Henry won’t be missed by civil society. He was widely seen as lacking any legitimacy. Moïse announced his appointment shortly before his assassination, but it was never formalised, and he then won a power struggle thanks in part to the support of foreign states. His tenure was a blatant failure. It was when the gangs seemed on the verge of taking full control of Port-au-Prince that Henry finally lost US support.

Now the USA, other states and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have thrown their weight behind the Council and a Kenya-led international police force, which has recently begun to deploy.

Contested developments

Gang leaders can be expected to maintain their resistance to these developments. The most prominent, ex-police officer Jimmy Chérizier, demands a role in any talks. But this looks like posturing. Chérizier likes to portray himself as a revolutionary, on the side of poor people against elites. But the gangs are predatory. They kill innocent people, and it’s the poorest who suffer the most. The things the gangs make their money from – including kidnapping for ransom, extortion and smuggling – benefit from weak law enforcement and a lack of central authority. Gang leaders are best served by maximum chaos for as long as possible, and when that ends will seek an accommodation with favourable politicians, as they’ve enjoyed before.

Political squabbling suits the gangs, which makes it a concern that it took extensive and protracted negotiations to establish the Council. The opaque process was evidently characterised by self-interested manoeuvring as politicians jockeyed for position and status.

The resulting body has nine members: seven with voting rights and two observers. Six of the seven come from political groupings, with the seventh a private sector representative. One observer represents religious groups and the other civil society: Régine Abraham, a crop scientist by profession, from the Rally for a National Agreement.

The Council’s formation was shortly followed by the arrival of an advance force of Kenyan police, with more to follow. It’s been a long time coming. The current plan for an international police force was adopted by a UN Security Council resolution in October 2023. The government of Kenya took the lead, offering a thousand officers, with smaller numbers to come from elsewhere. But Kenya’s opposition won a court order temporarily preventing the move. Henry was in Kenya to sign a mutual security agreement to circumvent the ruling when he was left stranded by the airport closure.

Many Haitians are rightly wary of the prospect of foreign powers getting involved. The country has a dismal history of self-serving international interference, particularly by the US government, while UN forces have been no saviours. A peacekeeping mission from 2004 to 2017 committed sexual abuse and introduced cholera. This will be the 11th UN-organised mission since 1993, and all have been accused of human rights violations.

Civil society points to the Kenyan police’s long track record of committing violence and rights abuses, and is concerned it won’t understand local dynamics. There’s also the question of whether resources spent on the mission wouldn’t be better used to properly equip and support Haiti’s forces, which have consistently been far less well equipped than the gangs. Previous international initiatives have manifestly failed to help strengthen the capacity of Haitian institutions to protect rights and uphold the rule of law.

Time to listen

Haitian civil society is right to criticise the current process as falling short of expectations. It’s an impossible task to expect one person to represent the diversity of Haiti’s civil society, no matter how hard they try. And that person doesn’t even have a vote: the power to make decisions by majority vote is in the hands of political parties many feel helped create the current mess.

The Council is also a male-dominated institution: Abraham is its only female member. With gangs routinely using sexual violence as a weapon, the Council hardly seems in good shape to start building a Haiti free of violence against women and girls.

And given the role of international powers in bringing it about, the Council – just like the Kenya-led mission – is open to the accusation of being just another foreign intervention, giving rise to suspicions about the motives of those behind it.

The latest steps could be the start of something better, but only if they’re built on and move in the right direction. Civil society is pushing for more from the government: for much more women’s leadership and civil society engagement. For the Kenya-led mission, civil society is urging strong human rights safeguards, including a means for complaints to be heard if the mission, like all its predecessors, commits human rights abuses. This shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.