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Varanasi Day 4: What a birthday gift! | Little Known Heroes
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Varanasi Day 4: What a birthday gift!

Posted by on June 26, 2011

Today was probably the most exciting day in Varanasi, and not just because it was my birthday. We spent the entire day inside a very high quality shop that not only does a lot of local crafts, but does work for export. They had Russian matryoshka dolls, Danish vikings, and even Emily the Strange. It’s clear these guys know what they are doing, and it was fascinating to work with them.

Raw wood, specialized tools, raw sticks of lacquer, and a polishing leaf

They handled the entire creation of toys from front to back, and we were beside them the whole time. Check out this video of them carving our prototypes out on the lathe and applying the color lacquer (made from tree sap) using friction. Then they use leaves from the tree to spread the paint and polish it, so at this point, the entire toy is basically tree. It’s amazing how precise and fast they are, using specialized tools we haven’t seen anywhere else. They are the first people we had make little crowns for the characters, and they looked great.

We tried two different kinds of wood, one that is readily available and one that is only available part of the year. The main goal of this trip is to try out as much as possible, so we can figure out what the best directions are. When they are bare wood, you can really see the difference in the texture. (You can also see a spring in the top of the one on the right we did as a whim. It turned out to be amazingly fun to have a bobble crown!)

Two of a kind

Once you apply the paint, you really can’t tell the difference between the woods at all.

All the pieces, all lined up.

Here you can see the bare wood, the shiny pure lacquer one, and three in the middle we tried different paint styles on. Two are fully hand-painted, and the one in the very middle was lacquered, then painted on top. It had a wonderful contrast in textures we may have to experiment with more. We left a little wood exposed on the side to see if we could add texture that way. Pay no attention to the colors. They were all painted by different people, so they don’t go together at all.

While I was working with the painters to get all of the variety you see here, Manjari went back to a previous shop to pick up their work to see what they had done. What they gave us was full of highs and lows.

Figures on the side

The one on the left is the closest copy of our original Jatayu we have seen, which is very promising. The claws on the front are horrible, though. The middle one had a gorgeous texture that is very typical of the Banaras style all over the top. It’s definitely a keeper. The Vasuki on the right, though, is the worst thing we’ve seen by far. It looks like a little kid did it. Apparently the artisan spent all of his time on the first two, and rushed through the last one because he ran out of time. In addition, the high gloss they added makes the toys look really cheap. Not exactly the best impression, and we need to talk about if we want to give this guy a second chance or go with the exporters we spent all day with.

We have a lot of decisions to make, but we finally have a good idea of what it will be like to work with the artisans here. We got way more done than I expected (I’ve learned to keep my expectations low here when it comes to getting things done on time), and we have a lot of prototypes to look over, picking the best parts of all of them to make the best possible line of toys.

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