Spoon feeding the painter

We are persistent clients. Seriously. We stop at Nothing. We even woke the painter up in the middle of the night yesterday. (I’m sure images of Garuda and Jatayu are going to haunt him in his sleep for many more weeks before he finds peace again!) Finally after many delays and rescheduled meetings, and braving the heat and the humidity, we got to meet the painter and work with him today. His name is Prakash Prajapati, and for those of you who are loyal to our cause, the name might sound familiar. This is because he belongs to the same community as the painter artisans we worked with the last time we were here.

We started off with a blue Jatayu – we had already got the lacquered piece done on the first day. I spent a good amount of time trying to orient him towards the style and quality we require. IT WAS HARD. Being in the trade for so many years, these artists get used to a certain rhythm and method of working and its very difficult to suggest otherwise. Some of the points I emphasized on were  – the eyes and the beak had to be copied down to last curve, the lacquer finish had to be given equal respect and there had to be enough detail, patterns and textures on the figure.

He started by painting the first coat of the facial features and the feathers. His colour mixing skills are perfect as you can see from the photos below.

Colour Mix

The eyes- phew! I had to take a pencil and draw out the curves for him to make him understand just how important each stroke is. He got fed up of my bickering after a while and told us to come tomorrow when he’ll have the finished piece ready for our scrutiny. I’m nervous!


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Enter the Carver

Today was very slow to start. We were supposed to meet up in the morning to look at the models from yesterday with magnets added, but he didn’t have them done. Then we were supposed to see a new carver to look at his work and get some new prototypes made, but he wasn’t available until 4pm. We spent the day working on the new characters instead, finally making the hour-long drive to the carver late in the day.

Bell of the ages

When we got there, man was it worth it. He had massive sculptures with huge amounts of intricate detail. He showed us a waist-high lamp that took him 20 days to carve and a huge branch-shaped sculpture with dozens of animals he was submitting to win the national craft award. They were both breathtaking. He was very amused by us fawning over all of his work, and by the time we sat down, I was anxious to see what he was going to do with our designs.

Avast ye mateys!

We finally looked over the weapons he carved for us, which were adorably lethal. We talked for hours about the mythological creatures, what he wanted to do with his carving, and having chai from little terracotta cups. It was great getting to spend so long talking to someone who enjoys what he does as much as us, and I’m really excited to see what he comes back to us with in two days.

Only two days? These people are amazing.

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Banaras, at last!!!

After fetching magnets, clear wood varnish and placing the order for springs I headed back home to pack my luggage. I have been hearing so much about Banaras from Chris and Manjari that I was dying to go there. The last trip to Banaras sounded a lot fun and was quite productive too but my mother planned to visit me (almost after one and a half year) and I couldn’t leave her by herself, so I decided to stay back and work on the characters instead. Now, I finally get to go to Banaras after all.  I am way too excited about this trip…to visit the holy city of India, work with the artisans and stroll along the bank of the river Ganga.

Day 1

We reached Banaras early this morning and the weather was just perfect. At first, we decided to visit the group of artisans led by Rakesh Giri, which is comparatively a smaller setup amongst all we have been in touch with. Since we couldn’t meet the artisans in person last time we tried to persuade Rakeshji to get us directly in touch with the artisans this time. Thankfully he agreed. He took us to the guy who works in turned wood and lacquer. We sat down with him and discussed our toys and he began to make the first set of prototypes for us. For four hours at a stretch he turned the wood and painted it with lacquer.

 take a bow

It was our first day and we have four sets of beautifully crafted prototypes ready. The next thing we had to figure out is how the magnets are going to be put together into the toys. Interestingly we accidentally fixed a magnet in one of the prototypes while we were discussing it with the artisans. Since it was already too late today he suggested we should fix the rest of the magnets tomorrow morning.

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New character sneak peek!

Something we’ve been battling with internally is the balance between artistic style and emotional connection. The existing characters have a style we all really like, but Vasuki seems to have a lot more going on behind his eyes than Garuda and Jatayu. Vasuki has this sinister, clever look that seems like he is about to do something evil, and you won’t know it until it happens because he’s SO DARN CUTE!

Misty water colored meeeeemories...

Misty water colored meeeeemories...

Granted, a lot of this is because Jatayu and Garuda are birds, and a big pointy beak always says “grrr!” This actually works for us, as “angry” suits their characters well.



However, we want some more expressiveness in the line, and we’ve been toying with a more cartoony style to make it happen. We are working on merging this style into our existing line with a modified Vasuki and two new characters, Sugriva (half ape) and Jambavan (half sloth bear). Soon we’ll put up their histories Like we did with the first three, but in the meantime, check out this sneak preview.

Snakes, Sloth bears, and Apes, oh my!

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Carving a new direction

Finally, we got the one piece we’ve been dying to have a look at, the one piece we were absolutely sure would turn out to be incredibly awesome, painstakingly carved by hand and delicately ornamented. Here’s the piece I’m talking about.

So, the quality is amazing. The face is perfectly symmetrical, and there’s a lovely gentle ridge on the nose. Each feature on the body has been just so well placed and finished, its the only perfect body we’ve got so far! The crown of the piece, undoubtedly though, is the crown itself.

Whats disappointing though is the back of the head, where we thought the carvers would go all out, carving in the really minutely detailed ornamental patterns that we know they’re capable of doing and which I was so looking forward to. But, nah. Not a square cm of floral vines anywhere on Mr. Garuda. (He’s an eagle! He lives in the forest! He wants more flowers and leaves to remind him of home!)

Anyway, I think these guys have a lot more potential than what they’ve put on the table right now, and I’m really going to push for it. This piece could turn out to be a unique collector’s edition with just the right amount of delicate hand crafting, combining their skill of accurate reproduction with ornamental accents.

Check out this photo shoot he was kind enough to pose for, one with a coin to show how tiny he is.

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Hand crafting in India

Working alongside so many amazing craftsmen has really humbled me. Seeing their handmade tools and attention to detail has been completely fascinating. I came across this video the other day, and it gives a great example of what it’s like. You see these motorcycles all over the streets here, and each one is hand-painted like this.

It’s clear he knows exactly what he’s doing, and each turn of the wrist is carefully crafted to create the perfect stroke. He’s completely focused until the end, when he smiles and it’s clear that he enjoys doing this and is quite proud of his work. My experiences with craftsmen here have been very similar, and I’m sure I’ve gotten way more excited about their work than them.

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Varanasi Day 4: What a birthday gift!

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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Varanasi Day 3: First finished Prototypes!

The day started off with us getting our first painted prototypes from the Prajapati brothers. I was excited, apprehensive, very nervous too. But it turned out well in the end as some very interesting stuff has come out of the first camp. There is some lovely detail work on the Vasuki heads and textures on the Jatayu which can be incorporated into the final design. However one of the biggest hurdles I foresee is to get the artisans to copy our emotional faces exactly as they are. Look at their interpretation of the Vasuki face on the extreme right! Traditional Indian faces are highly stylised but completely stoic, so obviously these huge eyes are alien to the painters and we have to find a way to break that barrier. Their copy of the Jatayu on the extreme left is pretty impressive though.

Agrawal Warriors

We also got some wooden blanks made from Mr. Gopal Agrawal to consider the possibility of getting the entire operation done at Agrawal Toy Shop, but the quality is horrible. All the pieces are of different sizes and shapes, none are symmetrical, some are pointy while some have flat ends. I’m extremely excited to see what the other camps have come up with after this first one!

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Varanasi Day 2: Painting and Carving

Today was a slower day, which is a nice change of pace from how hectic things were yesterday, running from place to place in a brand new city.

Snatching the Vasuki

We started off by going back to the painters from yesterday and sitting with them while they worked on the figures we gave them. They had already carved some detail into Vasuki, outlining each of the snakes on his head. They started painting the base layers on each one while we watched and talked to them. Well, Manjari talked. I waited and got translations. They shifted between the 4 figure they were painting quickly, painting a layer, then putting it back on the rack to dry while they picked up the next dry one and painted another layer on it.

After a while, we decided to stop looking over their shoulders so they could start getting really creative. Besides, we had some more artisans to meet. This time it was a pair of carvers, and they blew us away.

The Rhino

The attention to detail, how the skin looks and hangs just like it should, the different textures. We went on a tour through their workshop and small storage area, while they showed us what kind of work they typically do. They have a wide range of capabilities, and it was immediately clear that they had a lot of experience.

It turned out that their family has been carving for 5 generations, and these two brothers were the most recent generation. However, the market and pay for carving has been going downhill rapidly in recent years. The brothers opened up to us about how times have gotten so hard that they stopped their third brother from going into the family trade, and have been encouraging their children to go into different fields. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, especially when you see the quality of work they do.

Their style is very different from what we were thinking, but after seeing their work, we decided to show them one of our characters (Garuda), and let them go crazy creating one from scratch. There is no way this would be able to be mass produced, but it the quality is anywhere near their other work, we may be able to find another purpose for it, such as a limited edition toy. Plus I really want to see what they do with our characters.

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Varanasi Day 1: Introductions

What a unbelievably productive day its been. Phew! Our first stop today was one of Varanasi’s biggest toy shops – Agrawal Toy Shop. Our city guide, Mr. Ajay Pandey (or Pinkoo Bhaiya as I like to call him) had already spoken to the owner of the shop about us and our project. We met him at one of his four shops. These guys make everything from tiny gods the size of my finger pad to cats with spring penises! Mr. Gopal Agrawal is a veteran in the handicrafts industry and also exports. We discussed about possible vendors, wood types and additional mechanisms like springs and magnets that might have to be added in the toy. He guided us to one of his main artisans from the Prajapati community (the painting community) to get some samples made.


Next stop was the workshop of Ratan and Munna Prajapati. They live in a small house the front room of which acts as their workshop. The entrance was a vision of brilliant white as scores of Jesus figurines were left out to dry in the sun after being coated with a layer of primer. Christmas preparations start in Banaras months before any other part of the world! We spent some time at their workshop, observing the process and tools. Our brief to them as we left was to make two copies each of the two characters we have left behind – the brown Jatayu and the blue Vasuki. On of these has to be an exact copy, while the other one is left to their imagination where they can add details, patterns and textures typical of the Banaras style. This way we get to see their replicating skills as well as creative use of colour and line.

White Christmas

Next we went to Vishwanath Gali (Lane), named after the famous Vishwanath Temple of Varanasi. This long, serpentine gali is dotted with toy shops which we thought would be a good idea to check out. There we met Rakesh Giri, a class fellow of Pinku Bhaiya who has recently started his own business in wooden toys. Its a much smaller setup than Agrawal Toy Shop, but he’s eager to expand. We have left the black Jatayu and the other Vasuki with him as samples and exactly the same brief (business insecurity – he doesnt want us to meet his artisans at all at this stage). Now we have two artisan camps to compare!

Vishwanath Gali, lacquered and hand carved toys and bangles sold in various shops

Last stop for the day was a turned wood toys workshop. Ram Khelawan Singh is a National Awardee and he owns a large workshop with six power lathes and his own in-house painters. Work was closing down when we arrived but we hope to come back soon as we see immense potential here for the quality and quantity we want.

I must admit that our first day went off much better than I expected! (The only unscheduled stops we had on our way around the city today was whenever Chris spotted a wall covered with layers and layers of posters and paint) We got to see three different artisan camps, our samples are already in process and if all goes well we should have lots to take back to Delhi. I’ve always felt a certain belonging to this city (its my mom’s city!) and this might become a beautiful opportunity to work with its heritage.

As a little bonus, here is a video of the spring-loaded cats. They weren’t moveable (aside from the penises), so they weren’t accidentally turned around, which was our first thought. This was intentional.

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