India's Toy Market Needs A Counter Op With Indic Clockwork

India's Toy Market Needs A Counter Op With Indic Clockwork Wooden toys being sold at the banks of the Khoai river. (Sugato Maitra/Flickr)
Snapshot
  • It is high time India invested soul into the creation and dissemination of something as fundamental as a children's toy.

    The post-Covid, Atmanirbhar Bharat now needs a new indigenous Toy Story.

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to start ups and young friends to start making traditional indoor games popular.

Covid, and the call for boycotting 'Made in China' goods (following India's stand off with China in Galwan, Ladakh), have come as a propeller for the indigenous and traditional children's toys sector.

The opportunity should be wrenched and squeezed for bringing the much awaited Indic revolution in children's toys and games.

Imported toys fail to touch even a surface of our civilisational and cultural pride.

Children's toys and games mark a journey between the womb, the "shruti" and the books.

By relying on China-manufactured toys, India has, over the decades, outsourced a hugely important element of its own parenting to a country that is known for its hostility towards us.

Imagine the devastation if Putana was entrusted with the job of fetching toys for a growing Krishna, instead of trying to kill him with just one feed.

In the previous article in the series, this author wrote about how 'Made in China' toxic toys have grabbed and killed the space for traditional Indian and indigenous toys.

They should have been banned, permanently, back in in 2007-2009.

'Aatmanirbhar Bharat' and 'vocal for local' should serve as strong cultural movements for the toy sector.

They should now be used collectively for breathing in the true Indic character in a contemporary demeanour and format for children.

What's contemporary? A glimpse: A fictional character inspired by celebrated Tamil Nadu cop Ponn Manickavel drives the digital game.

Your child, 15, is a volunteer detective working to bring back India's stolen heritage.

She tries to put together a set of clues to trace a 17th century bronze sculpture missing from the granny's village.

For every point earned, the temple shikhara shows bigger signs of coming back to life.

This is a scene from a digital game I have often wished the children of India get to play.

The game doesn't exist.

The game is a contemporary spin that connects past and future.

The children's toys India needs today: eco-friendly and non-toxic toys.

This is on the outside. On the inside: toys that take pride in the Indic concept and form of toys, play-worthy trinkets, narration, stories and mind-engaging heritage in their 21st century avatar.

When such toys reach children across walks of life — in their flexible versions to fit 'affordability', they will have automatically replaced the prototypes from Chinese, other China-flooded and western markets.

To understand what this new phase must achieve in replacing (the China-manufactured, the western stereotypes, the toxic total), recreating (the Indic textures and treasures) and replenishing (play worthy and engaging narratives), let's first look at what has made the Indian toy market impressively insufferable.

The dumbing down 'by Made in China'

The flooding has numbed and dumbed down the Indian toy industry. The flooding has pressed the Indian toy thinkers and makers towards importing; has throttled the demand for intelligent creativity.

This has reduced Indic initiatives to micro and niche pockets or to rare opportunities to exhibit.

Design intervention, to make the Indic stories in toys emerge and emanate, too, has remained in micro representations and niche pockets. Just the mention of "design" tends to ball up the cost, scaring away scale and takers.

This needs to change with a push and over matter of scale.

Step-motherly treatment to the Indic doll

In North India, the girl child is fondly addressed as or named "gudia" or "guddi" (doll).

There is an attribute that makes the doll "doll" like. Life. Indian children bear the burden of plastic, lifeless, formless, bloodless, alien concepts — offspring of doll-making, with body stereotypes, age-inappropriate body structures, alien hair and total and thorough absence of the pan Indian representation.

Where the indigenous doll manages to break the shackles, it remains within micro-pockets — urban or rural.

Now is the time to reclaim the Indic doll in all her vibrance, cultural diversity, colour and visual interactive power and the magic of child-friendly fresh and recycling.

India doesn't need plastic to hold her western frame — literally and metaphorically. Let the Indian market be flooded by 20 representations each from each state and union territory.

Let manufacturers pick, adopt and adapt.

Let indigenous materials go for the skin, flesh, blood, heart, costume and accessories in these dolls.

Let the Indic doll shatter the 'brownness' or the 'fairness' she is boxed in, in the existing foreign version.

A visitor to Delhi's International Dolls Museum set up by K Shankar Pillai for nearly 20 years, this author has walked out of the museum, every time, carrying one conclusion.

Indians do not take pride in indigenous dolls.

In most dolls on display at Shankar's Dolls Museum, you can almost feel the skin, the culture, the climate, and a usual day in the life of people where the dolls come from.

The dedicated staff at the museum were mulling on the idea of dedicating doll prototypes to the woman legends of India some years ago.

Talk. Collaborate.

Cultural and aesthetic deficit

Indians have accepted the less-than-ordinary as the most sought after in toys and games for children.

Beauty and playfulness, as it exists in Indic form and geometry, aesthetics, intellect and functionality, is still, largely, folded away for huge idea-trunks that are never opened.

Small set: Where is the child's first lines-and-curves wooden jigsaw that initiates her to 'Swastika' and 'Om', 'Ram'?

Where is the "make your own Jal Tarang" physics-cum-music lesson ensemble?

Where is the 'archeology play-set with dummies'? The game of zeroes. The set of 15 miniature versions of birds and weapons and ships being used by the Indian armed forces.

The bag of 10 stuffed depictions of the deities' vahanas. Kautilya's Game of Life.

The missing battlefield and warriors:

India needs a battle-ready market that draws inspiration and skeleton of war and battle-based toys and games from the Indic battlefield.

The greatest warriors, the bravest soldiers, the toughest battles, counter ops, need to reach the children of India in board games, miniature ensembles, forts and bastions, battlefield replicas and merchandise.

There is no dearth of experts who can arm this nuanced sector with expertise and enthusiasm.

PM Narendra Modi once jokingly mentioned PUBG to children during a speech.

This is the time for a counter operation.

The disconnect between stories and toys

The powerful Indic narratives have been totally unused and absent from the shelves. When it comes to filling shelves and shelf life, Indic narratives as merchandise have the capacity to completely overpower the flooding from China, and drown it.

The shelf holds an important role in the child's interaction with choices.

The West and now other South East Asian countries prop stationery themed on stories meant for their children.

Ramayana-themed toys from SE nations — most welcome.

India has almost dedicated and donated the shelves at shops and shopping malls to foreign characters and attractive fluffs in fake fur.

Many of these emanate from cartoon series, stories and commercial films. The biggest institution of storytelling in India after Indian grandparents — The Amar Chitra Katha — is a fertile ground for inspiring merchandise and themed stationery for Years 8-adults, The Panchatantra, Year 0-Adult.

Propelling eco-friendly and mind-engaging merchandise born from their Indic stories should become a mission.

Butter fingers for confluence of disciplines

The inter-disciplinary magic is totally unexplored in the Indian toy market.

The imported building block sets have begun to push down themes into the market.

Looking beyond the restricted themes and plates available of the super cheap or super expensive building blocks set would only require turning to Indic architecture.

Manufacturers must help the child enter and build the temples of India. Enter Kailasanatha Temple — Ellora.

The material and details become finer. Enter stambhas and gopurams. At 12, the child wants to grab the temple plan — on a computer screen.

This is where Reark can be collaborated with by manufacturers. This is just one example.

Imagine the beautiful bombardment of colour brought by drag and drop-aided digital games to explore temple art, architecture, murals, traditional figurines; artefacts, jewels, civilisations, dynasties, rulers and heritage.

More: fabrics and textiles; geometry; constellations, Indic warriors, flora, design, the pan Indian puja basket of flowers, math, science, yoga — the list is endless.

Here is part of what 'Vocal for Local' should bring to the indigenous toy sector:

1) Must percolate into state, region, district — depending on how the traditional heritage springs the response back to ideators and manufacturers.

2) Toys and games should break the "South Asian" mould in make, motive and method.

3) Should be able to place before the child, a glimpse of the civilisational legacy.

4) Should be able to involve local manufacturers, ideators, artisans and labourers with a sense of profit and scale.

5) Should come with the texture and feel of the stories and narratives, so that they engage, more importantly, encourage the child to create and recreate.

6) Should be able to use the existing local traditional toy craft thoroughly, inside out, in skin, soul and flesh.

7) Think localisation top down: Accessorise as avidly and aggressively as the Korean, Japanese and Chinese brands to target teenagers and adolescents, involving the best quality and best thought engagement. Covid and post-Covid era will need a rethink in toys — in their selling and use, especially shared use.

Indic toys made with pride in the Indic civilisation will make India lead this global game.

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