“Would you know where I can see the artists who make the Kinnal dolls?”, I ask a passer-by as I enter the sleepy and dusty Indian village of Kinnal, or Kinhal. He points in the direction of a lane straight ahead, telling me I can find artists on that street.
With an early start from Hampi, it took me about an hour and a half to reach Kinnal, in Karnataka’s Koppal district in southern India, in search of artisans still peddling the traditional craft of hand-making wooden dolls. In January 2021, the Karnataka State Government decided to set up a toy manufacturing ecosystem in Koppal, with the aim of generating 100,000 jobs in its 162-hectare facility.
It’s an art form that is believed to date back to the 15th or 16th centuries, and was popular during the time of the prosperous Vijayanagara Empire and received patronage from the Nawabs of Koppal and Desais of Kinnal.
The artists belong to a community called Chitragars, currently consisting of about 67 families, who generally make figurines of icons, gods and goddesses.
Santoshkumar Chitragar, 29, is busy working amid a sea of what looks like busts of the goddess Gowri when we meet in a small makeshift factory. He moves his hands with impeccable precision. It is a craft he learnt in childhood, from his father.
“I remember making the dolls since I was really small,” he tells The National. “However, during that time, I noticed there was hardly any respect for the artisans or their craft, so I decided to move to Bengaluru as I had lost interest.”
Chitragar joined a medical animation company, where he worked for a year. At the same time, he attended three art camps. “People I knew started insisting that I do not quit working on the craft. I was encouraged by my guru, Nagappa Pradhani, principal of the sculpture department at Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath (KCP), to go back to my roots.”
After he returned to Kinnal in 2017, Chitragar realised it wasn’t going to be easy. “I would make about 15,000 Indian rupees ($202) to 20,000 rupees per month in my job and, here I was, suddenly not making anything,” he says. However, his circumstances changed when he was invited to participate in the India International Trade Fair, in New Delhi, where he was able to sell the dolls he had made for a higher price.
He came home from that event with renewed enthusiasm and made 10 more pieces that sold out quickly. “By then, I had an idea of how to make the dolls with a contemporary touch. That is when I decided to adapt, and switched to smaller idols with increased attention to both detail and finish.”
The process of creating these handmade dolls, which can measure between 15 centimetres and 4.5 metres high, is elaborate. A lightweight Polki Marra wood is used. Small pieces of cotton are stuck on with a paste made of tamarind seeds, while pebble powder paste and liquid gum are used for embossing the ornamentation and jewellery of the figure. Then the doll is finally hand-painted.
The focus is on using natural colours such as white, for instance, which is prepared from limestone. The paintbrushes are made by the Chitragars using a tuft of a squirrel's tail fixed at the end of a bamboo splinter and tied with yarn smeared with gum.
It’s worth the effort to make Kinnal toys, though, as it’s a globally revered craft that also received the coveted Geographical Indication (GI) tag from the World Trade Organisation in 2012.
In 2018, Chitragar opened his Instagram account, @kinnalart, with the guidance of a research fellow at KCP. He was soon able to navigate the platform, despite lack of experience, and orders for his work began to pour in. “However, as I am not fluent in English, I had a tough time understanding what people were asking,” he admits.
That is when he reached out to Nagaraj Bakale, his artist friend from nearby Gadag district, who helped him manage his social media. “Santosh and I decided to collaborate; he does the work and I manage the social media,” Bakale says. “I studied the Kinnal craft for four months before we started working together.”
Bakale started collaborating with interior decorators and decor enthusiasts, who shared their images, and by July 2020, monthly orders went from almost 70,000 to 350,000 rupees. The coronavirus pandemic allowed them to focus on improving packaging and completing prior orders.
The international orders are mostly from the US, Germany, Canada and the UK, as well as the UAE. The pair have received support from art websites such as Sparsh Collections USA and Hastakalalu. Bakale is also now working on designing an official website for Chitragar's work.
Chitragar, meanwhile, who received a state-level award from Bengaluru’s Karnataka Shilpakala Academy in 2019, works with help from his family, parents and brother, as well as three boys he is training. He’s now teaching people in his village, to ensure the tradition lives on, as the craft takes about two years to perfect, he says. Government workshops in the area have also helped take the art form to a larger audience.
“There has been a definite increase in people in Kinnal wanting to restart it as they have been inspired by my success,” he says.
Chitragar has even bought a piece of land in Kinnal, where he hopes to build a workshop and training centre, and he’s collaborating with art galleries such as gallery g in Bengaluru and Gallery 78 in Hyderabad to showcase his artworks. He’s also tied up with Shoppingkart24, which sells his work on the digital marketplace for Indian Geographical Indication products.
Chitragar only hopes his efforts spur curiosity in people across the world and encourages the craftsmen of India to continue the legacy. “I hope that this will ensure the craft achieves greater heights and artisans get their due.”