Andhra Pradesh, the South Indian state of many cultures, is often regarded for its prosperous heritage and the several art forms it has given birth to. Home to numerous untapped tribal communities, the dense forests of this land are rich in natural products, dance forms, and crafts. One such region that has grown to fame for its unique handcrafted wooden toys is Etikoppaka, a craftsman village 80 km from Visakhapatnam. Situated within the dense Eastern Ghats and by the Varaha River, this village flourishes with little over 160 artisan families surviving on the age-old tradition of making wooden sculptures. Bringing pride, and the much-required recognition, for this craft of Etikoppaka, Chintalapati Venkatapathi Raju, or CV Raju, has earned himself the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award in India.
With three decades of experience in carving artistic toys out of Wrightia Tinctoria, a wood unique to the land of Etikoppaka, CV Raju put the craft above himself for the betterment of the artisans’ lives. Interacting with Yo! Vizag, the Padma awardee narrated his eventful journey from being a farmer to making his name synonymous with the art. He opened the conversation by saying, “My association with carving wooden sculptures and toys began during the late 80s. I ventured into it when the returns were at their lowest rate due to limited exposure and a thin range of products.” CV Raju then detailed how collaborating with recognised bodies such as the Andhra Pradesh Crafts Council and Dastakar revived the Etikoppaka toys, paving the way to a new chapter in the history of the craft.
“Through these bodies, the Etikoppaka craftsmen found a golden opportunity to exhibit their art on the national front. Our craftsmanship started drawing the much-required engagement as we participated in several exhibitions”, he added. But soon, in 1992, the people of Etikoppaka faced a new challenge to get their handcrafted toys to sail on international waters and grow a step beyond. “A few issues with Chinese products forced every other export good to attain the toxicology report, leading us to choose a natural and non-toxic method to dye our toys”, he explained while speaking about how the Ettikopaka toys adorned natural dyes.
CV Raju says that the region is gifted with many natural resources within proximity, making it simpler for them to bridge the gap between their art and foreign land. The Padma Shri winner pioneered the path-breaking reform of identifying the resources that would eventually be used as non-toxic and child-safe dyes for the toys. Today, the Etikoppaka artisans use turmeric (yellow), Jaffra seeds (reds and oranges), old jaggery, Myrobalan, and other ingredients found in the surroundings to extract colours for their products.
Highlighting the reasons for the sustenance of the craft, the seasoned artisan remarks that the Wrightia Tinctoria wood, locally known as Ankudu, is the primary factor. The unique characteristic of the Ankudu tree to regrow its branches multiple times from the point they are cut puts it apart from the other types of wood. CV Raju pointed out that the softness of the wood makes it a viable option for crafting child-safe toys.
“More than personal gain, I’m currently focussing on exploring the craft further and experimenting with natural dyeing”, says the man who believes that the 500-year-old craft has a wide scope for growth in the days to come. He affirmed that a good number of people from the younger generation are inclined towards carrying the craft forward.
Reflecting on his achievement of being honoured with the Padma Shri award, CV Raju expressed that it is a win for the art form of Etikoppaka more than a personal feat. In an era where an eco-friendly lifestyle is the need of the hour, men like Chintalapati Venkatapathi Raju are the torchbearers for a better future and carriers of age-old traditions.
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