Hit by COVID-19 crisis, Etikoppaka artisans in dire need of support

Known as a country with great cultural diversity, India is indeed a land of rich heritage. The indigenous crafts from across the country shed light on the bygone glory. Often, these crafts are the gleaming testimonies of the culture and practices of a region. Perfected over generations, they reflect changes in customs and sensibilities of the people who make them. To celebrate the rural indigeneity and these local craftspersons, the Crafts Council of Andhra Pradesh (CCAP) recently initiated craft dialogue via its social media (Instagram) account. As a part of the initiative, the CCAP decided to shed light on Etikoppaka, a village (80 kilometres away from Vizag) that is home to hand-made wooden lacquer toys.

On 12 June 2020, Founder & Editor of Yo! Vizag, Shilpanjani Dantu, a fellow member of the Crafts Council of Andhra Pradesh, took the Craft Dialogue forward via the CCAP’s Instagram handle. Sharing the legacy of the craft, she mentioned that this craft is known to be 400 years old and dates back to Bahamani times. Having originally started in Nakkapalli Village, it is known to have moved to Etikoppaka, thereby gaining the name from the village itself. Sourcing medium softwood of Ankudu (Wrightea Tinctoria) from the local forests, artisans initially took up the craft with a functional purpose of making vessels for measurement. They slowly began applying coloured lac and created more unique designs. While hand-operated lathes made the process cumbersome, the introduction of mechanical lathes, led to innovations in design and ease in operating and learning as well.

Over the decades, the products went on to gain popularity across the country and the world. However, the journey for this handicraft, like many others, hasn’t been an easy one. Many people such as CV Raju went to great lengths to procure raw materials from the forest department. He also helped in introducing natural colours and innovations which have been documented by the National Institute of Design(NID), Ahmedabad. Several organizations, art enthusiasts, and NGOs, especially CCAP, has stood by the artisans, and supported the revival process.

Among the 200 craftspersons from Etikoppaka, Chinnayachari is a renowned artisan. The master craftsman who is the recipient of Kamaladevi Sanman had the desire to create a place for himself in this line even as a child. With his father working as a lathe operator and his mother painting on these items, he took up the profession when he was all of fifteen.

Interacting with Shilpanjani Dantu through the CCAP Craft Dialogue, this Presidential Award Winner shared that despite the high degree of skill sets among the village artisans, their day-to-day struggles continue. Talking about the need to create awareness among the artisans on how to avail the facilities, Chinnayachari shared that though a few of them knew about the GI tag allotted to Etikoppaka toys in 2017, none of them had any idea as to how to use it for their advantage.

Today Chinnayachari has trained and employed 35 women, which is a one-of-its-kind initiative, in a village where it is the menfolk who usually take up the work. Crediting CCT (Crafts Council of Telangana) and CCAP for supporting this step, his team today produces a wide variety of designs and also uses only natural dyes. When asked about the reason behind him taking the initiative, Chinnayachari said, “Most of the women in the village stay at their homes while the men work in the fields or as daily wage labourers. When I needed extra hands at work, I realised that training these ladies in the craft will not only improve my business but will also offer them a means of living.”

His team today produces a wide variety of designs and also uses only natural dyes. Giving cues on how to identify if natural colours have been used on Etikoppaka products, the master craftsman mentioned that white, pink, and sky blue cannot be obtained using natural colours. “The colours like yellow, blue, and green will be obtained from turmeric, indigo, and a combination of them.” 

With the arrival of the global pandemic COVID-19, a new set of challenges posed in front of the artisans of Etikoppaka toys. Inquiring about the means of marketing the finished products, Shilpanjani Dantu asked regarding the current situation of the craftspersons. In his reply, the Kamaladevi Sanman awardee said, “Usually, the artists sell their products to 4-5 shops in the village on a daily basis. Due to COVID-19, exhibitions have been cancelled and buyers have plummeted to zero. With the products still in the stores, the merchants have asked the artisans to stop working further. However, a few NGOs are helping out supplying the essential commodities.” Left with stock, and unsure of tomorrow, Etikoppaka and its artisans look for more support in this hour of crisis.

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