Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, once renowned for its wooden toys, is on the brink of closure for want of artisans and the unique koraiya wood.
For the past couple of years, Ahraura has seen a steady decline in the number of craftspeople as well as buyers. Photo: Gaon Connection
Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh
Sardar Gulab Singh’s family has been engaged in woodcraft for four generations. They have worked out of Ahraura Bazaar in Mirzapur district, considered the stronghold of artisans working with wood. But, the younger generation does not want to take up the family craft.
“Many years ago, Ahraura used to be the hub for wooden toys. Traders from all over the country would come here. Artisans picked up the craft from here and moved to places such as Varanasi, Haridwar, Chitrakoot and Agra, setting up units there,” Singh told Gaon Connection.
There was a time when most households in the locality were engaged in making wooden toys. Khat khat — the constant sound of chiselling — used to be heard from afar. However, for the past couple of years, Ahraura has seen a steady decline in the number of craftspeople as well as buyers, even though Mirzapur toys still command respect.
Koraiya (also known as Keria) wood is the hallmark of Mirzapur woodcraft. It is pliable and allows itself to be rendered into myriad shapes. The craftspersons here make a range of wooden items — from wooden sticks, kitchen sets and acupuncture equipment to chess pieces and playthings for children.
Two things have resulted in the toy trade declining — the declining number of artisans and the non-availability of the special koraiya wood.
After the 1980s, since koraiya tree felling was banned, craftspersons have been forced to make do with the much harder-to-carve eucalyptus wood, which does not provide great finish too. Singh said many did not want to take up the craft now since it entailed hard work.
Local toy traders said koraiya wood is readily available in Chitrakoot district, about 200 kilometres from Mirzapur, where wood toycraft flourishes. Some artisans manage to source wood from Chitrakoot, but the additional cost of transportation is a drain on them.
“Earlier, raw material was not as expensive. We had a lot of artisans who had the skill and practice needed to handcraft toys of wood,” 75-year-old Madhuram Vishwakarma, who has been making toys for the past 50 years, told Gaon Connection.
Vishwakarma said that due to the shortage of craftspeople, toy orders were not fulfilled in time. “Once upon a time, twenty five artisans worked on a single machine. Today, we hardly have six. Today, Ahraura has more machines than artisans,” he rued.
Singh said that from about 500 artisans five years ago, now barely a 100 are left. “If things continue this way, they will also leave,” he said.
There has been no active programme to help craftspersons with skill upgradation too. That has been happening in areas such as Khojwan in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency Varanasi, about 60 km from Mirzapur. The Ministry of Textiles organises programmes for women living in Kashmiri Ganj area to train them in wood toy-making.
The wooden toys of Chitrakoot and the carpet work of Mirzapur have been included in the One District One Product scheme, seen as a step forward to help districts realise their potential. Mirzapur’s toymakers feel their craft must find a place in the scheme too.
The wooden toys of Varanasi featured in the government-organised virtual India Toy Fair 2021, held from February 27 to March 2 this year. On August 30 last year, Modi had, during his Mann ki Baat programme, spoke about the prosperous toy market in Varanasi, and appealed to people to make and use more indigenous toys to help make India self-reliant.
Meanwhile, VK Chaudhary, the commissioner of Mirzapur division’s horticulture department, told Gaon Connection: “Mirzapur woodcraft has a long tradition and our department is trying to maximise artisans’ access to the market. A few have even set up stalls in Varanasi.”