Varnam

Reviving a 200-year-old toy craft

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Social Enterprise • For-Profit • B2B2C

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STARTED IN 2011

By Karthik Vaidyanathan

LOCATION

Channapatna, Karnataka

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CRAFTS

Channapatna Lac-Turnery, Block Printing, Lambadi Embroidery, Bidriware 

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PRODUCTS

Toys, Homeware, Jewellery, Clothing, Accessories

ARTISANS

40

LIVES IMPACTED

200

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DID YOU KNOW?

For more than two centuries now, Channapatna has been known for its colourful lac-turnery toys and is rightly dubbed the ‘toy town of India.'

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Legend has it that the 18th century ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, was enamoured by a toy tiger he was gifted by the British 200 years ago. So taken in was he by the exquisite craftwork, that he invited artisans from Persia to train the local artisans in the craft of wooden toy making.

ಚನ್ನಪಟ್ಟಣ

Varnam Craft Collective has been working with artisans in Channapatna for 9+ years to create unique, quirky, modern home and lifestyle products based on founder Karthik Vaidyanathan’s designs, to revive the dying craft. 

Channapatna is also known as ‘Gombegala Ooru'

ಗೊಂಬೆಗಳ ಊರು

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“Varnam is an ode to colourful India. I have tried to bring my own aesthetic sensibilities and design philosophy to traditional crafts. The idea is to reorient our crafts to the modern context by ensuring that each design has utilitarian value and hence some relevance in today’s world.”

— KARTHIK VAIDYANATHAN, FOUNDER, VARNAM
 
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THE APPROACH

Varnam’s focus has always been good design, skill building, equal pay, sustainable livelihoods.

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“We have been engaging with the artisans from a design perspective from day one. It’s taken us 9 years to establish the highest standards of quality and aesthetics. If you are charging customers a premium price, we have to give them fantastic quality. I don't want to get away with the excuse that we are handmade.”
— KARTHIK VAIDYANATHAN, FOUNDER, VARNAM
 
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CHALLENGES

1

Cheap, mass-manufactured Chinese replicas flooding the market
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“Instead of working the traditional way, many artisans have started using cheaper, toxic paints, and poor quality wood. Some have even abandoned lathe-based, lac-turney technique, which is the heart of the craft.”

— KARTHIK VAIDYANATHAN, FOUNDER, VARNAM
 
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SOLUTIONS

1

Product and design innovation

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Fair wages

2

Visual communication & brand storytelling

5

Online and offline market access

3

Embedding formal systems & processes

6

Breaking stereotypes & employing women

 
 
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ECONOMIC IMPACT

Greater margins for artisans

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“Our artisans make anywhere between 40% - 60% of our MRP, which is fantastic for handmade. A lot of the time, people have crazy mark-ups. For example, a bangle at Varnam retails at ₹250. My artisans sell to me at ₹125. The same bangle, but of inferior quality, is sold at a well known, high-end boutique store for ₹900 and they do not pay the artisans more than ₹85 - ₹90. I feel it's sacrilege to be making our craft so unaffordable that people can't enjoy it. Our artisans are very happy to work for us. I only ask that they give us good quality and they set the price that they deem fair for their work. We don’t negotiate to bring that down, if we can help it.”

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— KARTHIK VAIDYANATHAN, FOUNDER, VARNAM
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SOCIAL IMPACT

Revival of a 200 year-old craft form

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“Our design-led innovation has led to people having greater respect for the craft. We have also noticed that many people in Channapatna have now started pricing their products at much higher costs. We are thrilled that we have elevated the price points, so that the artisans can actually start making more money.”

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— KARTHIK VAIDYANATHAN, FOUNDER, VARNAM
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Increased employment to women artisans

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“In an industry where more than 90% of the artisans are men, many of Varnam’s bestselling creations have been deftly handcrafted by women artisans.”

— KARTHIK VAIDYANATHAN, FOUNDER, VARNAM
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ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

A 100% eco-friendly craft with minimal wastage of wood

Residual wood is used in the incense industry and is also known for its various medicinal properties.

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Usage of naturally occurring material

The lac is a naturally occurring resin that gives the products its glossy sheen. Natural colours are extracted from traditional sources like turmeric, kumkum, etc.

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COVID-19

​Drastic downsizing put a halt to growth plans

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“We were bootstrapped, had 3 stores, and we didn't have a single debtor or loans. We had finally hoped to get a sense of exports and domestic sales. And then COVID hit. Two stores shut. This is what a pandemic can do to an enterprise that is as small as ours hoping to become a medium. When you cut their legs out from under them, overnight that medium enterprise becomes micro. All we have right now to show for all our work for the past 9 years is brand equity. That's it.”

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— KARTHIK VAIDYANATHAN, FOUNDER, VARNAM
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LEARNINGS

Women are better workers

“Women artisans are in their early to late 20s and they are easier to work with, because they are willing to experiment and don’t come with chips on their shoulders." 

— KARTHIK VAIDYANATHAN, FOUNDER, VARNAM
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No global formula for all crafts

It’s important to work within the restrictions of the craft and make the best of it. Trying to implement a process driven formula will just result in our losing the essence of the craft. Machine production and processes are not always compatible with the soul of a craft. 

Cultural differences
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India is a country of many nations. The characteristic differences between South Indians and North Indians are many and varied, which impacts their approach to work and money.

— KARTHIK VAIDYANATHAN, FOUNDER, VARNAM
McDonaldization of the handmade
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“When we look at crafts, every region has its own boli, its own dialect. I feel that that is something we are losing, in our urge to become so homogeneous. We are really ‘McDonaldizing’ everything.”

— KARTHIK VAIDYANATHAN, FOUNDER, VARNAM
 

India has always been a beautiful blend of agriculture and handicrafts

This continued until the slow demolition of all our beautiful crafts and handlooms under the British rule. By the 1940s, it came to be known as the ‘deindustrialisation’ when everything took a downturn until the revival movement picked up steam again a few years later.

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“Gandhi believed that art, culture, music, and craft were essential to the ethos of India. We seem to have lost sight of that somewhere along the way."
— KARTHIK VAIDYANATHAN, FOUNDER, VARNAM
 

SDGs

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PHOTOS & VIDEOS COURTESY VARNAM
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