A Desi Twist To Gaming

Indian traditional handmade games created with natural components makes learning fun for kids and also provides a sustainable livelihood to artisans.

Traditional Indian games created with natural components makes teaching kids fun and also provides a sustainable livelihood to artisans.

By Poornima Sivanandam

This article was originally published at The Alternative – an online publication on social change and sustainable living.

Growing up, summers meant camping at my grandparents’ place with cousins, unrestricted visits to parks and of course games that only a child’s imagination can conjure. Bonds were best strengthened (and broken as often) – amidst rummy, business, snakes and ladders. Dhayakattam (ludo) was a ritual in itself. One would draw the kattam (box) on the red oxide floor with wet chalk; another would hunt down the dhayakattai (stick dice) and coins; we’d improvise using tamarind seeds, sozhi (cowrie shells) and buttons. Each had his or her own superstitious set of playing coins. Traditional handmade games and toys were truly the stuff of warm family bonding, as much as they were the fetish of a now lost childhood.

Why this sudden trip down nostalgia street? A visit to Kavade or Sutradhar – treasure troves of traditional Indian toys and games, will more than explain.

Getting closer to our roots with traditional Indian games

Two years ago, when Sreeranjani hunted for traditional Indian games for her little ones, and found none, she decided to work with craft clusters to fill the void. The result is a colourful array of magic tops, gulli danda, nine men’s morris, lagori (wood, elephant dung, palm leaf) and more, at Kavade, the traditional toy hive.

Parama Pada Sopanam is the original Indian Snakes and Ladders, extremely intricate to recreate”, says Sreeranjini, pointing to an abridged version on a cloth. Courtesy and concentration become ladders, Kumbakarna, Duryodhana and more become snakes, and children become familiar with stories and ideas unconsciously.

Colourful lagori ‘stones’ made of palm leaf grab attention next. Sreeranjani  states, “Palm leaf is not easily available here. Getting close to nature this way instils a sense of belonging in children. They start wondering about where their toys come from”. So where do these come from? From trees in Nagercoil. And then to Kanyakumari where they are crafted and made suitable for play by a group of women at Kanya Kumari Kalai Koodam (K4), a creative platform facilitated by CCD (The Covenant Center For Development).

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Getting close to nature this way instils a sense of belonging in children. They start wondering about where their toys come from.

K4 products do not come with a manual. “They are multi-purpose and multi-dimensional, the use depends on each person’s creativity”, says Nalini Jayaram, a freelance artist who was a design consultant with K4, CCD, an NGO working with craftsmen for over 4 years. To revive palm leaf weaving and to add value to the craft, K4 started designing educational kits, games and rattles reviving designs that the older women had played with when young. They now work with organisations like Kavade in an informal way, taking inputs and updating designs.

There are not enough funds for retail outlets or stalls in exhibitions; the source now is mainly from sales, through word of mouth. Beedi rolling factories pay well in Kanyakumari and are taking over valuable skill away from the crafts”, rues Nalini, who currently facilitates post-school art programs and workshops in Valley School. Funds and good marketing is the only way to sustain this remarkable effort.

Teaching kids can be fun with handmade games

At Kavade, Sreeranjini has more ideas in the pipeline. Handmade doesn’t just mean sticking to traditional Indian games and toys. She believes that games can inspire an interest in science and learning as well. “A game of pallanguzhi can help in teaching kids math in a fun way, I really wish teachers would use this in class”, she says.

Bringing the handmade world to the classroom is what Sutradhar is trying to achieve. A resource centre focused on early learning, it promotes material for teachers and a store full of toys from NGOs and cooperatives. Between June and September every year, Sutradhar holds workshops for teachers which enable them to use puppetry, storytelling, eurhythmics (music and movement) and more to make learning fun.

Sutradhar designs new toys and kits, which are then made by its artisan network. The colourful store stocks wooden toys from Chennapatna and Etikoppa, stuffed toys from Kodaikanal, wooden acrobat folk toys from the north, board games in kalamkari from Kalahasti and palm leaf toys from Kanyakumari. “Many parameters are kept in mind while sourcing material – safety, utility, raw material and cultural links,” says Kamakshy, Director, Programs, at Sutradhar.

Sometimes there is disconnect between demand and what the artisans are willing to make”, says Kamakshy. Weather conditions also affect wood and bamboo, making storage an issue, she adds. Another issue with handmade toys is difficulty in ensuring uniform quality. Sutradhar and Kavade interact with artisans mostly through NGOs or cooperatives and new creations are discovered through exhibitions and melas. Design innovation and finalisation often happen through phone or over the Internet with skilled helpers.

The best thing is that kids play with another person instead of staring at a screen or competing with a machine.

Only those concerned with aesthetics or those with a crafts background are open to eco-friendly toys. People often want to know about the life of these. I tell them they don’t last lifelong but can live different lives in the 4-5 years,” says Nalini at K4. A rattle could be a prop in a drill or drama, a tool in any activity you let it be part of.

The best thing is that kids play with another person instead of staring at a screen or competing with a machine. For kids aged 6-7 the games are about strategizing; it tickles their brains to think of solutions. As the games get bigger, so does the competitive spirit but it’s all healthy and children know that they win some and will lose some”, says Ranjini.

After endless browsing through blasts from the past, here are my favourites:

– Palm leaf star ‘lego’: Imagine and build all your dreams with palm leaves and toothpicks.
– Bird & Butterfly dominoes: Colourful wooden chips with the classic domino on one side and birds and butterflies on the other.
– Nine Men’s Morris, Aadu Huli Aata: Strategising on these pleasantly designed boards was never more fun!
– Rainstick: A bamboo stick filled with pebbles and pins arranged along the pipe. When the stick is upended it sounds like rain.

Sreeranjini, Kavade. Email: [email protected]
Nalini Jayaram, K4. Email: [email protected]
Kamakshy Mopuri, Sutradhar. Email: [email protected]

Sutradhar has an annual Sale with up to 25% discount from March 2nd to 5th at their Indiranagar office in Bangalore.

*Photo credit: Poornima S. (Palm leaf star legos from Kavade.)


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