Toys are the simplest souvenirs that one can bring from India. They are light and small, so will not take much space in the suitcase; they are handcrafted; they are unique and have strong Indian identity; they are beautiful. And it doesn't matter what part of the country you visit because every region has its own distinctive tradition of toys.
Carriage toy, porcelain and inlay work. 19th-century, Salisbury Museum. Photo courtesy Jim Todd
As everywhere in the world traditional Indian dolls and toys are replicas of things from the surrounding life. Materials used for creating toys are various, with wood and clay being the most popular, but themes are pretty much same: animals, birds, people, deities, mythological characters, scenes of daily life. While some of toys are completely abstract others are more realistic; some are in natural colour while others are brightly painted; some are cheap while others are quite expensive. But each toy is original and shows tremendous liveliness of imagination.
As I have mentioned above, wood and clay are the most popular media for making toys in India. Andra Pradhesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh are famous for their wooden toys while Assam, Bihar and Bengal are more renowned for their clay creations.
Kondapalli toys are, perhaps, the most famous and indeed, they stand apart thanks to the surprisingly light wood they are made from and to the realistic style of the toys with meticulous attention to the smallest details. Local craftsmen specialize in depicting scenes of everyday village life such as a woman milking a cow or cooking or drawing water from a well; a man climbing a palm tree or driving a bullock carriage etc.
Kondapalli wooden toy depicting a marriage procession. Photo sourceAnother well known and unique toys, also from Andhra Pradesh, are Tirupathi dolls. They are made of red wood and are generally miniature reproductions of religious figures in traditional classical poses seen in sculptured works of the region. The dolls are a popular temple souvenir for the pilgrims who visit the shrine at Tirumala. Also are popular the male and female pairs, so called bride and groom.
Krishnanagar in West Bengal is the centre for highly realistic miniature clay models of human beings which usually depict typical life in Bengal. They are more like refined works of art, very finely shaped and chiselled. Because of their superior quality they have received world-wide recognition and found their way into museums abroad. The work is done with care and finesse with much attention to details and involves far more time than the usual clay toys. Hence the cost of these products is comparatively higher.
Clay toys from Odisha, photo sourcePapier mache toys are made in a number of places throughout the country but toys and dolls from Madhubani district have their own raw and earthy appeal. Animals and bird figures are often whimsically painted, and have vivid expressions.
Papier mache doll from Madhubani, photo source
Tiger with a nodding head made of papier-mache, 1980-1989 London's Museum of Childhood
Coconut fiber elephant toy, photo sourceGwalior in Madhya Pradesh has a special type of traditional rag dolls. The faces are painted beautifully, the eyes drawn in masterly fashion to make them lively and expressive. The dolls are dressed in paper costumes that are highly decorated with tin foil, spangles, beads, tassels. The dolls are made in many sizes and are always sold in pairs.
Cotton doll with metal jewellery and a wooden base, 1975-80. Museum of Childhood, London
And finally, the most unusual toys are those made from cow dung. Brightly painted birds and animals as well as statuettes of idols are made by women of Odisha from this absolutely free and easily available material.
Cow dung doll from Odisha, photo source
Handicrafts of India by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay
Crafts of India: Handmade in India
Museums of India: National Handicrafts and Handloom Museum, New Delhi