His love for everything that draws its grandeur from tradition and the artist’s craftsmanship taught Karthik Vaidyanathan that art shouldn’t be just something sitting pretty in a glass vitrine. The lesson seems to form the base ingredient at the lac turnery of Varnam, a social enterprise that reinvents the famous Channapatna wooden toys and lac-ware of Karnataka by lending them a functional touch.
No surprise then that two cute little birdies with glossy yellow and red beaks aren’t toys but salt and pepper shakers and the owl with rippled orange eyes is a table lamp. The list is endless with an innovative range of lighting, kitchen, dining and bar accessories, home décor and toys that Varnam churns out at its Channapatna-based turnery.
The art form was introduced by 18th century ruler Tipu Sultan, who had invited Persian artisans to teach it to their Indian counterparts.
“The first thing you notice about a Channapatna handicraft is its play of vibrant colours and lustre drawn from lac. But hand-crafting and lacquering every single piece on a lathe is an extremely painful affair,” says Karthik, an engineer with 15 years experience in the media industry.
“Despite the toil by artisans, I felt the craft was underutilised. There was no innovation in designs and many artisans had switched to other occupations. The entry of cheap China-made replicas made it more difficult to sell genuine ones,” he adds.
His efforts started with convincing artisans to introduce new designs during his weekend getaways to the toy-town. “To convince them I started giving them designs for small orders. One of them was a consignment of 50 lamps, something they had never made before. It was a hit at exhibitions and stores started deluging me with orders,” he says.
Varnam was started in 2011 with an aim to make the waning art form relevant in the modern world.
“We work 365 days a year to give artisans a sustainable livelihood and come up with new designs every month. As we strive towards perfection, we use raw material of the highest quality. The lac we use alone costs `2,000 per kg,” Karthik says.
Varnam has its flagship store at Bengaluru and others in Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Pune, Chennai, Goa and Puducherry. One can also buy its products online at www.varnam.co.in.
His products are priced from `100 to `8,000. The lowest priced are key chains, bangles, etc while the highest ones are floor lamps. All Varnam products are biodegradable and made from eco-friendly colours.
A recipient of the Kyoorius Design Awards 2013 in Design Craft and Packaging, and CII Design Excellence award for its ‘Oinkston tableware’ series, Varnam also trains interns of well-known design institutes.
“I am not a trained designer though my career taught me to design products in a palatable way, be it designing covers for music albums or jewellery,” says Karthik. “Most of my designs are drawn from mundane life. It can be anything from a bird on a tree to a signage,” he adds.
One thing he rues about is the way his designs—even award-winning ones—are imitated by others. “That is one of the side-effects of success. But I am happy that Varnam has stirred a lot of interest among artisans and urged them to think out of the box. I can’t help being proud when I say a majority of artisans at Varnam are women even though the craft was traditionally a man’s domain,” Karthik says.
Varnam works with a team of 15 artisans who get a monthly stipend or are paid according to the handicrafts they make. “Plans are afoot to introduce a pension scheme for artisans and provide them performance-based incentives apart from loans at zero per cent interest to buy raw materials,” Karthik explains.