Tuesday, 9 September 2014


Varnam store

Traditional Indian craft given a contemporary twist. That’s the hallmark of Varnam — a store that I highly recommend for any traveller coming to Bangalore and wanting to take home a piece of Indian craft. 

Varnam is a small haven for the age-old Channapatna craft (more about it later). There is space under its roof for a select other traditional crafts too. But the allure of Varnam is the Channapatna craft — lacquered products made out of hale wood. They are  100% natural; use natural colours. And the craft — ancient. But the designs and ideas are CONTEMPORARY — crafted by artisans from the village of Channapatna, who for generations have been practicing the craft.

Channapatna is a small rural district, 60 kms from Bangalore. It is known as the 'Town of Toys' since it is famous for a kind of wooden toys that's been made in this place from the time of Tipu Sultan (1750-1799). Apparently, he is said to have invited artisans from Persia to teach the local people the craft of making lacquered toys. At the heart of the craft is the LAC, a natural resin secreted by an insect, Laccifier Lacca, that gives these products their glossy sheen.

An artist sees not what is, but what he is. For eons, the artistans saw only toys when they saw the hale wood. Enter 30-something Karthik Vaidyanathan, with his Chettiar business sensibility, inborn talent for design and few of the artists began to see things differently.

Karthik Vaidyanathan
Karthik Vaidyanathan’s (the man behind  Varnam) tryst with the 200-year-old craft happened by chance or as he’d like to say, “in an organic manner”.  He had volunteered to help a nationally renowned design house with ideation and design. They in turn had asked him to ‘look’ at the Channapatna craft. He did. And he saw something different other than just toys —he saw lamps, salt-and-pepper shakers, kitchen towel holders, bookends, jewellery, bar accessories, board games and toys of a different kind. He saw things that people usually never associated with the traditional Channapatna craft.

 However, his ideas never saw the light of day with the design house. Frustrated, Karthik says, “I decided it do it myself.” He was determined to modernize an age-old craft without  compromising on its core. “I went to numerous craftsmen,” Karthik recalls. But they wouldn’t take him seriously. “Why should they?” he asks. “They have been made promises by designers before and nothing usually comes of it. Or they would work on projects which did nothing for them financially in a sustainable manner.” But, those who know Karthik will tell you that once he sinks his teeth into something — he will not let go till he gets what he wants. 

It took him a few months to convince a few artisans to work on his desins. And thus began Varnam’s journey.

Today, within a short span of two years, Varnam has become an award-winning social enterprise that trains and works with women Channapatna artisans. His venture supports around 50 artisans and he has recently started a programme where he offers stipend to artisans to be trained to make the new kind of channapatna products with a universal appeal. And guess what? The artisans are all women! More power!

Karthik retells a meeting with an artisan who had come all the way from Channapatna to Bangalore to see the store. Somebody had told this elderly gentleman about Varnam. “He came, he saw the products, he touched them, held them in his hands and then finally he said….'I am happy, very very happy to see your craft'.” Karthik says: “It was a humbling experience. The gentleman might go back and copy my designs. But it doesn’t matter. I could see that he realized, for the first time in his life, that the craft need not be limited to just toys."

All proceeds from sale of Varnam products are routed back to designing and funding more products. The endeavour is also to keep the artisans employed so that they don't leave their traditional crafts for industry/factory 'jobs'.

Varnam is located in the basement of a large stone building on a narrow lane filled with greenery. Stone steps, carefully arranged, lead you to essentially a one-car-garage space. You enter it and you are reminded of those secret spaces from your childhood; spaces that you liked to disappear into, to dream and play with your imaginary friends and fairies; spaces that gave you the confidence that all was well with the world and that all your dreams would come true. Varnam is that space. Karthik call it his “happy space”.

A long wooden table filled with colourful channapatna toys, key chains, candlesticks et al occupies the centre of the room. Painted white, exposed brick walls support shelves with traditional woven baskets and wooden boxes filled with bangles, chain and other accessories; on one end are scarves. And in the back of the room is a rack of clothes — designed by Karthik. (These again are traditional weaves in a new avatar)

At Varnam, the philosophy has always been about reviving and reinterpreting our rich crafts. So, as I mentioned earlier, if you want to take home a piece of traditional Indian craft – for family and friends – you might want to visit this place.

Here’s a look at what Varnam offers:

Tipu's Toys

Storage boxes from the Kuruvi series. Kuruvis (Sparrows in Tamil) is an ode to sparrows that are fas disappearing from the urban spaces.

Goobe (owl) night lamp

Bookends. Cat & Mouse series

Wooden bangles

Handcrafted jewellery. Inbam series.
Handcrafted wooden bracelets
Lamps from Varnam
Table lamps. Swirl series
Traditional Indian lamps - the kuthuvilaku
Bar accessories 

No.444, 5th Main, after 13th cross,
Indiranagar 2nd stage Bangalore 38.
Contact: 080 25250360
Timings: 10.30 a.m to 7.30 p.m

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