Tuesday, January 15, 2013

An incredible Toy Story!

By Nitika Agarwal
Photography: courtesy Sudarshan Khanna

Sudarshan Khanna
Sudarshan Khanna at his studio in 1999

He not just believes but demonstrates toys as the simplest means to absorb the successful blend of art and technology as Sudarshan Khanna retraces his association with toy-making and the child psyche.

“To make something happen, make it simple;” counsels Sudarshan Khanna, internationally acclaimed author, educator, toy designer, one of India’s leading experts in traditional folk toys, national award winner for his life time work for design-science among children, past president of International Toy Research Association, Founder-Chairperson of Toys for Tomorrow among a host of other accolades…

Realizing his penchant for design, Sudarshan belonged to the very first batch of product design course at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, India. He is reverential about his 35 plus-year long association with the institute, as he graduated to become an educationist, establishing a post graduate program in Toy Design and a Toy Innovation Centre there.

Sudarshan Khanna with Katalin Zsuzsanna Orban in Romania
Sudarshan Khanna's workshop organized by Katalin Zsuzsanna Orban in Romania

“I am a people person.” He explains. “The bulk of design is creativity but it is also about reading people’s mind and understanding what they want and what they should want.” This guiding principle underlines Sudarshan’s explicit toy designs for people with special needs; ingeniously aiding recognition, coordination, sensitivity and even nuances of science. Sudarshan’s eyes twinkle with unbounded enthusiasm as he reminisces, “How do you teach gentleness to a child? Or how do you teach centrifugal force to the visually impaired?” Such questions are seamlessly answered by some of the toys from his huge collection!

Toys by Sudarshan Khanna
Toys by sudarshan Khanna

Gravitating further towards people with special needs was impacted by Siegfried Zoels, director of ‘creativity workshop for special needs’ in Germany. Several discussions led to a beautiful prototype of a toy by Sudarshan that triggered more designs; these were eventually introduced into the market. “He was also greatly instrumental in my setting up the Toy Innovation Centre and post graduate program of Toy and Game Design at NID,” he keenly adds.

Siegfried Zoles with Sudarshan Khanna
Siegfried Zoles with Sudarshan Khanna at Toys for Tomorrow forum at NID

Social activist Baba Amte’s workshop at ‘Anandwan’, a community rehabilitation centre for leprosy patients, proved to be one of his best learning experiences. It also later led to a new approach for ‘System Design’ at NID - a program on design for community.

Baba Amte & Sadhna Amte
Baba & Sadhna Amte, at Anandwan

“Design helps me experience immense pleasure out of unveiling the unknown; to discover and explore the complexities of behavioral science and mechanism,” he gushes. Renowned American designer, Charles Eames reinforced his vision and understanding of design that, ‘ordinary can be transformed into extraordinary’. That design, is a remarkable learning resource that educates through discovery and first-hand experience. Toy design especially, allows him to determine the incredible strength and diversity in materials that he inadvertently discovered in traditional folk toys. 

Charles Eames with Sudarshan Khanna
Eames in 1977 at Sudarshan Khanna's toy displayat NID

Recognizing craft as ‘design’ and not just craftsmanship, Sudarshan discovered profound wealth of knowledge in several extraordinary craftspeople from various parts of India. It was from an old potter and toy maker, Buddha Chacha (old uncle), that Sudarshan recognized the true strength of hard work and dedication.

Traditional Indian Toys
Traditional India

Acknowledging unknown geniuses, who apparently innovated some very unique traditional toys, Sudarshan, encouraged by Zette Emmons, the present curator of a museum in New York City, documented these in his first book, Dynamic Folk Toys. Zette had lamented that such an interesting monumental resource was slowly depleting and thus a book would have invaluable documentation in cultural and educational contexts.  

Zette Emmon with toy makers in Ahmedabad
Zette Emmon with toy makers in Ahmedabad, India

Ushering in creativity, innovation and storytelling as an essential component of growth, Sudarshan conducts workshops for teachers to help them experience the relevance of holistic learning. His connection with Antal Kelle, a Budapest based Hungarian designer, he identifies gleefully as his ‘twin’ brother is uncanny. They believe to share similar vision on principles of education and design philosophy that develop and intensify with mutual discussions and practice.

Workshops by Sudarshan Khanna
Various Workshops by Sudarshan Khanna

Sudarshan Khanna with Antal Kelle
Sudarshan Khanna with Antal Kelle, eminent toy innovator and designer, Budapest (Aug'06)

Ever so enthusiastic about his toys, Sudarshan Khanna is currently the design consultant to ‘Universal Learn Today’, by India Today Group that seeks to manage the curriculum in schools through creative ways of thinking, by means of design.  

For more on the design stalwart visit www.sudarshankhanna.com


  1. Extremely good content.
    I would like to participate in the workshop conducted by Mr. S. Khanna. Actually looking for a chance to work with him in a workshop.

  2. Wonderful overview.
    Of course there is lots more !!!!!!

  3. After longtime I found such detailed yet engaging overview.
    Pankaj please share your experience if you could attend his workshop


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