The terracotta toys of Tamil Nadu are the most popular of the variety of toys made here and the craft is well entrenched in Chennai, Kanchipuram and parts of Arcot district. The artisans follow age-old techniques, with the craft being a hereditary tradition in the family.
Clay toys are made in two stages: First plaster of Paris is mixed with tapioca powder into a paste and dried till it can be rolled into layers. This is pressed into the die to get the moulds. The raw material used is rock clay and, when properly moistened, is pushed into the mould after being dusted with French chalk powder so that it can be easily removed. It is then dried in the sun, after which it is ready for colouring. The work is well divided and the men knead the clay, roll it into layers and make the moulds and models, while the women use brushes to do the colouring with colours that are kept in coconut shells.
Colours are used symbolically in these toys: a rich orange indicates men and women of a priestly class, and grays and russet indicate those in manual labour; the groom and bridal entourage are in shades of shimmering orange and pink while the rich folk are painted in bright colours and decorated with many embellishments. At Chennai, this art is practised by 300 artisan families from Cuddalore who have settled in Kosapet. Kanchipuram is also a well-known clay-toy making centre.
Karigiri near Vellore is well known for its toy animals. A popular item is a toy zoo with a collection of wild animals made in glowing clay glazes. A variety of comic toys are called Chettiar toys. They are comical in appearance; some are in traditional garb with caste marks, sacred thread and a paunch. The modern-version wears trousers and a shirt and has an oscillating-head. A toy called gundu Chettiar is believed to bring good fortune and is bought by traders.
The dolls that are used for the festival of Kolu or Dusserah are usually made of terracotta. Kolu is a festival where each household sets up a display of dolls and toys depicting stories from the epics and Puraanas. The artisans who produce these dolls and toys add new moulds to their stock every year.
Thanjavur was once well known for its elegant oscillating toys; the centres now are Kumbakonam and Mayavaram. Clay toys from Panruti, near Cuddalore are very popular. These are painted in vegetable colours and made either by hand or in a mould. The toy-varieties are secular and religious and are in the naturalistic style showing village-scenes with people engaged in various occupations. They have a tradition of excellent workmanship and fine colouring.