Toys That Travel

By Catriona Ellis

I’m really interested in the ways in which toys travel, and what that tells us about the movement of people and ideas.  I’d like to share a couple which I’ve been looking at recently. 

The first are a set of transparencies.  These come in a small wooden box which has a head suspended on a slightly exotic, but fundamentally quite plain, background.

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There are then twelve male and female outfits on some kind of thin plastic or possibly acetate which could be swapped, similar to paper dolls.  They were donated in 1964 but appear to date from the late nineteenth century when such toys were fashionable.  They must have been produced by someone with an intimate knowledge of India, given the detail of costumes, but are also an interesting representation.  Clearly played with and well used, I would suggest that they teach British children (who may, or may not, have been to India) that Indians are exotic and different, excelling in the arts rather than the sciences, frivolous not hard working.

The head is relatively light-skinned, probably high caste but almost anglicised, the figures are subservient (all are kneeling) & possibly emasculated (males and females are portrayed in the same pose, but in separate spheres).

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These allowed Victorian to have fun while imbibing Orientalist stereotypes about Indian culture and society but are also reflective of an anthropological need to know, understand and categorise other cultures.  Not a particularly gendered toy, these transparencies situate children in hierarchies of knowledge and power and familiarity that become assumed rather than contested.

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The second set of toys are connected to the board game Ludo.  The first photo is a beautifully stitched Indian game of pachisi.  We know little about this specific game, but my suspicion is that it also dates from the late nineteenth century.

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Pachisi is known as the national game of India, and there is evidence of it being played at the Mughal Court in north India in the sixteenth century.[i]  The pachisi board is made of cloth in a patchwork design, joined at the centre or char koni.  It comes with a set of 12 beehive shaped wooden pawns in colours of yellow, black, red, and green. The aim is to get all four of the pawns round the board and back to the char koni as fast as possible.

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The char koni also contains a pocket where the pawns are kept – a very efficient storage solution.  In India, the players throw 6 or 7 cowrie shells on the char koni and move forward according to the number on the shells that fall facing upwards – the name pachisi comes from the Hindi word meaning twenty-five, the highest throw possible.  A game of high strategy, teamwork is a major consideration with players joining together to create a blockade or to send the pawns of the opposing team home.  There are a variety of versions in India, often varying according to the type of dice used (for example chaupar requires three long, four-sided dice).  At some point the game appears to have been simplified, into the game we now know as Ludo.

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How many of us are aware of this heritage?  Very few, I would guess.  Not so in the 1920s, and the museum holds a game of Ludo bought for a little girl in 1928 as a Christmas present.  The game – including a folding board, dice, counters and a shaker with box – is familiar, but the box lid shows a moonlit Indian scene with the two turbaned men in the foreground playing the game of ludo, explicitly highlighting its heritage/genealogy.

Now, in the twenty first century there is concern that pachisi is becoming an endangered tradition in India, while its simplified  modern form continues to be popular with children.[ii]

As the British moved around the globe in the nineteenth century, it is interesting the ways in which their new ideas, experiences and ethnographic understandings were reformulated in ways which made that travel and the British understandings of cultural superiority and political and economic control meaningful and familiar to children back home in Britain.

[i]         Frederic V. Grunfeld (ed) Games of the World, (Plenary Publications International, 1975) p.26

[ii]   Souvik Ray ‘9 traditional Indian games and toys on the verge of extinction’ Indian Times, 29/06/2015 [Accessed onlilne 28/3/2017]

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