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The Gods Of Small Things

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Seated on an imposing metal-hued throne replete with carvings of ominous snakes and tridents, the Jai Malhar Ganesha looks ferocious. Modelled on the warrior god Khandoba, the otherwise cheerful-looking, pot-bellied Ganpati looks a bit out of whack — with bulging biceps, rippling pecs, muscular shoulders, a bright red pheta (turban) on his forehead and a long broadsword clasped in his clenched fist.

Unfazed by the intense downward gaze of the Lord, master craftsman Vinod Naik goes about lining greenish-blue veins on the extended arm that holds the sword. Naik is pleased with the overall majesty of his Jai Malhar Ganesha, but equally perturbed at the prospect of his brawny god stealing the show.

Naik is one of thousands of Ganpati idol makers at Pen in Maharashtra’s Raigad district, who is worried about the soaring popularity of Jai Malhar Ganeshas across western India. This particular Ganesha — based on the Marathi teleserial Jai Malhar, depicting the life of Khandoba — is the latest fad in the Ganpati idol circuit, eclipsing older favourites such as the Vishnuavtaar Ganpati, Mahadeo Ganpati and Mayuresh Ganpati. Many idol makers feel the Jai Malhar Ganesha will be in vogue for some time to come. “All of us make Jai Malhar Ganeshas, but what about our existing stock of Ganpati idols,” wonders Naik, who owns the Shree Ganesh Kala Kendra at Hamrapur, near Pen. “If this version continues to be popular next year, we’ll not be able to release our existing stock of idols. We’ll suffer huge losses.”

Each one of the more than 10,000 idol makers, working in around 600 Ganpati kharkhanas (factories that make Ganpati idols) across Pen, strives every year to come up with that one winning Ganpati design that can give him a headstart over the competition.  Of course, a bright idea never remains the preserve of the original designer; it is replicated across factories in a matter of days. Notions of patent prosecution and intellectual property have still not reached the shores of Pen taluka.

The Birthplace Of The Lord
The narrow lanes and alleys criss-crossing Pen get chock-a-block a few days prior to Ganesh Chaturthi, which falls between mid-August and early September every year. Ganpati idol wholesalers, pandal organisers and even small buyers flock here from nearby towns as well as states such as Goa and Karnataka and even countries such as the UK, the US, Australia and Mauritius to buy Ganpati idols.

According to Shrikant Vamanrao Deodhar, president of the Shri Ganesh Murtikaar Vyavasayik Kalyankari Mandal, craftsmen in Pen taluka make more than 30 lakh Ganpati idols every year. Assuming the average price of an idol to be around Rs 5,000 — the price of a six-ft-tall Ganpati, a popular size among buyers — Pen’s Ganpati idol manufacturing industry rakes in at least Rs 1,500 crore every year.

“We have a 125-year history of making Ganpati idols,” says Deodhar, a fourth-generation craftsman and the owner of Kalpana Kala Mandir. Deodhar, incidentally, is among the first sculptors from Pen to study at the prestigious JJ School of Art. “Idol-making got institutionalised (in Pen) in the early 1980s. Till that time, we were only making clay murtis, which required good sculpting skills,” says Deodhar. “The advent of plaster of paris (POP) changed the game.”

Craftsmen in Pen make both POP and clay idols — the latter forming only about 5 per cent of all idols made every year. This is because modelling clay idols requires a lot of skill and time. Had all the craftsmen here made only clay Ganpati idols, they would not have crossed 5,000 a year, says Naik, who makes only POP idols in his kharkhana.

Clay idols are difficult to transport — and also immerse in water — as they are heavy. A four-ft clay Ganpati idol can weigh between 80 and 100 kg, say sculptors.

“Clay is environment friendly, but we’ll not be able to make the numbers that we do now. If the government bans POP idols citing environmental reasons, it will be the end of idol manufacturers in Pen,” says Deodhar.

In their defence, artisans such as Deodhar say POP idols do not pollute water bodies. “POP may not be as clean as clay, but it does not pollute water as environmentalists contend,” he says. “It can cause blockages in drainage pipes, but this problem can be solved by setting up temporary tanks to immerse POP Ganpati idols. Idol makers rarely use oil paints which pollute water.”

It is the ease of modelling idols that makes POP popular among craftsmen at Pen, though “blue-blooded” artisans such as Deodhar may not see much creativity in the material.

The first step to making an idol is to create a hollow clay mould — these days craftsmen also use fibre moulds — as per the design given by the factory owner. This process requires a lot of skill as the mould maker makes a hollow murti from scratch. Artisans who make moulds are always in great demand in Pen. The best ones charge anywhere between Rs 1,500 and Rs 2,000 for a day’s work.

Once the mould is made, liquid POP is poured into it and left to dry. Upon drying, the mould is separated from the solidified POP, which is now in the shape of a Ganpati murti. After some minor scraping of rough edges and polishing, you get the kaccha Ganpati (unpainted Ganpati in raw form).

“Wholesale traders from Mumbai and other cities buy kaccha Ganpatis from us,” says Ananth Samal, an idol maker in Kasaralli. “Kaccha Ganpatis are easier to transport and store in warehouses. Idols also look fresh if painted closer to Chaturthi.”

Idol Economics
Ganpati kharkhanas work like normal factories for almost 10 months of the year. Artisans, craftsmen, apprentices and helpers regroup at a kharkhana a couple of months after the Ganesha festival. Preparations for the following year start in November — finalising the designs for new idols, to be followed by the making of moulds.

Idol-making is a capital-intensive business. Factory owners usually take a bank loan at 11–11.5 per cent interest at the start of the year. The practice of providing loans to idol-manufacturing clusters was introduced by the Pen Urban Co-operative Bank (PUCB). Ironically, the bank is now embroiled in a Rs 600-crore loan scam. When the Reserve Bank of India pulled up PUCB for misappropriation of public funds, public sector banking major Bank of India (BoI) stepped in to lend to idol manufacturers. The bank is learnt to have opened branches in Pen and Hamrapur to better serve the idol-making clusters.

Factory owners like Naik who make 12,000-15,000 idols annually, require a working capital of
Rs 15–20 lakh. Large manufacturers borrow up to Rs 50 lakh to meet their working capital requirements. Banks such as BoI do not even ask for security for loans up to Rs 10 lakh. “We have to invest in this trade throughout the year. Money will start coming in only a few weeks before the festival. Again, wholesalers work on cash credit; they pay us our money only after they sell the murtis,” says Naik.
A 12-ft Jai Malhar Ganesha fetches a Pen artisan around Rs 35,000. The same idol will later sell in the Mumbai market for around Rs 1 lakh
Intense competition, inventory pile-up and rising labour and raw material costs eat into the profit margins of idol makers. Supply from 600 factories keeps idol prices depressed, with just about a 5-10 per cent headroom for increase every year.

That said, idol wholesalers from Mumbai and other cities make massive profits by buying idols cheap and selling them, more often than not, at more than twice the price they paid. So, a 12-ft Jai Malhar Ganesha will fetch Naik Rs 35,000, but will sell in the Mumbai market — barely 70 km away — for around Rs 1 lakh.

“There’s intense competition in the market. We cannot increase prices on our own; if we do that our buyers — mostly wholesalers — will move to the next shop,” says Sanjay Yadav of Sandip Kala Mandir, near Hamrapur railway crossing.

A 10-20 per cent rise in raw material and labour costs have to be factored in by factory owners at the beginning of the year. Idol makers source clay and POP from Gujarat and Rajasthan, respectively. Clay from Gujarat, which comes at around Rs 250 per 40-kg sack, is ideal as it is more viscous and is greyish-white in colour. Five years ago, one could get a sack of clay for about Rs 80. The cost of POP has also shot up over the past few years.

Labour costs have kept pace with general inflation. Mid-sized factories employ around 15-20 hands while large factories, like the one owned by Yadav, have over 40 workers. Average employee wages range from Rs 200 to Rs 1,000 per day. Skilled craftsmen, who can work on the face (eyes and eyelashes), fingers, ears and legs of the idol, make more money than others in the trade except for, of course, the mould maker.

A few idol makers in Pen had plans to turn themselves into an MSME cluster, but stiff opposition from certain sections of the tribe, which did not want to pay the 10 per cent deposit (base capital) needed to form the cluster, put paid to the plans.       

“There are very few educated people in this segment,” says Deodhar. “People with degrees do not want to be idol makers anymore. Illiterate people take up idol-making because it is better than toiling in the fields. They’ll move out of idol-making the minute they find something better.”

Eastern Enterprise
The first coat of paint — bright blue at the base and the background — on the ensemble of statues of Durga and her cohorts has not yet dried. Rains have played havoc this year. The streets of Kumartuli (potters’ colony) in Kolkata, thousands of kilometres away from Pen, are still wet. Craftsmen preparing idols of Durga and the demonic Mahishasura for the upcoming Durga Puja are working overtime to meet delivery schedules. Cloudy skies and dampness in the air are hindering their progress though.

Prodyut Paul — most idol makers in Kumartuli have Pal or Paul as surnames — of Shilpa Bharti Gora Chand Paul & Sons doesn’t even have time to answer phone calls these days. He has to finish work on half a dozen Durga murtis, lined up for delivery to organisers.

Prodyut has already shipped a small consignment of fibre-glass Durga murtis to customers residing in the US, Canada and Europe. Now, clay murtis for Indian buyers await completion.

Non-resident Indians buy fibre-glass murtis as immersion of clay idols is not permitted. Devotees worship fibre-glass idols in most foreign countries; the ritualistic immersion is more token — with many opting to immerse a small lump of clay or lemon in water. Of the around 50 murtis which were exported from Kumartuli this year, 46 were made of fibre-glass, according to the Kumartuli Mritshilpi Sanskriti Samity.

“When Durga Puja is over, we start making fibre-glass murtis for the next season. In between, we also get small orders for Saraswati Puja, Kali Puja and Viswakarma Puja,” says Prodyut. “We’re engaged for most part of the year, but we make good money only during Navratri.”

Kumartuli has a 300-year history of making murtis, especially for Durga Puja. On the banks of the Hooghly, Kumartuli is home to nearly 350 murtikhanas, most of which only make idols of entel maati (fine clay recovered from the Ganga). Only about a dozen factories — like the one owned by Prodyut — make fibre-glass murtis.

The potters’ quarter — as Kumartuli was known in the days of the Raj — makes more than 20,000 Durga idols every year. The price of a full set 12-ft clay Durga idol, with other gods, goddesses and the demon, ranges from Rs 1.2 lakh to Rs 2 lakh. The level of decoration, especially ornaments and clothes, has a bearing on the final price.

“There’s more money in fibre-glass idols, but volumes are low,” says Prodyut. “We make 20 per cent more profit on fibre-glass murtis.” 

Unlike the craftsmen in Pen, idol makers in Kumartuli do not use a lot of POP to make Durga murtis. Bamboo, paddy straw, shoal vines, jute and clay are among their basic raw materials. That said, artisans in Kumartuli share many of the woes plaguing craftsmen in Pen.

“Raw material costs and wages have soared over the past few years,” says Prasanta Paul of Shilpa Kendra. “Take, for instance, the price of Ganga mitti (clay), which has risen from Rs 100 per cart to about Rs 300. Prices of straw, shoal grass, jute, jora, bamboo et al have also gone up. Skilled karigars charge Rs 2,000-2,500 per day.”

As in Pen, life is tough for unskilled craftsmen in Kumartuli. There’s limited work in the off-season. Even if there’s work — in fibre-glass idol factories and large clay idol workshops — few unskilled workmen are employed.

“Unskilled workmen have to fend for themselves for four to six months every year. Many of them do odd jobs,” says Babu Pal of Kumartuli Mritshilpi Sanskriti Samity.  

“Sometimes even factory owners, who have taken huge bank loans, suffer losses,” says Babu. “Losses arise when customers do not take delivery of the idols. Such cases are rampant in Kumartuli.”

Samity members like Babu are in touch with banks to facilitate low-interest loans to murti karigars in Kumartuli. Banks, on their part, have not taken any decision on proposals put forth by the Samity members.

A Dying Trade
Idol-making is a dying trade at most kumbharwadas across the country. Pen and Kumartuli, the most famous among them, are fighting their own battles to survive and thrive.

The ‘green’ brigade’s call to ban POP murtis, if enforced by the government or the courts, will end Pen’s glory days. Migration of skilled craftsmen to cities like Delhi and Mumbai is hurting business in Kumartuli. Artisans such as Rashraj Sadan Pal of Krishnanagar in West Bengal come to Mumbai every year to make Durga and Ganpati murtis as it is economically more viable for both customers and artisans. “We get more orders in Mumbai as there are not many murtikars around,” says Rashraj, who makes Durga idols for major pandals in the city.

“We come to Mumbai in June every year. This year also we’ve managed to get orders for eight full-set Durga idols, 30 Viswa-karma idols, five Kali idols and eight Ganesh idols,” says Rashraj.

While artisans like Rashraj have moved out of their homes to ply their trade, others have shifted to more stable and lucrative jobs. Sadly, the current generation of idol makers in both Pen and Kumartuli does not want its children to join the trade. “We want our children to learn the computer… That will secure their future,” says Prasanta.

The service sector is keeping pace with the rising aspirations of idol makers in Pen and Kumartuli. One cannot the miss signboards announcing new tuition batches for engineering and medicine entrance examinations in these places.

“Not many people want to send their kids to Ganpati kharkhanas anymore,” says Preeti Shah, who runs the Shree Ballaleshwar Oxford English Speaking Classes at Pen. “Idol-making is now seen as a vocation of the uneducated masses. People want their kids to go to professional colleges,” she adds.

A sign from God, perhaps? Or, of the changing times?

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 20-10-2014)