The festive season is a busy time for idol makers in Allahabad, but fierce competition means diminishing profits

Twenty-five-year old Gulab Singh is one of the few remaining artisans in Sangam City who deal in paper-pulp model idols.

A fourth-generation artisan, he remembers how the festival season would bring good sales till only a few years ago.

But while the cost of living and raw materials have increased significantly since he entered his family trade more than a decade ago, the sales of paper-pulp models have dwindled, owing much to competition from clay and fibre glass idols.

“The customers still want idols at the old rate. Earlier we would buy items at Rs 5, now it’s Rs 20. And now the customers are not satisfied with ordinary idols. So we have to innovate, with colours, shringar, bead or even zari brocades.”

“Some people order for specific idols. They want their God or Goddess to be unique. Recently, a man came here and told us to make a statue of Durga while she is slaying the demon. He wanted us to replicate the act and show how the demon’s neck comes off his body and falls to the ground,” says another artisan.

While it normally takes three days to craft a three foot tall paper-pulp idol, the ones measuring over five-six feet can take up to 10 days of work. And at Rs 1800-Rs 5000, the income generated per unit appears handsome, but given the costs the margin earned per piece would be around only Rs 650-Rs 800.

These low returns could further be dented by the recent Court directive banning paper-pulp idols during Dusshera and Durga Puja. Add to that the inescapable competition of clay idols brought by migrants coming as far away as from West Bengal.

Allahabad has a fair number of Bengalis, who understandably like to celebrate festivals like Durga Puja in their own traditional way.

This has, over the years, led to the popularity of the Kolkata styled life-like idols made of clay and straw, and adorned with paint, sarees and ornaments.

They present a better finish and durability than paper-pulp idols, which tend to get soggy and lose their form when in touch with water.

However, while clay idols are in vogue, they are more labour extensive, require a larger workshop and more labourers. The paper-pulp work, on the other hand, is mostly done at home by family members.

T.K. Pal migrated to Allahabad from Kolkata three decades ago in search of his own niche market away from the cut throat competition in Kolkata’s famed Kumartulli.  

Yet, the 52-year-old is attached to his home soil in more ways than one.

He transports his raw materials from Kolkata and only assembles the finished product in Allahabad.

“It takes 15-20 days to make one of these, no matter how big or small they are. It’s a lot of patience. These ropes, the dress, jewellery, this platform… and even the Ganga clay, I get them here by train.”