CRAFT The artisans of Swamimalai sculpt beauty on bronze.

Swamimalai in Thanjavur district is a production centre for bronze idols of Gods and Goddesses and great leaders. The artisans who turn out beautiful icons according to shilpa sastra right through the year, belong to the Viswakarma community, and are said to have originated from Gingee in Villupuram District.

They were involved in the construction of the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur and after the job was completed, a small group of them migrated to Swamimalai under the leadership of Agora Veerabhadra Sthapathi.

Devasenapathy and his sons, Radhakrishna Stapati, Srikanta Stapati and Swaminatha Stapati, a renowned family of sculptors, are descendants of Agora Veerabhadra Stapati. On the demise of their father (Devasenapathy) the sons have taken over the mantle. Their unit, Sri Jayam Industries, is located on Raja Street in Swamimalai. The work of carving idols is executed based on orders from within the country and abroad.

This writer visited their premises in 1999 when Mr. Devasenapathy was alive, and again recently.

Of the idols supplied to various Hindu temples around the world, the 108 poses (karnas) of Lord Siva in the temple at Hawaii in the U.S., the three feet high idol of Lord Shanmuga with his consorts, Sri Valli and Deivanai for the Murugan temple in London, a five-ft high Nataraja kept in the office of the UNESCO in Paris, the idols of Kailasanatha temple in Kabithavathai in Sri Lanka and Perumal temple in Singapore are noteworthy, according to Srikanta Stapati, a commerce graduate and second son of Devasenapathy. Like Srikanta his elder and younger brothers, Radhakrishnan and Swaminathan, are industrious idol makers. They are assisted by a team of three master craftsmen and 30 workers. There are about 150 master craftsmen and an equal number of workers in Swamimalai.

The idol-making process

To start with, a wax model of the idol is prepared with a mixture of paraffin wax, resin and ground nut oil in right proportions called "mezhugu" (wax). The wax becomes quite flexible on exposure to fire. On this flexible material, the stapati proceeds to work keeping in mind the fundamental principles to be adhered to while fixing the length of the model (vigraham). The model is then divided into 120 parts, and out of these, the length of the face, torso, hands and legs are created as per shilpa sastra. Ornaments for the deity are detailed on the wax model itself. The artisan next makes the shape of the clay mould, called 'karuvu' in Tamil. For this, he uses alluvial soil of the river-bed nearby, which contains more than 65 per cent clay. In fact in and around Kumbakonam, the alluvial soil contains high amount of clay. The wax model is covered with a paste of alluvial soil and dried in the hot sun. A second and third coating with a paste of alluvial soil is given to make the surface of the wax model even.

In order to strengthen the mould a steel wire is wound around it and the clay mould is heated after drying. On heating, the wax inside melts draining into a runner provided at the bottom of the mould. The clay mould is then heated red-hot in the furnace and hot liquid metal poured into it. The mould is allowed to cool and the wires and iron rods binding it are removed. The mould is broken open, and the rough metal image is chiselled, filed and engraved. Chiselling the idols is a tough and time-consuming task. The idols are finally given brass polish. While a two feet statue takes a month for completion, a six feet high image takes five months.

The All-India Handicraft Board has given identity cards to all artisans, and has recommended them to Nationalised Banks for credit cards. Also the Life Insurance Corporation of India has done its part for the welfare of the artisans.

More In: Crafts | Arts