Meet the artists who turn a lump of wet clay into striking idols of Ganesha at the Tree Guard Foundation’s workshop

The approach road to the workshop is, to put it politely, bumpy. The slush makes it slippery. The narrow lane in the neighbourhood of Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Kukatpally, leads to a large workshop. A few men are absorbed in their work, rarely lifting their heads to talk to each other.

The only sound that permeates through the workshop comes from a grinder in which a mixture of clay, water and jute fibre is being processed. Under the tarpaulin sheets held in place by bamboos, these artisans are mixing clay, filtering it, setting it in moulds and making clay idols of Ganesha.

The Tree Guard Foundation’s workshop has 30 artists — from West Bengal, Hyderabad, Tirupati and Machilipatnam — who’ve made this place their home for the last few months. The chief artist Chandramohan says the dampness in the air makes their work tricky. “We work with black clay sourced from river beds of Ganges. The first stage is the filtering process, which we try and complete in summer,” he says. Chandramohan used to sell clay diyas near Kukatpally Rythu Bazaar for a living. Once, seeing the Tree Guard Foundation handing out small Ganesha idols ahead of Ganesh Chathurti, he met the founder Dora Raju and expressed his interest to join the team. “It’s been years. I have a steady source of income now,” he smiles.

Dora Raju knows the strength of each artist at the workshop.

“Our senior most artist, Ramu, has been working with us for 10 years. He designs the master idols of five feet, three feet and one foot height and the other artists make their idols accordingly,” he says.

The filtered clay is mixed with jute fibre to ensure tenacity and run through a custom-made machine sourced from Coimbatore. “This mixture is then put into moulds. Ramu creates the moulds for the body, hands and the head of the idol,” says Chandramohan. Without taking his eyes off an idol he’s labouring over, Ramu tells us, “My family has been making idols for generations. We moved out of Tirupati and came to Hyderabad to make a living. The idols here are all made using natural materials. We don’t use Plaster of Paris and definitely no colours.”

Chinmayi Pal and Pratap Verma are among the artists who’ve come from Kolkata. “Once the clay in put into moulds, we do the finishing for the basic statue. It takes us 25 to 30 minutes,” they say. Chandramohan chips in, “No one can beat the artisans from West Bengal in their craftsmanship.” Pratap Varma shows us the hands and trunk of an idol prepared from the moulds. The assembling of ‘joint-ing’ as the artisans call it, is the next stage.

At this workshop, idols of one to five feet are made and a few idols of 13 feet are made on order. Each year, the Foundation gives away 50,000 one-feet tall clay idols for free at the Gana Mithai Vatika, Kukatpally. “Ten years ago, we noticed that very few people preferred clay idols. We started making clay idols to encourage people to be environmentally conscious. Over the years, it has become an annual ritual,” says Dora Raju.

Children from more than 100 schools come to witness a three-day workshop and distribution of idols ahead of Ganesh Chathurti each year. Different time slots are allotted to each school.

“You can’t merely tell children to be eco-friendly. When you show them how these idols are made, they understand better,” he says.

The Foundation is preparing for these workshops in the first week of September. A few more artistes from Machilipatnam will arrive to be part of the idol-making process.