Though technology helps, budgets have become tighter for designers of Onam pageantry floats.

With a few deft moves of a painting brush, Thulaseedharan was giving the final touches to the structure of a tree that will become a part of the Kerala State Electricity Board’s float at the Onam pageantry to be held in Thiruvananthapuram on Friday.

This is his fifth consecutive year of working behind the scenes of the annual show as part of a 10-member team.

“For the past few years, we have been doing government departments’ floats. We do all the work a week before the pageantry. It is hectic sometimes and we work overnight to finish on time,” he says.

Question of prestige

The float at the pageantry is a prestige issue for the departments. This is one chance they get every year to showcase what they are to the public and to make everyone aware of their initiatives. But it all boils down to the ‘economics.’ Each department allocates Rs.2.5 lakh for their floats. In the past year, it was less than Rs.2 lakh.

Sabu Sivan, an artist who is back to designing Onam floats this year after a gap of 20 years, is well placed to trace the changes.

“Back in the early 1990s, each department allocated Rs.60,000 for their floats. Considering the rupee devaluation, this is more than the current allocation. So we are actually working on a tight budget and it is hard to put all our ideas into practice. At the same time, rapid advances in technology — for example in the bending of iron rods — have made much of the work easier and less expensive,” says Mr. Sabu, who is designing a float for the Motor Vehicle Department this year.

Prime reasons

The cost has spiralled mainly due to labour charges and fuel costs. Each artist has a group of 10 to 25 workers under them. The workers are paid between Rs.600 to Rs.800 a day. For experienced hands, the figure could go up. A person working non-stop for a day and a night is paid Rs.2,400, says an artist.

“We are using either rented Mazda trucks or diesel pick-up autos to carry the floats. Earlier, the KSRTC used to give us their new chassis to carry the floats, which saved a lot on rents. We have to keep a generator and a backup for the lighting in the floats, which also adds into the fuel bill,” says C.B. Jinan, who is overseeing the work on floats of eight departments and has been a regular at the pageantry for many years.

Novelty factor

Considering the sorry state of the State’s exchequer and going with the prevailing mood of austerity, some have questioned the need for such a grand show. The lack of novel ideas has also been a dampener in the past few years.

“We try to bring in something new every year. But that needs to be fitted into the framework the departments give us. So there is a limit to novelty,” says an artist on condition of anonymity.

But on the brighter side, the pageantry provides employment to thousands of workers during the Onam season.