Rajasthani idol-makers make Madurai home during Vinayaka Chathurti, Navaratri season

As buses pull in and out of the busy Mattuthaavani Integrated Bus Stand, not many would consider it to be the ideal place for artists to engage in sculpting and painting.

However, in August every year, a group of people from Rajasthan descend upon the city, armed with their skill and expertise in making idols. The pavement, a little away from the bus terminus is filled with colourful Ganesha idols of different sizes in the days ahead of Vinayaka Chathurti. “I first came here in 1989 looking for a job. For the Vinayaka Chathurti in 1990, I had made around 50 dolls but hardly 10 got sold,” says H Nanakram.

“Those days, the concept of keeping idols at home during the festival did not exist, but times have changed now” he adds. Nanakram has been living in Madurai for the past 23 years. “Most of the other families you see here come from Rajasthan during the festive season to make and sell idols and leave for home after the season ends. My family is the only one which hasn’t left all these years,” he says.

These people erect tents on vacant land on both sides of Melur Road. “People from my native village go to different places such as Hyderabad, Kerala, Mumbai and Gujarat during the festive season,” says L Mohanlal, an idol maker, who comes to the city every year. “This time, five families have come here. We will stay till the end of the year,” he adds.

Little ones in demand

Little Ganesha idols that most people prefer to keep at home for performing puja is what sells most. “People used to buy the drab clay idols till the advent of these Ganesha idos painted in vivid colours. They’ve become extremely popular,” says Vikram K, a young painter, who is busy drawing the eyes on freshly-painted idols.

They are made primarily with a mixture of chalk powder. Distemper, thinner, water colour paints and adhesives are used in the process. “Prices of the raw materials have doubled in the past two years. We’ve been forced to raise the prices of many of these idols by a minimum of Rs. 50,” says M. Kamalavalli, Mohanlal’s wife who assists him in making the idols.

Priced between Rs. 200 and Rs. 1,500, the height of these idols can even go up to 4 feet. “We make the big ones, weighing more than 100 kg, only after we get orders in advance and most of these orders are for political meetings and community celebrations,” an idol maker says.

A little farther away from the bus stop in Ulaganeri is where most of these idols are made. “A few of us take some idols around the city in a tricycle to sell if we anticipate low sales,” says Mohanlal.

Next in line is the Navaratri season. They start making ‘kolu’ dolls once Vinayaka Chathurthi is over. “There is also demand for ‘Ayyappa’ dolls during the Sabarimala season,” says Nanakram.

Most of their customers come to the place where they have set shop every year to buy idols. Says M Harini, a homemaker from Anna Nagar, “These idols are not mass produced and made only during a particular season. One seeing the finer details, you can guess the effort that goes into making each idol.”

“The idols made of chalk powder are a better option to the ones made of Plaster of Paris as the former are light and more attractive. They dissolve quickly in water when immersed,” said S. Mani, an engineer who was on the lookout for an idol for the celebrations in his residential colony.

Small and deft hands

The children from these families are already deft in painting the chiselled sculptures. Lakshmi. M, the daughter of an idol maker, waits till her father finishes sculpting the idols and paints them. “Most of the children help us in the work. Since we are constantly on the move between cities on the lookout for work, we aren’t able to enrol them in school,” says her mother.

The idol makers say their sales peaks on the eve and festival day. “Our sales this year has been affected by the evening rains. We cover the idols with plastic sheets to prevent them from getting damaged,” says Hiralal.

Idol maker Nanakram, who has made Madurai home, says the escalating costs of raw materials was worrying him. “While I have to pay a rent of Rs. 6,000 every month to use this place, I have taken a loan of Rs 2 lakh to procure materials and make idols for the next few months,” he explains.

“We can never predict the sales during a particular year. The going has been good so far. Only if the rains stop and the demand picks up in the next few days, we can be assured of some form of good returns on our investment,” he adds.

When asked about what made them keep coming back to the city, most of them are quick to respond: “We’ve been going to a lot of cities but demand in this city for idols have relatively high,” says Kamalavalli. “So we come up with newer designs every year. Be it the colours or the style, people always look for something new and we try to meet their demand.”

Prices of raw materials have doubled in the past two years. We’ve been forced to raise the prices of many of these idols by a minimum of Rs. 50. We make the big ones, weighing more than 100 kg, only after we get orders in advance

M. Kamalavalli

Wife of one of the sculptors