Manikandan is seated on an old mat; to his left is a towering heap of kalimann (mud); on his right, wheat sun dries on a charpoy. With chalky fingers, he picks up a plaster-of-Paris mould, dusts it with powder, and presses moist clay into it. “Everybody in my family — my father and grandfather — were potters as well as idol makers.” Manikandan’s father Sammandhamurthy tells me, “This area — Kuyapettai — got its name because of us. There was a time when several thousand people lived here; now, we’re only 300. There, look, Pillaiyar,” he points, just as Manikandan neatly pulls out a perfect Ganesha from the mould.
Manikandan’s Ganesha isn’t the first one I’ve seen that evening; for, all the way up to Sachidanandam-theru-pinpuram, Kudisaipagudhi, Kuyapettai (the address, as I learn later from Sammandhamurthy’s card), I simply followed elephant-headed gods. Besides, they really weren’t the sort you could miss; many were over ten feet tall; the great majority were bigger than me, and despite being wrapped up in plastic sheets, their colours shone through. “We don’t make the big ones anymore. They’re made in Andhra, they’re only wholesaled here,” Sammandhamurthy tells me, adding that all the families in Kosapet share a makeshift kiln at the entrance to the street. “But the plastic covers are made here by Kuppan,” he waves to his left. Kuppan is seated outside a house painted yellow; the washing flaps behind him. “What do you want to know?” he laughs self-consciously. “I make covers; that’s all. They give me the plastic sheet and tell me the size; I stitch it up.”
Thayaramma (95) is more forthcoming about her work. “My eyesight is good, so I continue working with clay, just as I have, for over 70 years now.” Earlier, she made clay pots for weddings and funerals, besides flowerpots and idols. “Then, I’ve sold clay idols for 1/4 anna and 3/4 anna; the price rose to Rs.2 and Rs.3. Now, we sell them for about Rs.30, but the demand is far lower,” she says. In the middle of the room, her grandson, Ansar Basha is seated cross-legged on the cement floor; all around him, new and old dolls, paint and varnish are spread out. Ansar is painting small, blue Krishna idols. His mother, standing on the doorstep, tells me she was born in that very house; now, they use it as their factory; they eat and sleep nearby in a rented accommodation.
Outside Thayaramma’s house, the road snakes. By a hand-pump, orange and green plastic pots are stacked. Two women work the handle briskly; drumsticks hang over their heads; a chicken clucks by their feet. Nearby, a big canvas covers old, damaged idols. I enter Varadarajan’s house; he’s an expert at making moulds. From each mould that he casts, 500-1000 idols can be made. Varadarajan kneads clay, and rolls it into a thick rope. His wife, Vijaya, shows me two-foot tall Ganeshas drying in the next room; chalk-powder picks out the beautiful detailing around the crown, the garland and conch. Around the cluster of idols, trunks and hands rest on trays. “We will stick them on later,” she smiles. A pedestal fan circulates the hot air; Vijaya and I are sweating, but Varadarajan in a vest and dhoti, continues working, dusting the mould with a muslin bag filled with French chalk powder. When I walk out, he’s pressing damp clay into the trunk.
In Mohan’s basement workshop, big, pink Ganeshas are getting spray-painted. “The face will remain light rose. The crown and jewellery will be gold. Then I need to add shadows, as well as paint the hair and the mouse-vahanam black,” Mohan explains. Inside, in another room, golu dolls are stacked in neat rows and columns. “We’re busy here throughout the year; every month, there is a festival in some temple. We make piggy-banks, dolls and idols and sell them all over Chennai,” Sammandhamurthy tells me. Earlier, I’m told the mud came from river and lakebeds; now, it’s the soil dug out from construction sites.
“How much is this?” Babu, a customer asks, picking up a Pillayar mould drying in the sun. He pays Rs.300 instead of the Rs.500 asked. “There are no fixed prices, Sammandhamurthy smiles at my surprise. “If there is demand, it’s higher. That man is sending it to the U.S. for Pillayar Chathurthi. Here you can get Ganeshas from Rs.10 to Rs.20,000.”
“Come back during Navaratri,” everybody tells me, as I leave. I nod, and walk past the big Ganeshas again. They’re everywhere — hugging the round-tana, under a tree, lining either side of the road — throwing long shadows in the evening sun, one hand raised in blessing, the other clutching a modagam. An old woman watches me taking photographs. ”Leave some money for the idols,” she tells me sternly. But the Gods just smile.