Ganesh Chaturthi observances today owe much to Bal Gangadhar ‘Lokmanya’ Tilak. Under British rule the festival, which had been celebrated with gusto in Maharashtra under the Peshwas, became a smaller family occasion. Tilak led its revival as a community celebration, a way to increase the nationalistic spirit, with neighbourhoods installing their own idols and then taking them for immersion in large processions. But even the freedom fighter might not have approved of the environmental impact of the festival today.
Idols were once made of clay, but it is a difficult material to work: even using moulds, if not properly treated, it can crack when drying and breaks easily. Most idols are now made of calcium sulfate hemihydrate (Plaster of Paris or PoP), because it dries quickly and cleanly in a mould, so artisans can easily make lots of idols; it also takes colours well, and is light, therefore easier to transport even in the large sizes community mandals want. Perhaps most crucial, it is cheaper than quality clay and easier to get.
But PoP does not biodegrade well, and the synthetic colours used are toxic for aquatic flora and fauna. There are other environmental worries too, like the large amount of polystyrene and plastic used for décor, noise pollution, and air pollution thanks to traffic jams.
A few years ago, Sprouts, a Mumbai trust that works on environment issues, announced it was making idols that biodegrade into fish-food. Since then, as the festival nears, founder Anand Pendharkar’s phone won’t stop ringing. “Last year, we received 8,000 calls in seven days,” he says. This year there were 200 from Hyderabad alone, though his social media posts say it is a Mumbai-only initiative.
“Places and communities never known to celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi are asking for idols: Amritsar, Jodhpur, Meghalaya, even Manipur. It’s not that it is a Maharashtrian preserve, but I wonder if people are getting more superstitious.”
While he’s pleased to get more orders, he’d be happier if there were also concern demonstrated for the environment, like opposition to noise pollution, pandals blocking public spaces, and money being spent which is not otherwise available for causes like beach clean-ups.
Even the government, he says, is diluting norms instead of improving vigilance, for instance allowing the beating of drums till 1.30 a.m. and reducing the number of silent zones. The silver lining is that the word is spreading.
“Every disaster is waking people up, and they know there will be more of these if they do not get eco-friendly and responsible. Fence-sitters are becoming active.”
Nikita Padwal is a fourth-generation idol-maker, and her family has only worked with clay. She lives in Lonavala, but spends three months a year at their workshop in Girgaum, Mumbai. As environment awareness grows, she says, demand for clay idols is picking up, even though they can cost around six times as much as PoP idols.
“We take orders a year in advance,” she says. “Our work is intricate, and takes long to complete. We get about 250 to 300 orders a year. More than 3,000 clay idols are made in Pen and Panvel, but transporting them to Mumbai is difficult. Few own traditional workshops; they prefer to colour PoP idols; it’s easier.”
Reshma Khatu, who is also is taking a family legacy forward — her father Vijay Khatu, renowned for his tall idols, died suddenly of a heart attack last year — agrees. But her workshop only uses PoP.
“We receive orders for idols of over 20 feet, and it is impossible to make them in clay,” she says. Space is also a constraint. “The government does not provide facilities to sculptors in Mumbai. We don’t get space, or even concessions. We have to pay heavy rents and get space for just three to four months. PoP is our best option.”
In Pune the municipal corporation has aggressively promoted eco-friendly celebrations, with innovations like distributing packets of sodium bicarbonate (baking powder) free with every PoP idol (it dissolves the plaster and the residue can be used as fertilizer), making provisions to immerse idols in civic tanks to reduce pollution of the city’s rivers, and training school students to make eco-friendly idols.
Private bodies have stepped up too: a cow shelter run by ISKCON has been making idols out of a mix of cow dung and urine, curd, ghee and mud since 2013. In Pimpri-Chinchwad next door, the municipal corporation has formed 32 vigilance teams to monitor, through the festival, the implementation of the state’s plastic and polystyrene ban.
Across the border in Telangana, artisans seem happier with the powers-that-be. “The government has created a system where we are able to sell clay idols at a reasonable price,” says Jagadish Prasad, an idol maker from Chilkur on the outskirts of Hyderabad, and part of a collective of 40 families spread across five districts.
In Andhra Pradesh, the Pollution Control Board has officially advised against PoP and chemically-coloured idols but has not issued a ban. One community organiser in Vijayawada has proven that large works can indeed be made of clay with, for the last two years, 72-foot tall idols made of soft clay from a pond. While this prompted other organisers to also go the clay way, most idols in the city are still PoP.
Visakhapatnam’s administration is trying out innovations like QR codes for every idol (to monitor the movement on immersion days, but also to trace the makers using PoP or harmful colours), and a police rule that any idol over eight feet must be ‘immersed’ using high-powered pumps at the site itself.
In the temple town of Tirupati, despite efforts by the municipal corporation and social organisations to create environment awareness, PoP still rules. But there is hope: artisans of Bommala Quarters (literally ‘idol-makers’) have begun using a mix of paper pulp, clay, hay, and tapioca starch, with bamboo structural supports for taller idols to help make the larger idols customers want.
In Karnataka, Bengaluru’s entrepreneurial atmosphere has seen business ideas lead the way. Nature Calls, a start-up promoting eco-friendly products, offers a clay idol with a seed ball embedded; it can be immersed in a container, and the seed ball merges with the clay and soil, and saplings will sprout in a week. Sasya Ganapathi, started by four friends in the city last year (and now in Delhi, Pune and Kolkata too) has done one better: it adds a flower pot to the kit, with vegetable seeds, cocopeat, and potting mix. Devotees can immerse the idol in the pot, and after it is dissolves, add the soil and cocopeat, and sow the seeds.
(With inputs from Shubha Sharma, Shoumojit Banerjee, Serish Nanisetti, B. Tharun & Rajulapudi Srinivas , Sumit Bhattacharjee, A.D. Rangarajan and Sarumathi K.)