History & Culture

Pen and the idol factory: the elephant god business is booming

An artist at a workshop in Hamrapur.

An artist at a workshop in Hamrapur.   | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

Inspired by Whatsapp and impelled by tradition, the elephant god business continues to boom in these parts

Reclining on a throne with an arm resting lazily on a plaster of Paris lion, in the now-iconic pose of the actor Prabhaas, is a 12-feet tall Ganesha, still unpainted, at a kaarkhana (factory) in Hamrapur village.

Behind him stands a fierce Shiva, complete with six-pack abs. This may be a magnificent departure from conventional depictions of Ganesha attended by a mushak vahan, modak in hand, but Baahubali 2 is all the rage at pandals this year.

 

At Prathamesh Kala Kendra, Nitin Mokal’s kaarkhana, workers are loading one of these modern idols on a truck. It will be transported to workshops in Maharashtra and Gujarat to be daubed with paint and glitter in time for Ganesh Chaturthi next weekend.

Hamrapur in Maharashtra’s Raigad district is buzzing with energy and colour. Small, clay Ganapatis nestle in wet grass, towering idols with luxuriantly plump bellies grace the floor of every kaarkhana.

Young men in sweatpants and T-shirts emblazoned with the names of their kala kendra (crafts unit) hum along to devotional Marathi songs as they load trucks. A young girl applies paint to Ganapati’s eyelashes with fierce attention; the result is a startlingly feminine expression.

Ganesh puja gathers everyone in its grip in Hamrapur and the town of Pen in Raigad district, where around 2,500 people work all year round (except for a short break during Navratri) making clay idols, creating rubber moulds, filling them with plaster of Paris and hay, painting, embellishing and transporting them. The industry here is estimated to be worth ₹10 crore, and the idols go all over — Delhi, Bihar, Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The industry’s hero is the sculptor, the artist who conceives of the ‘masterpiece’ — as the original clay idol is often referred to — from which a mould is created and used to mass produce plaster of Paris replicas.

It can take anything from two to six months to create a clay idol, and a sculptor is paid around ₹10,000 per foot. One such ‘hero’ is sculptor Shrikant Deodhar. He is a fourth generation scion of a family of idol-makers in Pen.

The South prefers Daagina Ganpati, a pot-bellied figure adorned with gold work, while Mumbai likes the Chintamani and Peshwai Ganesha models.

The South prefers Daagina Ganpati, a pot-bellied figure adorned with gold work, while Mumbai likes the Chintamani and Peshwai Ganesha models.   | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

The whole process begins when someone takes a lump of clay in his hand and makes a basic model,” says Deodhar. “This is the masterpiece. It is is the work of an artist. There are hundreds of good craftsmen and traders, but it all boils down to making a good masterpiece.”

Ganesha idol-making has a 125-year-old history in the area, says Deodhar, who is also president of Pen’s Shri Ganesh Murtikar Aani Vyavasahik Kalyankari Mandal. The first generation of craftsmen were from the Konkan region, and did not work in factories but in their homes.

 

“This was in the mid-1800s. Around 1920, the second generation came in. This was a time of much economic hardship. My great-grandfather moved to Pen, where he worked under the patronage of a zamindar and made Gauri ka mukoot, Ganesha idols and pagadis.”

It would be Lokmanya Tilak who would politicise the festival, hitting upon the idea of using a religious procession as a cover for political gatherings. Thus, household worship was replaced by sarvajanik (for all people)celebrations. And the sarvajanik pandal became one of the earliest sites of colonial resistance.

Pop Ganeshas

Predictably, today’s artistic inspiration comes from popular culture. Sculptors find ideas from images they see on WhatsApp and Facebook, says Mokal, and Marathi cinema and television, of course, hold huge sway on local imagination. “Last year, Jai Malhar (a Marathi television show) inspired Ganeshas accompanied by the show’s protagonist Khandoba, an avatar of Shiva. The year before that Bajirao Mastani (based on the life of Maratha Peshwa Bajirao II) spurred the sales of Peshwai Ganpatis.” The movie was so popular that young boys wore the bhikbali, an ear piercing from the Peshwa period.

It was the early 80s when Pen and the area around it became idol boom town. This was when the Ganesha festival became popular across India and among the Maharashtrian diaspora abroad. By 1982, there were reportedly 1,340 public Ganpati pandals in Mumbai. The growing market was aided by a single factor: the introduction of plaster of Paris.

The South prefers Daagina Ganpati, a pot-bellied figure adorned with gold work, while Mumbai likes the Chintamani and Peshwai Ganesha models.

The South prefers Daagina Ganpati, a pot-bellied figure adorned with gold work, while Mumbai likes the Chintamani and Peshwai Ganesha models.   | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

As demand increased, traders made a natural shift to the material, which was light and easy to produce, although it did raise several environmental concerns.

Ganpati kaarkhanas mushroomed in Hamrapur. The earliest workers prospered and went on to set up their own factories. Sanjay Yadav, owner of Ballal Arts in Hamrapur, recalls working in a factory from when he was 17.

Papa aankh nikalne ka kaam karte thhe. Phir maine school choda aur yeh line pakda.” (My father used to paint the eyes on the idol; I left school and joined him). Today, his unit employs 50 artisans and makes 15,000 Ganpati idols every season.

The contemporary twist might have helped the Ganesha idol business prosper, but Deodhar is sceptical of the pandals’ ability to preserve older traditions. He sees pandal activity as hugely different from the more private and sober Ganesha festivals of the past.

Documentation needed

Deodhar is actively involved in preserving Ganesha-making traditions, and speaks of how he once visited an exhibition in Zurich where ancient Ganesha idols from private European collections were displayed. “I was disturbed to see Ganeshas in gold, silver and stone,” he says, talking of how he was struck by the fact that he “never saw such good Ganpatis in India”.

He would like to see the Ganesha festival’s rich and varied traditions documented and preserved. “No one is interested in these stories any more,” he says, sighing as he looks at a poster of an ancient Ganesha exhibition inscribed in German.

But for Hamrapur and Pen, business has never been better. In fact, the workshops’ unquenchable demand for labour is even attracting workers from Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Mokal believes the future of coming generations is secure. “Is mein sabka pet chalta hai. Ganpati ke krupa se hamare Hamrapur vibhaag mein sab kuch kushal-mangal hai. Aane wali peedhi ko bahaar jaane ki koi zarurat nahi. (This work takes care of everyone. With Ganpati’s blessings, all is well in Hamrapur. Future generations won’t have to go out looking for work.)”

The author is a Mumbai-based writer on a mission to convert half of India’s population to feminism by 2050.

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Printable version | Mar 27, 2020 6:47:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/pen-and-the-idol-factory/article19523356.ece

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