Picking my way past the alleys with a photogenic landscape, I marched through Vishrantwadi. Tucked inside the border taluk of Khanapur and a few kilometres away from Jamboti near Belagavi, Vishrantwadi is a hamlet of 25 households. With Ganesha Chaturthi just a few days away, the kumbar (potter) families, which form the majority of the population here, are busy readying Ganesha idols. What makes this village unique is that it has kept alive the tradition of making idols in clay for generations, in spite of the onslaught of Plaster of Paris (PoP) idols. Khanapur and the surrounding villages are traditionally known for making clay idols and artisans here make over 3,000 pieces every year.
Happily losing in the race with PoP Ganesha idols which can be moulded fast and easily, these naive villagers are reluctant to part with the art bequeathed from their ancestors. The process of making idols begins here at least three months ahead of the festival. Shaping the jewellery of Ganesha artfully, Ashok Yellappa says that no one in their village likes to make idols using PoP as they believe that their ‘Bappa’ (as Ganesha is fondly known) has to emerge from mud and go into the water. He makes at least 200 to 250 idols every year, some freehand and some using moulds.
“We make clay idols up to five feet which can be installed in public pandals. We also get wholesale orders from Goa, Dharwad-Hubballi and Belagavi. Compared to previous years, there has been a rise of 30% in demand for clay idols with watercolours. However, PoP Ganesha idols brought from the neighbouring states are still preferred. Many people feel that clay idols are costlier and heavier but they must realise the ecological importance of clay idols,” says Sitaram Kumbar.
Laxman Jambotkar, a third generation idol maker, says that only two clay idols can be made in a day as against 10 PoP idols in the same time. Even if they use a mould to make big idols, they have to join the hands and trunk separately and that takes time. Painting the eyes and nakshi (the design on the idol’s trunk) of the idol requires finesse.
According to 65-year-old Maruti Parit, who has been making clay idols since he was a teenager, the mud available in the region is suitable for idol making. Well-versed in the art of idol making, he can make idols just by seeing the images of Ganesha. “We source sticky mud and shaadu mud (potter’s clay) and mix them in 2:5 ratio. This mixture is sieved, mixed with water and then filtered to remove lumps and to obtain a consistent concoction. After it dries, the amorphous dough is prepared. Then the idols are meticulously designed. Once they dry, the idols are coated with a white base and then painted with watercolour. We use no synthetic or chemical paints as they are harmful to waterbodies. The biggest challenge is working in moist weather. There is no sunlight in these monsoon months and the idols take time to dry.”
Mohan Kumbhar and Jyothi Kumbhar, who head an association of clay idol artisans, have their workshop in Khanapur where they have huge idols, up to 11 feet. Balancing the huge idols on a central iron road and platform, they create the figurines from clay, straw and other such organic materials, using moulds. “Though tough, it is possible to make big idols in clay. We have orders for 16 big idols this year. Transporting the huge idols to far-off places is a challenge as there are chances of idols developing cracks,” says Mohan.
Most of the idols are pre-booked by a set of regular customers. Presently, around 250 artisans of the taluk have formed an association and have fixed prices for different types of idols. They are also demanding the government to provide an incentive to purchase clay and eco-friendly paint and take supportive measures to make clay idols affordable.
A three-foot-tall idol is sold at around Rs 2,500, but the artisans hardly make any profit. They spend five to six days to make one artistic idol of this size, excluding the time taken to prepare the clay and paint it. As a result, many artisans in Khanapur town and other villages like Gurlagunji and Nandgad are forced to work as electricians, carpenters, painters, etc., to earn a living.
Konnur village in Gokak taluk is famous for making green Ganeshas. Every year, lakhs of clay idols are sold from this village on a wholesale basis to Belagavi, Koppal, Dharwad, Vijayapura, Davanagere and Bagalkot districts and even to neighbouring states of Goa and Maharashtra.
Every street in the village offers a visual treat with colourful Ganesha idols arranged one behind the other. This is one of the centres which supplies the maximum number of clay idols to the state and can be rightly called as the ‘village of eco-
Idol-making began here a century ago and presently, as many as six families work round-the-clock to make the idols. These families begin making the idols after Deepavali. They are sold in the price range of Rs 30 to Rs 25,000. “This year, we have orders for 7,000 to 8,000 idols, made by hand and using moulds. Around 2,000 of them are of six inches height and around 50 are of three feet. Every family here has a similar number of orders. We have some models of idols and we prepare them with unique detailing,” says Basappa Kumbar.
The idol sculptors here get mud from Kundargi region and crush it into powder. They then mix it with cotton and prepare the clay. Men and women engage in this work with enthusiasm. Kumbar says that in the past they used oil paints to decorate the clay idols but after the Pollution Control Board asked the idol makers to use eco-friendly paints, they have begun using water-based colours which are not harmful.
However, these artisans are not happy with the government’s efforts to promote eco-friendly Ganesha idols. They are confident of meeting the demand for clay Ganesha but feel that people are still not ready to spend a little more on clay idols.