Hands that craft the divine

Innovation and creativity are the keywords for idol makers this Ganesh Chaturthi, writes Surekha Kadapa-Bose, after meeting a few traditional artisans in Mumbai

An eco-friendly idol of Ganesha that grows into a plant when watered. Credit: NGO Tree Ganesha

It’s just a week before the air starts reverberating to the sound of dhol, nagada, trumpets, and the loud chanting of ‘Ganapathy Bappa Moraya…’ Every nukkad, every home, every person, irrespective of his or her religious beliefs, will, with a very gentle smile and heartbeats matching the rhythm and loudness of the drums, gaze lovingly at the idols of Lord Ganapathy being taken in a procession to reside in their respective places in the mega-city of Mumbai.

This scene of mass celebration isn’t restricted to Mumbai alone. It echoes, may be in a smaller grandeur, in almost every other city of the country where Lord Ganapthy is worshipped, and the 10 days in the month of bhadrapada are a time of celebration, enjoyment and sharing.

The idols taken in these ostentatious processions are huge — from 5 feet to 30 feet. Besides the mammoth idols, there are smaller ones ranging between six inches and two feet. And the numbers of idols made across the country is in lakhs. They are also exported to NRIs living in different countries. Today, idol-making is a huge business where lakhs of people, including many migrants, are employed with an assured turnover of crores of rupees.

Traditional yet modern

The idols of Ganapathy are made in traditional ways using red clay, sadu (grey clay) or in the modern ways by using Plaster of Paris (POP), paper (paper mache), and a few with unique materials like coconuts, banana, chocolates, etc. In fact, the place where these idols are made is known as Ganapathy karkhanas.

From the months of April and May, these karkhanas start humming with activities to meet the orders. During this time, it’s worth a visit to the bylanes of the suburbs of Parel, Lalbaugh, Girgaum, Prabhadevi and many other parts in Mumbai, and the neighbouring cities of Vasai, Thane, Pen.

Many of them are family-owned (Patkars, Khatus, Kothekars, Kamblis, and others) karkhanas and have a legacy of more than seven to eight decades. The skill is handed down from generation to generation. The earlier generations of such families worked only as clay idol makers.

But post-1970s, things started changing. Clay was replaced with POP, the sizes of idols started getting bigger, the demand increased, and the traditional moorthikars started sourcing help from outside the family to help them with their work. But the employment was restricted only to five or six months. The third and fourth generation of moorthikars got educated and started looking out for white-collar jobs to sustain their families in the off-season. So today, we have what can be termed as part-time moorthikars and full-time bankers, teachers, environmentalists, art directors, creative directors, PRs, etc, who in the season return home from their offices and get into their role of moorthikari.

“I wake up at six in the morning. By seven, I am in my karkhana. I work till 9 and leave for my office. By 7 or 8 in the evening, after returning from office, I am with my idols till midnight,’’ explains Avinash Patkar who works as a designer in the Central Government’s Regional Design and Technical Development Center in Mumbai. After earning a diploma in sculpture from JJ School of Art in Mumbai, Patkar even taught in college for a year, till he joined the Central Government. Along with his brother, wife and daughter, he makes around 120 Ganapathy idols every year.

Reshma Khatu of the famous Khatu Ganesh Idols of Mumbai got into the business of idol-making after the demise of her father. “From the month of June till October, I am with my workers at our karkhana 24x7. I mostly paint the idols and advise my workers in making the ‘made to order’ or special idols. The rest, nearly 200 idols of various heights, are made in the moulds prepared by my late father,” says Reshma who is a freelance scriptwriter in ad agencies, and also an event manager.

Till Shri Ram Mills closed down in Mumbai, Mohan Kothekar was a mere spectator in his father’s karkhana as he held a full-time job in the Mills. But after his father’s demise, he adopted idol-making as a full-time profession. Today, his factory makes around 200 Ganapathy idols and he is helped by his two brothers Yashwant and Dayanand. Even his daughter, Pooja Kothekar-Mhatre, who is a senior associate and head of projects at a PR agency, steps in to help paint the idols.

Moorthikars working on Ganesha idols in Mumbai
Moorthikars working on Ganesha idols in Mumbai

Ganesha goes green

There are many new entrants and first-generation idol makers in this field. And they have brought a very different touch to this profession. They are rooting for eco-friendly Ganapathy idols. Young Anand Pendharkar is a former environmental science school teacher at the Doon School (Dehradun) and is currently a wildlife biologist who has made it his mission to educate people about the destruction of our biodiversity and urge them the importance of usage of only biodegradable products through his NGO, Sprouts.

He says, “Being from Mumbai, I have grown up watching the festival of Lord Ganesh and also observing the effect the immersion of POP idols has on our sealife. I wanted to popularise the idea of eco-friendly idols and going back to the days when every home had smaller idols made of clay. Way back in 1893, when Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak popularised the idea of the public celebration of the Lord to unite people for India’s Independence movement, he had used smaller idols made of pure clay painted with eco-friendly paints.”

Anand learnt idol-making from a moorthikar. With the help of Ogilvy and Mather ad agency, he thought of popularising fish-friendly idols. In his workshop, he teaches the methods of making Ganesh idols using sadu clay and filling the hollow space inside the idol with a small mud ball filled with few seeds of corn, palak, wheat and chickpeas. When the idol is immersed either in a well, river, lake or sea, the clay dissolves in no time and the fish instead of dying after consuming poison from POP idols can eat these seeds.

Similarly, Dattadri Kothur, founder of the NGO Tree Ganesha, who otherwise works as an associate creative director of Ulka, started popularising eco-friendly idols by using only clay, eco-friendly colours and by placing a small clay ball with seeds of lady’s fingers, marigold and neem in them. “I popularise bucket or flower pot visarjan. Our idols are never higher than 18 inches. After the visarjan, the seeds in the idols germinate and grow into nice plants. Also, I inform our customers that a true eco-friendly idol uses only turmeric, kumkum, etc, as paints. Idols made with shining colours and silver decorations aren’t eco-friendly,” emphasises Dattadri who is one of the most popular Ganesh idol makers with a large YouTube fan following, and with increasing demands from customers from Dubai, UK and USA for his idols.

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