AT 80, Ramachandra Bhoir vividly remembers making beautiful Ganpati idols, which were then praised as “masterpieces”. Bhoir was among the first sculptors to start working with shaadu maati (traditionally used clay) in the artisans’ village of Pen, and young sculptors recall that many of the finest Ganesh idols of Pen were the brainchild of Bhoir.
Today, a frail Bhoir makes a living by asking the “richer” sculptors — who own idol-making workshops in the village — for work. “I did not adapt to the times. I can make an idol with any material given to me — shaadu, Plaster of Paris (POP) or cement. However, I trusted my art more than planning a living out of it,” Bhoir says. He charges between Rs 500 and 600 — modest for an experienced sculptor — for bringing an idol to life. He may have received awards, but Bhoir feels he was not adequately compensated.
As Maharashtra commemorates 125 years of Sarvajanik Ganpatis, Pen — famous for its Ganesh idols across India — has people like Bhoir in every other home. Over the years, as ways of idol making changed, so did the artists’ lives. Back in Bhoir’s day, he says, artists would get together to brainstorm and create beautiful idols. In contrast, the village now sees individual workshops of each small artisan jostling to adapt to popular demand.
Shrikant Deodhar, a fourth generation shaadu idol-maker in the village, says idols are being made in Pen since 1860, when artisans were paid through the barter system. “One of my earliest ancestors, Bhikaji Pant, was an artisan and a sculptor. In return for a bag of rice or foodgrains, he would make Ganesh idols. Later, the community decided to entrust the responsibility of idol-making to the skilled, who carved a niche,” Deodhar says, adding that Pen was also helped by its geographic location of lying exactly between Mumbai and Pune.
The region boasts of some of the finest idols made of shaadu maati, transported from Surat to idol-makers in the region at least four months in advance. “Customers from around Gujarat, Maharashtra and further north would buy our idosl, the finest made of clay. Earlier, each artist would make enough to fetch a living for himself and his family,” Deodhar says.
Over the years, artists from Pen shifted to different regions and set their individual workshops. Villages including Hamrapur, Kalwa, Jawhar, Tambadshet and Dadar saw an increase of such artisans who also adopted to new ways, like using POP and paper-maiche to make Ganeshas.
“With POP, the time taken to make an idol is reduced. They are easier to handle and very light in weight. While making one idol with shaadu takes two days, 10 POP idols can be made in a day. Thus, artists shifted towards POP,” Jayshree Mhatre, wife of idol-maker Babhya Mhatre, says.
Of the 1.5 lakh idol makers in Pen region, hardly 50 are skilled in making clay idols today, artisans say. With clay demanding more investment of time and energy, the younger generation is pulling out of it.
“In 2015, we inaugurated a training school to help young artisans learn the art of making “masterpieces” under the leadership of Bhoir, so that they would learn to make original art pieces. Though it continued for some time, it died very soon,” says Girish Pawar, son of Baliram Pawar, another leading idol maker in Pen. “How can creativity thrive when the artists compete among themselves? Apart from the families whose names are known in the business, we do not get our efforts’ worth. It is a sad state,” Dilip Bhoir, who runs Ganesh Kala Kendra in the region, says.
Taking loans from banks to purchase material to make shaadu ahead of the festive remains a common practice. The artisans hope to pay off the loans by good business out of selling idols. The business does not fetch as much remuneration as it should, they claim.
The implementation of Goods and Services Tax this July has made matters worse, they claim. As prices of material went up, the artisans tried to recover costs by pricing the idols higher. However, customers refused to pay the increased price, which, they say, caused losses.
However, some are hopeful of a shaadu revival. With more devotees growing environment-conscious, clay idols are making a come-back in Gujarat, Mumbai and abroad. “Shaadu may find its way to the future of making Ganesh idols in the region. It is in demand and finds decent purchasers,” says Bhushan Thule, another idol maker.