On scorched brown fields, in the silence of a village under lockdown, hundreds of white Ganesh idols bake in the unkind sun. The plaster of Paris (PoP) idols, intricately carved but bereft of colour, line the roads in Hamrapur village, in Raigad district’s Pen taluka, which has about 450 idol-making units. Their makers, however, say that the idols should have been out of here at this time of the year.
About 4 km away, in Pen’s Kasar Aali, known for its handcrafted Ganesh idols made from shaadu maati (clay) that arrives from Gujarat, four-storey workshops filled with Ganesh idols. Some kachcha (without paint), some in royal blues and magentas, some waiting to be bejewelled and others under plastic sheets “ready for dispatch” fill about 40 buildings in the lane, visible on every alternate rooftop.
Even as Ganpati festival, which starts on August 22, is still months away, artisans in the village say that the lockdown may cast its long shadow on the event if the idols – which are by now usually on their way to places all over Maharashtra, to other states and to other countries – are not sent out soon. Staring at losses after exports were hit and due to mounting debt, many among the skilled idol-makers now feel that the lockdown may gnaw into their income and the festival, Maharashtra’s most vivacious celebration of the year.
Shrikant Deodhar, a sculptor trained at the J J School of Art and the head of the Shri Ganesh Murtikar Ani Vyavsayik Kalyankari Mandal – an association of the Ganesh idol-makers of Pen – say that their business has already taken a 30 per cent hit with exports coming to a halt and transportation of idols to major markets like Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur and Nashik being hamstrung by the lockdown.
He explains that while the 10-day festival usually falls in August-September, idol-makers spend the entire year investing in it and it sustains them for the following year. “Everybody has loans to pay, starting from Rs 5 lakh… to the big units with loans of Rs 50 lakh. By April-May, our idols start going out to retailers who purchase from us and take them to the city. If this gets pushed to June-July, it will get worse. If the cycle is broken, it will be very hard to recover,” he adds.
Kunal Patil, who heads the Hamrapur unit of the Ganesh Utkarsha Mandal, says that with Mumbai and Pune bearing the highest burden of COVID-19 cases in the state, they should at least be allowed to send their idols to the rest of Konkan.
“At least 25,000 to 30,000 idols will be on their way if we can send the idols to buyers in Konkan, where there are fewer cases. A PoP idol takes at least 10 days to dry. We have stopped further production of big idols. If these idols don’t go out before June, we will be left with the same idols for next year and even if our workers don’t work, we will still have to pay them because they are dependant on us,” adds Patil.
Deodhar says that this time, while retailers have said that the demand for smaller idols is greater, another thing worries him. “What if the idols do not reach the major markets in the cities and people decide that this year they will bring a metal Ganesh instead. This is an issue of sentiment. Many people still want their Ganesh like every year but if they decide to worship a silver Ganesh, it can take any direction from there.” The idol-makers are now thinking of taking the route of Konkan’s mango sellers – reaching out to the customer directly, without depending on retailers. But since they are not supplying an essential service, it may be difficult.
A second generation artist, Nilesh Samet possesses the prized skill of making the life-like eyes of the idol and has a room full of Ganesh idols with shiny laces strewn all over. “These idols are waiting to get adornments like jewels and clothes. This task is done by five or six women who are unable to come now because of the lockdown. The jewels and laces are bought from Malad in Mumbai,” he says.
In the same workshop, Haresh Koli adds a layer of veneer to the crown of a clay idol. He says, “I have been doing this job for 20 years. And this year feels nothing like any other. If the idols don’t sell, it will be difficult for the owners too, and for us this is the only source of livelihood. This is how I pay my children’s school fees.”
Senior NCP leader and Raigad MP Sunil Tatkare say that idol-makers have approached him and Raigad Guardian Minister Aditi Tatkare, his daughter and minister of state. “There are some sculptors and idol-makers in other parts of the district as well… By next week, we will be able to resolve their problems. South Raigad is in the orange zone,” adds Tatkare.
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