The Colourless Lives Of The Makers Of Colourful Idols

Posted on February 17, 2012 in Society

By Shivangi Singh:

The vibrant colors of traditional dresses, the melodious rhythm of folk songs, colorful authentic handicrafts all around and the mouth-watering aroma of local cuisine — essential ingredients of a typical Indian ‘Mela’, meaning a ‘carnival’ or ‘fair’! Irrespective of the scale or size of the mela, it still remains the most awaited event during traditional Indian festivals, like, Diwali or Holi, by Indians pan age and why shouldn’t it be so, for festivals and carnivals spell happiness, joy, gaiety and fond moments of togetherness. And that’s exactly why these festivals and the fairs around these times form an integral part of the vibrant, colorful, spectacular and world-famous Indian art and culture.


Ask any NRI as to what’s the one thing they miss the most about Indian upbringing and they are sure to state the inability to see local Indian ‘bazaars’ during festivals. As an Indian child, the fondest memories are often that of all the fun and celebrations surrounding these festivals, when everything from the walls of the house to the floor just outside the house is carefully decorated. The strolls in the markets in the festive season and the excessive bargaining of the women mark an episode in the Indian childhood- a time when everyone is in utter, sheer love with colors and these festivals bring out the best of it!

A very distinctive feature of these fairs and festivals is the colorful hand-made idols which form an essential part of the festival shopping. These beautiful, perfectly-formed idols are as much a part and parcel of any Indian festival as the celebration itself. Diwali can never be completely celebrated without the traditional “Ganesh-Laxmi Poojan”. The old idols are to be replaced by new ones to mark the beginning of a new year. Another very popular Indian festival relying extensively on the use of idols of various Hindu goddesses is Durga Pooja. The beauty of these neatly made-up and remarkably formed idols is breath-taking and makes the visit to the ‘Pandals’ worth every pain of pushing forward a queue of hundreds. The color and shading of the idols yields them such a stupendous effect that it becomes hard to believe that these are not real and breathing, that it won’t speak to you this very instant, that it won’t respond to your touch and that it won’t grant all that you have ever wished for!!

Above all, it makes you wonder about and be awed by the remarkable talent the idol-makers possess. The effort they put into making these festivals come alive and swinging in full form is beyond words. For ‘Ganesh Chaturthi’, for example, the idol-making begins in July, two months prior to the festival. About 2 million idols of Lord Ganesha are made in Mumbai alone. Hours of painful labor every single day and months of dedicated diligence and tolling finally convert plain mud into a spectacular piece of authentic traditional Indian art- a miracle! Ironic, hence, that the lives of these idol-makers are anything but colorful.
An average Indian idol-maker lives in nothing more than a modest hut and a typical poverty-struck income to support his living. The living conditions for these thousands of idol-makers in 70% – 75% of Indian states are unhygienic and unhealthy, making them vulnerable to many diseases. The mud used in the making of these idols carries a lot many bacteria which can cause diseases like influenza, dermatitis and cholera. The unavailability of proper water and electricity further deprives them of good health. According to a survey of the World Health Organization, most of the idol-makers are susceptible to frequent back-aches, arthritis and weak eyesight to blindness after the age of 40. If care is not taken and awareness not spread, country must be prepared to live in a world without authentic clay idols.

One of the best Indian universities for earning a degree in fine arts is the prestigious Delhi University. An important part of the syllabus is a course in idol-making. An average B.A. (Hons.) student passes out to become a successful artist, art dealer or collector. If the student creates an idol, it’s sold at a price 10 times that of an idol made by a professional idol-maker, just because the student has a platform to display their art to a big city’s who’s-who and the only platform the professional idol-maker knows is his road-side stall. If art could be standardized and regulated by a governing body which measures its price impartially, then the idol-maker is sure to get his rightful amount of reward. Alas! The government has so much on its platter already that it won’t have the time to look into this seemingly trivial matter.

In India the idol-makers live mostly reside on the city outskirts where they can get lots of free space to shape idols and put them to dry, so as to make them tough. The sunlight is the food for idols as it increases the tensile strength and makes them water-resistant. Away from the hustle and bustle of busy city life, idol-makers live in a world of their own making, literally. Unlike other craftsmen, idol-makers don’t live as a close community. They choose a quiet existence, distant from the crowd, like a true artist. The only interaction they really have with the outside world is when they come out to sell their products, their art. A real artist always believes that art is bigger than the artist himself. True to this adage, the idol-makers lead a simplistic life when their idols make their way to the houses of the rich and the famous. The creator brings out a piece of Earth to life and then leaves it to trace its own path and chart its destiny depending on the virtue of its aesthetic appeal and authentic lure. After a good day’s work the artist, the magician — the idol-maker sleeps a content artist’s peaceful sleep, unfazed by the fact that in the dishonest outside world, it’s his creation that is being sold at an exorbitant price in a fashionable art-exhibition that he won’t even be allowed to enter!

No Hindu festivity in India is ever complete without the clay-idols of god/goddesses but the makers of these clay figures are the one of the  most neglected communities. Being in the profession for generations from father to son, they form a spiritual association, of faith and belief with the deities they make. These idol-makers believe that their art form is a privilege and a service to the deity, hence they rarely indulge in monetary bargaining. This emotional connect is mostly exploited to the purpose of the middlemen or shopkeepers and the idol-makers at times receive less than half of what they deserve. The craftsman who create these colorful idols which are the source and basis of all the grandeur and celebrations, themselves lead a very secluded and bleak life.