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The Colourless Lives Of The Makers Of Colourful Idols

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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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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