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Living On Borrowed Dreams: The Rajasthani Idol Makers In Hyderabad

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“I can’t talk to you. But you can come in and see the Ganeshas,” said the young girl, who seemed to be in her early 20s, leading us inside. When we walked into the large but dingy tent of the Ganesh idol makers in Saraswathi Nagar in Hyderabad, we were greeted by a large number of Ganeshas in various states of completion. Some were yet to be polished and smoothened, some were all white and waiting to be painted, and some were almost done except for the eyes.

Every year, Ganesh Chathurthi is celebrated with great fervour in Hyderabad, with almost every colony and street, putting up their very own Ganesh pandal (tent) and installing a Ganesh murthy (idol). The festivities follow for 10 days, at the end of which the idols are immersed in the waters of the Hussain Sagar lake, or Tank Bund, as it is more commonly known. With the huge demand for Ganesh idols, several families of the Parjavath-Pavri tribe from Rajasthan, who are traditional idol makers, have made Hyderabad their home for the greater part of the year.

Ganesha’s ready to have their eyes painted.

An elderly woman, who sat at the entrance to their tent, wasn’t very happy about having visitors with cameras in their hands. She complained grumpily in Marwari to her three daughters. “She says people like you come every year, but we never appear on TV or in the papers,” explained one of them. “And our conditions don’t improve for the better either.”

Men loading the idols on trucks

Of the tent that stretched for about 500 sq meters, only the area at the front had been cordoned off as a kitchen of sorts, with a wooden stove and several utensils neatly arranged on a low platform, and some clothes and other odds and ends lying in the corners. A television set was present in a corner too. The rest of the tent was their work area, packed with Ganesh idols. Several rubber moulds, big and small, lay to one side. We were allowed to freely look around at the Ganesh idols. There were at least 50 in the tent, and some men were engaged in loading a few onto trucks.

The man of the house, who was busy supervising the process, gave a toothy grin and asked us to wait. A few of the women, meanwhile, started spray-painting the bare Ganeshas. A generator powered up their mechanized spray machines, and small electric LED bulbs arranged in two rows, lit up the otherwise dreary place. “We have an electricity connection. And we pay our bills,” said one of the girls quickly, as if to avoid unnecessary trouble.

The girls pointed out different idols and quoted their prices. While a 3-foot Ganesh idol cost around ₹2500, the big ones (around 6-8 feet), cost around ₹5000- ₹6000. This was half of the price that was quoted by the sellers on the footpaths. “What do we know of those prices?” said the girls. “We hardly venture out there.”

Most of our questions that followed, regarding the profit they made and the capital they invested, were met with complete indifference and claims of ignorance. “We don’t know anything about the profit or the money,” said Mangli, the oldest among them. “Our parents handle everything. We just do the work.”

Then did they get a share of the profit or pocket money to spend?, “Why should we get any money? If we want something, we ask our mother and she buys it for us, be it a dress or anything else.” What about getting some education? Have they been to school? “We didn’t get a chance to study,” says Mangli. “But my sister’s kids are being sent to the Anganwadi nearby.” Don’t they regret missing out on school? “What’s the point of it? We are anyway expected to work here,” she says. “Though very small children are exempted, the entire family has to work, women and men alike.” The children of the extended family were playing out on the streets-dirty, but happy and carefree. A few older ones were made to run errands in between.

As we took pictures of the idols, the girls became interested and followed us around. “Come here, we are going to paint the faces now,” Mangli said. “You can take pictures, but our faces mustn’t be seen,” she cautioned. However, Sarvan, the eldest son-in-law of the family, offered to pose for our camera. “We do not know any other craft,” he says. “The money we get depends on the bargaining by the customers, though we quote ₹5000-₹6000 for a 5-foot idol.”  The rates in Hyderabad are actually less compared to other places. But this year, they may increase the prices, otherwise, they will not be able to repay their loans, says Sarvan.

“We survive on loans. Local moneylenders lend us money at 10% interest, which we use to meet the costs of all raw materials, food, and rent,” says Sarvan. They pay anywhere between ₹30,000 to ₹50,000 for a year as rent for the land where they set up their tents. They also have to pay separately for electricity and water. With machines being used to spray-paint the idols, the electricity bills go as high as ₹7000 per month. “If we fail to pay back the money after the sales this season, we will be charged at 12% interest the coming year, and 14% the year after that, and so on,” he adds.

A line of Ganesha idols waiting to be completed

With the money they make during the peak season, they survive the whole year long. Though they make anywhere between two to ten lakh rupees, a lot of it is used up to repay the loans, leaving them with only rupees ₹20,000-₹25000 at their disposal.

“We start our work on these idols immediately after Holi. Once the Ganesh season is over and we’ve sold everything, we go back to Rajasthan for two months. And then we just roam around and have fun,” said Mangli’s sister, who refused to give her name.

Though it was quite unclear as to what the ‘fun’ was all about, Mangli gave some insight, “We do some farming there.”

The girls painting idols

The introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) has hit them badly too, as costs of raw materials used to make Ganesh idols have increased. The Ganesh idols are made of Plaster of Paris (POP), coconut fibre and soil mixed together and poured into moulds, which are then dried, polished with sandpaper, coated in distemper and painted. However, the POP powder that they use to make the idols is sourced from factories in Bikaner, and this year, not enough supplies arrived. “Every year, at least 500 lorries loaded with bags of POP arrive at Hyderabad. This year, hardly 150 lorries have come with the supply,” says Sarvan, “They say that they cannot send in more bags of POP because of the new tax rates. A bag of POP that used to cost around ₹180 has now gone up to ₹225, thanks to GST.”

The moulds for the idols are taken on rent from dealers in Hayathnagar, and the paint bought from local shops. A single 50 ml bottle of paint costs around ₹35, and painting a single Ganesh idol easily takes up 15-20 bottles of paint. “The cost of paint in Mumbai is half of that in Hyderabad. Though the paints are cheaper in Pune, it is a two-day journey. We are forced to depend on our suppliers in Hyderabad.” Apart from this, there are workers who specialize in painting the eyes and the forehead ‘bindi’ design on Ganesh idols. “We have to pay them ₹120-₹150 per idol. We cannot draw the eyes ourselves,” says Sarvan.

Sarvan has a separate tent some distance away, where he makes idols of his own along with his wife. “It all depends on God’s grace, whether we make a profit or not,” he says. “We usually have a good season every third year. That’s the pattern.”

The girls meanwhile, stand around, listen and giggle from time to time, and make jokes in their mother tongue. When asked why they weren’t already married off, Mangli retorted, “Who will do all this work if we are married off?”

“It’s the groom who has to give dowry to the girl’s family during the wedding. That’s our custom. They can ask for anything – money, silver, etc. and the boy manages to arrange for it,” says Sarvan. “Girls aren’t married off early in our families. They are usually around  23- 24 when they get married,” he adds.

When we asked Mangli and her two sisters how old they were, they giggled. “How should we know? Our mother would know! You should ask her.”

At this point, their mother screamed at them in annoyance, and they dispersed quickly. We realized it was all because of their banter with us, and we came out of the tent. Sarvan however, followed us, not heeding the dire warnings of his mother-in-law, and volunteered to give some more information.

“We don’t make as much money as the middle men do. We make 70-80 idols every year, and since we can’t drag all these to the roadside to sell, we are comfortable selling them to the mediators who bring their own lorries or trucks. They sell the same idols on the roadsides at much higher prices,” Sarvan said. The middle men have the advantage of knowing to communicate in Telugu and the Hyderabadi lingo, and are thus better salesmen than the Rajasthanis. “The competition is high too. In this area alone, there are 50 such tents put up, where different people of our own tribe are engaged in making idols.”

Most idols are made by complex processes

However, with their entire existence depending on the successful sale of their idols, and the returns they get, the tribe leads a precarious existence. “We make smaller idols of Ram-Sita, Goddess Lakshmi, and others which we sell throughout the year. We make a few thousands every month that way, which suffices for our day-to-day needs,” says Sarvan. “But the loans we take every year are a burden, and we get no help from the government or anyone else.”

They do not have a water connection, and the people living in pukka houses and bungalows in the vicinity refuse to give them drinking water, forcing them to order a water tanker for ₹1200. “We are often treated like aliens, and considered untrustworthy by the people living in the area.”

With the concept of clay idols catching on, why do they continue making idols of POP? “Anything higher than three feet cannot be made out of clay. It will crumble soon,” says Sarvan. “We have a huge demand for bigger Ganesh idols, then how can we think of making environment-friendly mud Ganeshas? Besides, a single clay idol takes about a week to make, fetches only ₹500-₹600, and cannot be painted or shaped intricately.” What if the government bans POP idols? “We will have no means left to eke out a livelihood. This is the only job we know.”

Yet, he has dreams for a better future, and also has plans for the money he hopes to make, as the last of the Ganeshas go to rest in the waters of the Hussain Sagar. “I want to buy the latest Samsung Galaxy smartphone,” he says, smiling.

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