Times are changing and so are the challenges faced by artisans. Apart from having to deal with competition from migrant idol makers, artisans are facing other significant challenges to their way of life. Having made idols in a particular way for decades, local artisans are now feeling the pinch of having to compete with those who break the rules.
In 2005, the government had banned the use of plaster of Paris (PoP) to make Ganesha idols for Vinayaka Chaturthi. The move had been aimed at curbing the dumping of ecologically damaging idols into the sea, and replacing them with more eco-friendly materials.
Since then, a majority of artisans have given up making PoP gods and learnt to make idols, ranging from two to 12 feet in height, with paper mache and chalk. With more regulations being brought in, they have even shifted to water colours from synthetic paints.
But, change and adapting to governmental regulations are not all that make life difficult for these artisans. There are still some who make PoP Ganeshas, and buyers tend to prefer them even though they are illegal because they are cheaper.
“They are running us out of business. Customers find out the prices of the PoP idols and expect us to sell our paper mache ones at the same prices. That is just not possible. But we are forced to make heavy concessions just to try and recover our costs. Otherwise, we will have no money for next year,” says T Selvam, a Saidapet resident, who is making idols in Mangadu.
He says he has complied with regular checks by police officials into the materials used in his idols, and that compliance with the law could well run his business into the ground, even as PoP idol makers continue with little to hinder them.
Much to the relief of Selvam and some other idol makers in nearby localities, a group of migrant artisans had been picked up by the police for selling PoP idols in Avadi. “We did not know that we are not supposed to sell PoP idols in Chennai,” says Biju (name changed), an artisan from Orissa, whose idols were confiscated by the police. “If we had known, we would have not made the idols. Now, all the money we had put into it is gone,” he adds. He says he and his group of eight artisans have no choice but to return home and start making idols for the Durga Puja season in West Bengal.
Even as artisans using man-made materials continue to wrangle with regulations, those making the traditional mann Pillaiyar (clay Pillaiyars) seem happy with the extent of business. “They can’t make mud illegal,” guffaws 70-year-old Sambandamurthy, as he demonstrates how to knead the clay into the moulds, outside his hovel in Kosapet.