Pen Ganesha: From clay to commerce

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit the tiny town of Pen in Maharashtra’s Konkan region to unravel the colourful world of Ganpati idol manufacture 

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A torrential downpour lashed across the tiny hamlet of Pen. In every lane, the elephant-headed god peeped over blue plastic sheet enclosures. In a dimly lit shack on Kasar Ali, Rajendra Moreshwar Samel gently tapped on a mould and prised it open to reveal a serene Ganesha. The grey shadu (clay) was still damp as he carefully attached the trunk and hands and left it on a shelf to dry. This third generation artisan single-handedly churns out 3,000 idols a year and is one of the thousands of craftsmen who have turned Pen into a world-renowned manufacturing hub for Ganpati idols.

With Ganeshotsav (Ganesh Chaturthi) around the corner, the pace of activity at Pen’s Kala Kendras and karkhanas (makeshift factories) was frenetic. Paint-spattered artists were engrossed with brushes and spray guns, some statuettes awaited the finishing touches for the eyes, endless rows of grey and white idols were left to dry while those arranged on the shelves had been tagged with the buyer’s name. Some bought kachcha (raw) idols to be painted later in desired colours while most carted away readymade statues. Members of Ganpati Mandal Samitis knocked on doors in search of 8 feet high Ganeshas. Retailers from Mumbai, Pune and Kolhapur ticked away at checklists and furiously punched figures on their calculators.

What seemed like an unassuming roadside shop from the outside was a labyrinthine complex of halls and passageways set on multiple levels. Any available space was stacked with Ganeshas of every size, shape and hue. Rattling out names like items off a menu, Deepak Samal of Deepak Kala Kendra explained how the idols had been named. “The nomenclature is for convenience and usually depends on aspects of style like costume, headgear, seating posture or choice of pedestal. There’s Peshwa (reclining on a couch), Kamal (on a lotus), Shankh (on a conch), Undish (on a mouse), Bajirao (with pagdi), Furniture Ganesh (elaborate seat) or Shivaji (seated on a throne like the Raigad statue). Seeing the popularity of the Chimboli wala Ganesha (seated on a crab) among the Hindu Kolis, Pen’s artists developed a new variant – a fisherwoman carrying a basket with Lord Ganesha emerging from the belly of a fish!”

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Sunil Hazare of Mangesh Kala Kendra, a 4th generation artisan lamented, “Popular figures like Siddhivinayak, Lalbagh cha Raja, Chinchpokli cha Raja, Dagduseth Halwayi of Pune (with coiled trunk laden with gold) are all-time favourites. However, artisans have now started adapting Ganpati in the likeness of other gods – Vithoba, Tirupati Balaji, Sheshnag, Shiva Parvati, Bansuri Sri Krishna or Sai Baba. We prefer to stick to traditional themes, but if you walk down the ali (street), you’ll discover atrocious designs and gaudy colours. How can one pray to such idols?”

The young twins Amol and Amit Waskar of Sheetal Kala Kendra at Parit Ali, who opted for Plaster of Paris over clay few years ago, had a different opinion. “Doing the same thing year after year can get monotonous. To showcase our creativity, we try and innovate with more contemporary themes. People too have quirky tastes. The popularity of the 3-D animation film spawned the Bal Ganesh series. Last year, the Auto Ganesha sold like hot cakes; but this year it’s Cycle Ganesha and World Cup Gan…” Before the Waskars could complete their sentence, our eyes traveled to Lord Ganesha poised mid-delivery, sporting an India jersey with a Kookaburra ball in his hand, ready to bowl the perfect googly. His trusted vahana, the mouse had folded its hands in devotion, but clutched a ball instead of a modak (sweet dumpling)!

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The idol’s evolution from a minimalist clay figure to ostentatious pop art has been quite a journey. The tradition of this century-old craft dates back to the 1880s when Pen used to be a typical farming village. Bombay’s emergence as an industrial centre drew people from afar for employment. Several Brahmin communities from Konkan left for Bombay on bullock carts and often settled at various places along the way. Being a priestly class, their work centered around festivities and rituals – crafting pagdis (headgear) ­and making decorations, paper idols and stuffed parrots. They bartered these items for rice and shelter. Since Lord Ganesha was Maharashtra’s paramount deity, the Brahmins would often dig up some clay and fashion an idol for worship. Although there was no money in idol-making, it was considered very respectable. The landlords of Pen and other customers offered paan-bida (betel leaf and nut) and dakshina (token fee) in exchange for these statues.

The credit for converting a pastime into commerce goes to Ganesh Bhikaji Devdhar or Bhiku Tikli, who emigrated from Wade Padel near Vijaydurg to Pen around 1885. He went to Bombay to learn the art of mould making and introduced it in Pen, forever changing the manufacturing process. However, it took a historic event to propel this art into a full-fledged cottage industry.

In 1893, in response to the British ban on political gatherings, nationalist leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak transformed Ganesh Chaturthi from a private affair to a sarvajanik utsav (public celebration) as part of his larger campaign to unify India. With its epicenter in Pune, various Ganpati mandals (associations) were formed to promote cultural programs. The 10-day festival became a rallying point for all communities and the festive wave spread to Mumbai and other places. A matrimonial alliance between the Peshwas and the Kolhatkars, a landlord family from Pen came as another shot in the arm. Ganesh Chaturthi, already a grand celebration for the Peshwas of Pune since the 1700’s, became equally popular in the Brahmin cluster of Pen. To cater to this sudden surge, many of Pen’s artisans took on idol making for Ganeshotsav (Aug-Sep) as a full time occupation.

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For Kumbhars (potters), who remained partially idle in the rainy season, it was the perfect alternative. With the advent of steel, Kasars (bangle-makers and copper smiths) were elbowed out of manufacturing utensils and took to making Ganesha idols. Slowly members of other communities switched to this booming trade. Many of these streets, named after its original settlers, like Kasar Ali, Kumbhar Ali and Parit Ali became key centres of idol making. They soon faced a small crisis.

The red clay available in the nearby hills was of inferior quality and less pliant. But Pen’s proximity to Bombay worked in its favour. Cargo ships ferrying Mangalore tiles and other cargo to upper India often docked at Bombay. Sacks of chikni mitti (refined white clay) from Gujarat were often loaded to add weight for the ship’s stability at sea. Merchants sold these sacks at throwaway prices at Mumbai, from where it was ferried by boat to Antora Port, 1½ miles from Pen. Thus, Pen’s sculptors got their hands on shadu (clay), the best material to make Ganpati idols. Equidistant from Pune and Bombay, Pen had a ready market.

In the old days, there was no road network and people had to carry the idols on their heads from Pen to Antora or transport them by bullock-cart to Dharamtar, 12 km away. From there, Ganapati idols were loaded onto boats and finally made a dramatic entry into Mumbai by sea! Clay idols being fragile had to be packed carefully with banana leaves in boxes, yet breakage in transit was as high as forty percent. A revolution was in the offing and it was another Devdhar, Bhiku Tikli’s grandson, who triggered it.

Narayan Ganesh Devdhar or Rajabhau introduced Plaster of Paris (PoP) as a substitute to clay for preparing decorative idols that were sturdier, lighter and bigger. Around the same time, the Prabhat Film Company placed an order at Pen for 500 busts for their epic film Sant Dnyaneshwar (1940). The busts were mass-produced using rubber moulds, another pioneering innovation by Rajabhau. Subsequently, the Ganapati idols too were crafted using this technique. With the opening up of the Thane Creek Bridge in the 1970s, improved road networks and easy bank loans, Pen’s Ganpati industry began to flourish.

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JJ School of Art alumni, Shrikant Vamanrao Devdhar, a fourth generation artist of the legendary Devdhar family shed more light on the process. “Every Ganesha nearly goes through 25 specialized departments. From kneading the clay, which comes in powder form in gonis (sacks), to sculpting a masterpiece, casting a mould from it, carefully unlocking its pieces, painting the idol, spraying for effects, polishing the idol to the most important aspect – doing the eyes!” Ganesha’s hands and trunk have separate moulds, which are fixed later. The masterpiece is kept aside so that once mould is used up (after 250-300 idols), another one can be made from it. For clay idols, a PoP mould is used and for PoP idols, a rubber mould is used.

“The beauty of clay is that it comes from earth and goes back to earth.” Shrikant sighs, “Initially, all the colors were procured from natural sources – black soot, lime, turmeric and flowers of the Palas tree (Butea frondosea); today we use Camlin fabric paint. Once upon a time, the leaves of Sag (teakwood) and Karate tree (source of Shea butter) were used for polishing idols; now we put glossy primer or rub mica with a cloth for glow. Earlier it was an art; now it’s a commercial business” he rues. “It’s not as if Pen didn’t make other idols. Artists created busts of Jhalaram Baba and Vivekananda, but the demand was low. Plus, they needed to look exactly like them. With Ganpati, one can churn out hundreds and there’s room for abstraction – an elephant head on a human body!”

“Until the 80’s, both the Prabhat and Kalpana Kala Mandirs used to make 8-12,000 Ganesha idols a year, employing 80-100 people, many of whom run their own enterprises today. But there are very few genuine artists left. Most are just printers, replicating others’ work. The tragedy is that artists cannot register their models, because plagiarists tweak the design slightly and you can’t raise an objection!” Although Shrikant has closed down his manufacturing unit to explore other avenues as an artist and sculptor, he remains connected to Pen’s Ganpati legacy. As President of the Lord Ganesha Statue Maker and Businessmen Association for the past decade, he sees many challenges ahead.

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“The Government should provide land, infrastructure and basic facilities for unloading shadu and loading idols. We don’t need big machinery or marketing. Instead, we need to provide water and electricity, educate and empower the people and channelize them into a collective force. An attitudinal shift is required. Here, people think that if you don’t have an education or degree or are physically challenged, you can still join the Ganpati industry. The few skilled artisans can earn up to Rs.1,000 a day but an unskilled labourer takes home only Rs.150-200 a day. It’s the agents who take away the cream – buying an idol for Rs.300 at Pen and selling it in cities for Rs.3000! Whatever said, Ganpati manufacture is not like majdoori (menial job), you sit in one place and work. There’s some dignity in it.”

Witnessing the onslaught of mass-production, drop in skilled artisans and gradual decline in art, Shrikant’s cousin Anand Narayan Devdhar, also a JJ alumni, has scaled down his operations to focus on sculpture. “Different communities have different aesthetic sensibilities. Brahmins like ‘pujan ka ganpati’, the orthodox, small-sized idol with traditional, muted colours. But what is classy for me, might be too plain for others. Kolis and business communities like ‘bhadak ganpatis’, with chakmak (glitter). Some believe if Ganpati is laden with gold, more gold will come home”, he chuckles softly.

The manufacture of Ganpati idols is a Rs.10-15 crore industry, employing about 25,000 people in Pen taluka alone. Nearly 500 factories dot Pen, Hamrapur and adjoining areas with all members of the family employed in the trade. Over the years, the market has expanded to neighbouring states like Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Goa. Joint families that used to have one common Ganpati have now splintered into nuclear units. With a large Marathi diaspora settled overseas, idols from Pen travel to places as far as UK, US, Australia and Mauritius. As long as Ganesha has devotees, Pen will always be in business. The rain has calmed to a gentle drizzle and the sun is out. A massive white Ganapati smiles in benign contentment.

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Fact File

Location:
Pen is 80 km from Mumbai

Getting there:
By Road: Accessible from NH-17/Mumbai-Goa Highway (30 km from Panvel) or via the Mumbai-Pune Expressway by the Khopoli-Pen State Highway (25 km from Khopoli).
By Rail: Ratnagiri Passenger (50103) leaves Dadar at 3:35 pm and reaches Pen at 5:55 pm while the Diva-Sawantwadi Passenger (50105) leaves Panvel at 7:05 am and reaches Pen at 7:59 am.

Where to Stay:
Marquis Manthan, Mumbai Goa Highway
www.marquismanthan.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as a Ganesh Chaturthi special feature in the August, 2011 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways’ in-train magazine. 

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3 responses »

  1. That is really remarkable that the factory employs 25,000 people in Pen alone. It’s fascinating to hear the story of how an idol is made, something so many will appreciate. It’s almost like being a part of creating what will be pure magic to so many.

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