The dilemma of idol makers of Mumbai over making eco-friendly idols

The inclination towards eco-friendly idols in Mumbai, expected to have been advanced due to the pandemic, has posed a fresh set of challenges for the traditional idol makers like Mahendra Rathod, a BMC official by day and an artist by night.

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Mahendra Rathod and his nephew, Praful Tandel, have made around 200 idols of Lord Ganesha this year. Even as we visited the Kreeda Mandal in the Raigad Darshan, the building where he lives with his family in Andheri, a suburb of Mumbai, they were busy decorating a gleaming idol of Ganesha with old Hindi melodies playing in their background through an old transistor hung up above their heads and medium light beaming in from a small bulb fixed on the wall. But all their enthusiasm takes a back seat when they see people not buying their idols, made of eco-friendly ingredients, along with a mix of PoP (Plaster of Paris). 


Mahendra Rathod sitting on the staircase of his house, giving the last touch to a Ganesh idol 

The strict competition between idols made of PoP (Plaster of Paris) and eco-friendly materials began last year amid speculations of a complete ban on PoP idols in Mumbai. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), indeed issued a complete ban on PoP idols in June of this year, announcing its enforcement starting from this year. However, following a meeting with the Brihanmumbai Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Samiti, an umbrella organization representing various Ganesh mandals, the civic body reversed its decision to impose a complete ban starting next year. Instead, they permitted the purchase and sale of PoP idols but with the condition that these idols must be immersed exclusively in artificial ponds.

Despite being a relief, this decision posed challenges for the thousands of idol makers in Mumbai who traditionally crafted idols using PoP. Mahendra Rathod, a 52-year-old BMC official, is among them.

Apart from his regular work as a supervisor at the health department in the BMC, Rathod has been an idol maker for the last 20 years. Even Tandel, a 28-year-old has been working and learning the techniques of making the idol from his uncle since he was 8 years old, who is also, currently, working in the BMC in the same department as Rathod. Both of them go to the office during working hours and in the evening, sit in their cornered space at the ground staircase of their house to make the idols, a few months before the arrival of the Ganpati and to keep the tradition alive, they followed the same routine this year and made the idols before the government announced the restrictions. "The government asks us to not use PoP but we have already made the idols using them," he says adding that it is because of this reason people do not come to buy those idols made of Pop. 

An arduous shift


Ganesh idols on display outside the staircase at Rathod's house 

Of the 200 idols Rathod and Tandel have made this year, 20% of them have been made with PoP, and 80% are made from Shadu clay. Even though, the ban has exempted this year as a "special case" after the COVID-19, both of them are skeptical of selling PoP idols to people. Moreover, the artists are well aware that, at the current time, people want to buy only eco-friendly items. But knowing that, why can't traditional artists like Rathod shift to making eco-friendly idols, all of a sudden, is a question that makes Rathod list down the many adversaries. "The finishing of the shape of the idol does not come so easily using clay. It gets broken after every few attempts," he says adding, that it is harder to make eco-friendly idols than the ones using PoP. 

While it takes double efforts to shape the clay idols, as per Rathod, such idols take a lot of time to be made due to the long trial and error method since traditional artisans like him are not habitual in making those with ease. To add to the trouble, artists like Rathod get an end number of customization requests from customers. "A lot of people come to take eco-friendly items from me. But they have endless requests to make the idols in a particular way, which, sometimes, becomes hard to fulfill. Some want diamond work on it, some of them don't like the colours we use and ask to change it too. All this that you see is also because I am working on a customized idol," Rathod says pointing towards an idol and the decoration items he was working with. 

What worries Rathod and his family more is the income from the idols made using PoP this year as he has already suffered a great loss during the pandemic years. "We would always make more money than we invested in making idols during Ganesh Chaturthi which amounts to at least Rs 5-6 lakh. However, the business went down by almost 50% in the COVID-19 pandemic years," he says. It went back on track last year for Rathod with the revenue but the change in the government guidelines has surely made him sceptical about it this year. 

'Eco-friendly is the best'


Praful Tandel (right) working on a Ganesh idol along with his uncle Mahendra Rathod (left)

Despite the challenges and the fears that Rathod and his family have to suffer, on asking what should be the middle way between the problems being faced by traditional artisans and the ban of PoPs for idols by the government, Rathod says, "Eco-friendly idols must come (in the market) with the view of saving environment. Eco-friendly is the best." But as he speaks for it, a different sense of sorrow fills his face. "It wrenches our hearts to see Ganpati idols thrown at the beaches, rivers, and lakes when we go to these places, a day after the festival. We make those idols from our hearts and worship them, then, to see that condition of the idols torment us," he says. 

As the only solution to the problem, Rathod believes, that eco-friendly idols should be made that can be melted easily. "Those (eco-friendly) idols melt merely in ten minutes," he says. Adding to it, the 73-year-old father of Mahendra Rathod, Purushottam Rathod who was standing beside his son says, "The eco-friendly idols can be immersed even in the houses and one does not have to go to the dariyas (beaches) for visarjan." He goes on to say, "The water used for immersing the idols can, later, be used to watering plants and in the gardens." 

Having said that, the three generations of idol makers have been gearing themselves up to sell not just the idols made of clay but also of PoP that they have already made in good numbers. But what remains common is the urge to give their customers the idols with the best of the craftwork and the desired customizations. After all, for artists like Rathod, more than art, it is about crafting their hearts and souls in the idols so that his customers can embrace them wholeheartedly. 

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