The entrance to the sideline leading up to the home of Kailash Singh Hazaris, a Ganesh and Durga idol artisan residing at Dhoolpet, is now shut with bamboo sticks. “The locals don’t want anyone from the outside entering the street due to the coronavirus pandemic,” says the artiste. The street leading up to Kailash’s residence cum workshop used to be alive with colourful Durga and Ganesh idols.
The series of festivals from March to November kept the sector ticking despite shrinking profit margins in the past four to five years. Profit from one year fuelled the idol industry the following year. But with the roads blocked, prospective buyers staying home, and orders made in December last year cancelled, the artisans are staring at a year without registering any sales.
“Those who commissioned work from me are now backing out from buying. Now the finished products sit idle. I made an investment of Rs 3 lakh, borrowing from money lenders for a 3% interest to make idols this year,” says Kailash, “All the workers we paid advance to work with us this season have left back home in the special trains.”
At his workshop, bags of plaster of Paris sit wasted away in the unseasonal rains this summer. “There were no workers to set up the tent,” adds the master artisan.
There are roughly over 7,000 skilled and unskilled artisans involved in the informal idol-making industry at Dhoolpet, says Raj Kumar Singh, president for Telangana Ganesh Idol Artisans Welfare Association. “The Centre and the state consider us as an informal sector, we don’t come under the handicraft sector recognised by the Centre, and thus have no institutional support,” says this artisan who has in the past tried to get the workers registered with the state.
“Nothing came of it, we just got some ID cards. We have tried in the past to get our sector recognised with the Centre so that we become eligible, but the officials term us as popular art and hence don’t qualify under their definition of handicraft,” adds Kumar.
The lockdown has nearly killed the sector and Kumar dreads the months ahead. “The artisans will starve and die,” he says.
The sector thrives on a series of festivals including Ram Navami, Ugadi, Durga Pooja, Christmas, and special orders. Two of the festivals were low key affairs during the lockdown – the size of the Khairthabad Ganesh idol which was expected to be 66 feet tall has also been reduced to just 1 foot.
The lack of demand is already pinching those who stocked up raw materials ahead of monsoon. “We stock up on jute and Plaster of Paris in the summer, these are perishable goods and so the prices go up during the monsoon. But work that was to start has not yet started and the raw material is at risk of exposure to rain. Storing materials have also become a problem for many as they have to pay rent when no work is going on,” adds Kumar.
Some of the artisans like Kailash are registered with the Ministry of Textile, but he has no clue if he is even eligible for any form of assistance. “There has been no word from the Centre or the state on any relief for us,” says the artisan, a staunch BJP supporter and a member of the RSS for the past 12 years. “It does hurt a little that we are not in their thoughts,” adds Kailash.
The recently announced economic package by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman made no mention of those involved in the organised handicraft sector either.
Dhoolpet comes under the Goshamahal Assembly constituency, the only BJP held constituency in Telangana. The artisans who refer to themselves as a “vote bank” of the BJP are acutely aware of the lack of political bargaining power.
“There is no help from the local MLA Raja Singh, he says he won’t help us due to some petty ego issue,” alleges Kailash.
“I don’t want to get into politics, it’s pointless. The local legislator is big on words and less on action,” scoffs Kumar, “The artisans of Dhoolpet are talented and have helped build many famous temples across India, many of the artisans here are involved with painting murals at temples across India.”
But despite the work of artisans, Dhoolpet is best known for the sales of ganja and gudumba (illicit liquor) he laments. “The police treat all of us as criminals. The bad name of the area has weakened us politically and there is no respect for the artisan,” he adds.