Harsha and I looked outside the window, careful not to brush our shoulders against the piece of chewed gum stuck to the edge of the window frame. The bus was wedged in a narrow alley between makeshift shops with tin roofs, raucous hawkers selling their wares on hand carts, people scuttling along, careful not to step into the open drains that ran along the road, all populating a claustrophobic space. It could have been any town, its appearance nondescript, but deceivingly so, as we would discover.
The bus-stop was a few kilometers away but we got down early. As the lal dabba(translation: red box), a term used to describe MSRTC(Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation) buses, trudged along in a drunken stupor, we made our way across the road to a small workshop hiding behind blue plastic covers.
The workshop, only slightly bigger than a closet, housed a bunch of rusted steel racks, their tops touching the roof and filled with brooms, paints and Ganesh idols, all jostling for space.
We were in Pen, a town in Raigad district of Maharashtra, India, famous for its Ganesh idols that are sold in Pune, Mumbai, Nagpur, Pandharpur, and even exported to USA.
Like most of our travel plans, this one too hit us quite unexpectedly.
We started with talking about Ganesh Chaturthi, then about Lokmanya Tilak’s role in re-inventing this domestic festival into a public event and somehow ended with wondering about the birthplace of Ganesh idols.
“Hum yahan baith ke dekh sakte hain?” Harsha asked one of the artisans in the workshop, busy at work.
We watched in awe as he dipped his brush in black paint and drew the curve of the idol’s eyelid in a single stroke. I don’t think Harsha would have achieved that level of perfection even with a compass.
“Aap ye kitne saalon se kar rahe hain?”
“Pachchis saal se,”he said and spun the wooden disc to move on to the next idol. He was working on four idols simultaneously, no two idols being the same. Facing four different directions, they were all mounted on a wooden disc with an axle, the mechanism beneath it hidden inside the hole in the ground covered by two rotting planks of wood.
A woman in her late twenties sat some distance away painting the dhotis on the idols, occasionally looking up at us and smiling awkwardly. A seventeen year old gave finishing touches to the idols, coating them with varnish.
We realized then, and confirmed that every artisan in that workshop and others that were to follow, work on specific parts of the idol. One artisan paints the eyes, another does the basic colouring, a third does the shading work, and so on.
“Aap ne ye kaam seekha kaise?”
“Bachpan se drawing me achcha tha, sab competition jeet ta tha school me. Karte karte seekh gaya.”
After asking them a few more questions, we took leave and made our way through narrow lanes in search of another workshop. After being misdirected about half a dozen times, and caught unaware by a sudden spurt of heavy rain that Harsha believed to be a cloudburst, we finally stumbled across another workshop after half an hour, this one being much larger than the last one. The moment we stepped inside, we were greeted by a rather curious sight: tiny clay hands, fresh out of moulds, left to dry.
“Tumhi IT wale aahat ka?” asked one of the artisans busy painting Lord Ganesha’s nails a bright red.
“Tumhala kasa kalala ke aamhi ITat kaam karto,” asked Harsha.
“Ae Ritesh! Ikde ye!”
A man, who until now had been tuning the radio while he took a break from fixing a broken idol, got up and came running.
“Madam la bolav, laukar saang, IT wale aale aahet,” he whispered into his ears with a great sense of urgency.
“Ithe basa na madam,” he said getting up and flashing a toothless grin. “Tumhi chaha ghenar?”
“Aap madam mat bulaiye. Aur chai ki bhi zaroorat nahi. Hum bas thoda dekhna chahte hai, ki aap kaam kaise karte hain…”
“Madam, hamari badi madam abhi ayengi…wo apko sab bata deyengi, hum kitna moorti banate, kitna paisa banate, kitna tax dete, sab…hamara kaarkhana chaalis saal purana hai, kabhi kuch lochcha nahi kiya humne.”
Harsha and I looked at each other in surprise.
“Hello,” said a frail lady who had just stepped outside the house, the open space beside which was being used as a workshop, a yellow plastic sheet for a roof.
“We just want to take a look…”
“If you will step inside, we can show you the records from last year, the number of idols we have sold, all our financial records…”
“We just want to see the artisans working, that’s all.”
“Aren’t you from the income tax department?”
“No…oh! We work in the IT industry, information technology…at least she does, she is a programmer,” I said.
“Oh! Arrey kaka, te income tax department che nahiye! IT manjhe computer war kaam karnare lok.”
“Kay veda aahes tu Mahesh!” said a voice, hidden from our view.
“Arrey! Me tyaanche cameras baghitle ani mala vatla…athavta, magchya velis income tax department che lok ale hote ani photos ghetle hote…”
His explanation was drowned in laughter and the same voice teasing him: “Veda!”
We peeked behind a wooden rack overwhelmed by Ganesh idols and spotted the source of the voice. A seventy year old man sat there having a hearty laugh, spatula in hand and working on a clay idol, yet to be painted.
“Yaar Trishna, ulte chalke bhi isse jaldi pahunchte hum log,” said Harsha, sitting opposite me in the six-seater.
I stood just in time to save my behind from further suffering as the vehicle landed into a ditch, one of several that the entire stretch of the road was infected with. We were on our way to Hamrapur village, 7 kms away from Pen. After visiting several workshops in Pen and speaking to various artisans, we were directed towards Hamrapur village when we told them that we were eager to see the process of the idols being extracted from moulds.
“Seriously! On a completely different note, I think my bum might have gone into a vegetative state.”
The workshops in Hamrapur were quite different from the ones we saw in Pen. Twenty feet idols were a common sight. As were hundreds of idols arranged in rows with military precision. These workshops looked like factories. And unlike the workshops in Pen where the artisans appeared to be underpaid but happy, these guys strictly meant business.
In Hamrapur, in addition to seeing moulds that are used to create these idols, we understood the process of their creation: a thin layer of POP(Plaster of Paris) is poured into a mould which is then covered with coir brought from Tamil Nadu. Once the POP dries, the idol is then extracted.
Having seen all that we needed to, we endured another painful six-seater ride back to Pen. We would board a bus after that and make our way back to Pune through the scenic Lonavala ghat.
Pen is not a pretty place. But the artisans who reside there, lend a certain character to it that is unforgettable. Underpaid, overworked and still perfectly happy doing what they have been for several decades now, these artisans are just as extraordinary as their creations. And for that reason alone, we will remember Pen. Not for the terribly suffocating humidity that invaded us that day. Not for the unruly four and a half hours bus ride from Pune to Pen. Not even for the young artisans in a workshop in Hamrapur village we nearly had to run away from, for our safety. The warmth and humility of its gifted people who let us take a glimpse into their world, that’s all we will remember Pen for.
As Harsha and I sift through the images we captured on our trip, there is one that catches my eye: an artisan polishing a clay hand before he attaches it to the idol sitting in front of him. I can’t help but smile at the irony: the man who supposedly God created, was now creating Him.