The situation is quite upsetting in Tamil Nadu, home to a vibrant community of artisans and craftsmen. Earlier last month, it was reported that as many as 100 families living in Tiruchy and Perambalur, who spend over six months making Ganesha idols used during Vinayaka Chathurthi celebrations, were yet to see any offtake of idols, with barely days to go for the festival. The ban on the public exhibition of Vinayaka idols had essentially washed away their livelihoods for the second year in a row. Cheaper alternatives like Plaster of Paris were also being employed by some imitators which became a nail in the coffins of the artisan community.
The golu doll making clusters of TN have also been hit by pandemic induced restrictions. Many of them are still struggling to offload unsold stocks of dolls from the previous year. A majority of the artisans and vendors are cold-calling frequent customers from previous years to pick up some wares this year, just to keep the business going. The pan-India scenario is also quite troubling. Artisans from West Bengal used to make a beeline to Chennai and other metros during Pujo to help sculpt larger than life idols for the pandals. This time, owing to varying and at times, completely arbitrary COVID protocols enforced by the state governments, the idol makers are having a hard time pitching their wares.
In Chennai, a few Bengali associations chose to livestream poojas, and prohibited entry into pandals during the Navarathiri season. That’s why many artisans are making small or medium-sized idols that are 4-6 feet tall that can be installed within homes, as opposed to sculpting 10-13 feet gigantic idols to be installed in pandals. Artisans in Delhi have reported up to 60 per cent drop in business which is bad news for the community. Those who have taken bank loans to fund the capital-intensive activity of idol making stand to lose everything on account of the muted sales. The peripheral industry that includes zari workers, tableau decorators and pandal workers has also been affected by the restricted celebrations.
There has been a spike in labour charges due to the shortage of workers since many artisans had returned to their villages during the pandemic. The cost of raw materials, such as wood, bamboo, and colours used in the idols has also doubled. But, the idol makers are compelled to sell their wares at half the actual cost, due to the lukewarm demand. Couple this with the increased rental for godowns and one gets an inkling of the hurdles faced by artisans in this space.
So how do we offer some relief to them? An official from the office of the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, the Ministry of Textiles, had recently said that the Centre had set aside Rs 5.36 cr towards the construction of haats (or open air markets) in Mahabalipuram and Kanniyakumari and provided tool kits amounting to Rs 5 lakh to artisans in TN. Special projects are also being planned in Srikalahasti and Puducherry that will be focussed on regional artisans.
Workers in the artisan and crafts community must not be ignored when envisioning India’s plans for growth. Going forth, artisans could be provided with an advance to procure raw materials during the peak festive season, similar to how farmers get subsidies on agri-inputs. There have also been calls for exempting golu dolls from GST and provisioning more haats for the sale of such products, measures that could go a long way in taking the angst out of art.