Despite sluggish market, crib figure makers in Vilachery busy as Christmas approaches

With Christmas just weeks away, a majority of the residents in the small hamlet of Vilachery in Madurai are busy moulding clay and plaster of paris into small figures.
Despite sluggish market, crib figure makers in Vilachery busy as Christmas approaches
Women apply a coat of paint on the newly-sculpted figures in Vilachery

Madurai

The making of figures meant for crib has long been a cottage industry in this village, taking advantage of the demand for the recreation of nativity scene (representing the birth of Jesus) in churches and households.

Villagers engage in the crib figure making throughout the year as it is a major source of their income. They also make clay idols of Lord Vinayagar and dolls for Navarathiri celebration.

N Pitchai (59), who has been making figures for the past 37 years, said the rural households were earlier involved in pottery and moulding items such as traditional clay water jugs and flower pots.

With the passing of time, the usage of earthenwares has dwindled and almost come to a naught. When the trend started changing, the potters turned to doll making to sustain their livelihoods.

“Pottery making came into existence here in 1965 when locals Sathasivam and Suran promoted the activity. The Kulalar community was largely involved in this art of making figures,” Pitchai said, adding that clay soil and plaster of paris are the key raw material for making figures, which range in various sizes from three inches to one foot.

According to M Thangaraman, who has rich experience in the crib figure making, the wholesale market is totally reliant on customers from Kerala, where traders from almost all districts would buy their products.

Since Kerala was devastated by the floods some months ago, the business has become sluggish this year. Normally, around 10,000 sets of crib figures would be made annually, but it has come down to 6,000 sets this year as orders fell sharply.

Normally production commences in January and ends by November end. A crib set comprising 18 figures are made to suit the requirements of buyers. A set is available for a minimum price of Rs 100 and going upto Rs 5,000, Thangaraman told DTNext on Sunday.

His son, Ramesh Kumar (40) said the crib figures are normally made using clay. Since the availability of clay has come down this year owing to consistent spells of rains, there is no alternative than to choose plaster of paris, which increases the cost of production, he added.

“Despite incurring an increase in production cost, the market price is not enterprising. During last year, the least priced set fetched Rs 150, but it has dwindled to Rs 90 now. A stiff competition has triggered a reduction in market price. The 12 percent GST is yet another blow for us,” Ramesh Kumar said.

According to P Vijayakumar, another maker, the trade did not pick up last year owing to cyclone Ockhi that hit parts of Kerala. “After incurring expenditure on production, transportation, loading and off-loading charges, profit is only marginal,” he rued. “More resources are required for us to make ceramic figures, which at present are being imported from China and Italy. Training must be provided to develop the skills, which would then bolster the business,” Vijayakumar said.

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