A roadblock for the Vinayaka makers

For the better part of their lives, the potters and clay workers of Villupuram used to makeplaster of Paris Ganesha idols. Hundreds of them each year. Big, tall ones, small squat ones, standing ones and dancing ones, in dazzling festive colours. Most of them, men and women, were born into families of clay craft artisans and it was the only work they knew.

In 2010, with a rise in environmental awareness among more and more people, they switched to making the idols out of papier mache, using only water colours to define and paint the surface. The new non-polluting idols would disintegrate within ten minutes of immersion in water, which made them a huge draw.

The artisans would be engaged in this craft all year round, stocking up for Vinayaka Chaturthi when the big annual sale would take place. Customers would throng theirwarehouses to take their pick for the festival, which would be celebrated with the glorious images, privately in homes, or publicly on major streetsides and village crossroads. Theearnings from this once-a-year bumper sale would sustain the craftspeople for the rest of the year. Life was good.

Then came the pandemic, shattering their thriving livelihood.

Some mere days before the festival in 2020 their godowns were sealed to prevent the crowds of shoppers but to the artisan community it seemed like the doors were shut on their very lifeas it were. The rest of the year went in trying desperately to pay back loans and keep their families from starvation.

Whatever hope of revival they may have had for 2021 is now clouded by the fear of a third wave of the pandemic and the looming threat of another long lockdown.

This is the story not in Villupuram alone. There are similar clay worker communities in Pollachi, Thiruvannamalai, Kallakurichi and Kancheepuram. The lockdowns have dealt a body blow to all of them. The loss of the annual sales is only a part of the anguish. The line upon line of large unsold idols filling up the godowns for 16 months is a millstone round their necks. The very real possibility of the coming monsoon damaging or even washing away the massive stocks, ironically made to be water soluble, is another anxiety.

Despite their large numbers, running into a few thousands, the artisans were never eligible forbank loans because those require a surety and monthly payback. They cannot afford collateral and their earnings come only once a year. Their source of funds for raw material, which run into lakhs of rupees, are the village money lenders. These people, after long months of missed payments, not to mention interest, have turned into angry foes. Craftsmen are selling their homes and sleeping on pavements or in the hot, shuttered, airless godowns, right next to the cloistered idols, on bare mud floors. Little children are going hungry, older ones are dropping out of school and college, the loan sharks’ threats are becoming more vicious by the week. Suicide is increasingly being contemplated as a serious option for the penniless.

“At least then nobody will come around asking for their payment…” says one of the craftsmen, dully.

A heartbroken comment from a people whose only livelihood has been in the service of Vigneshwara, the god who is said to remove all obstacles.


Much is spoken and written about state and central assistance for farmers and for thehundreds of small and medium enterprises in the mechanised sectors. Yet the crafts sector,which employs the largest number of people after agriculture, astonishingly gets left out of the safety net. The clay workers of Tamil Nadu are a small example. It is time to shine a light on their plight, and that of artisan communities all over the country, to save and support them before they and their precious skills are erased from the social and cultural map of India.