S. Saravana Kumar of Rajavalli Shanmugam Arts is a busy man, now that Vinayagar Chathurthi is here

Off the Ukkadam tank, in a dusty by-lane lined with godowns, is a room packed with colourful Ganesha idols. They stand on the floor, hundreds of them, in pink, yellow and green, with beetle eyes and golden necklaces. A few weeks from now, they will be worshipped on a pedestal in a household in Coimbatore, Pollachi or Mettupalayam by doting devotees. But for now, they will have to make do with S. Saravana Kumar, their creator. He sits amongst them, a paint brush in his hands as he speaks:

Every day, after school, I would come here to watch my father make kalimann bommais. He was an expert. I sometimes helped around, doing touch-ups and other simple tasks. I liked being here, liked what I saw and did. After class XII, I joined my father. Our company is called Rajavalli Shanmugam Arts. There are eight people working for us, most of them family members. We make clay and papier-mâché idols.

We work throughout the year. A few days after Vinayagar Chathurthi, we start making kolu bommais. It takes about 20 days to make each bommai. The clay is filled into a mould to give the idol form. It is left to dry for about two weeks, after which we apply a layer of chalk powder and adhesive on it. Once the idol dries, we paint it.

These days, we have to be extra careful when we work, as even a minor mishandling could damage the idol. But this was not the case in the past. We can sense a change in the clay — it is not what it used to be. Our hands tell us that it is polluted. We used to make clay idols four feet tall, but this is impossible now. The clay is not strong enough, and we can go only a little over two feet tall.

Not for my children

This year, the Public Works Department has imposed stringent conditions for taking clay from the tanks. I went through a lot of hassles for a task that was so simple. And I don’t earn much, which is why I employ family. So there is no way I would encourage my children to take after me. It’s a difficult life even now; imagine how it will be in the future.

I’m still doing this for the satisfaction I get when I see gods taking shape in my hands. People pray to my idols, garland them and pay their obeisance to them. I’m thankful to God for giving me this honour. It’s a tricky thing, you know, making clay idols. You need to apply your mind; it’s like meditation. If you let your thoughts stray while at work, the idol will give you away. But Ganesha has always been an exception. He has saved me many times; he never gives away my mistakes.

When I make idols for temples, I leave the task of painting the eyes to the end. Something happens when I paint them — I feel God is looking me in the eye. So I hold a mirror to the idol’s face and paint the eyes using the reflection as a guide.

Some people invite me for immersion functions during Chathurthi. But I do not like to see my idols drown. It makes me sad. I stay away from these events. But, it’s a cycle and I know it’s important that it runs smooth. I tell myself that an idol immersed in Coimbatore might become the raw material for a craftsman in Pollachi. I can put up with a lot of things in life. But if someone looks at my idols and says, “Idhenna, verum kalimann dhane” (this is only clay), I will be shattered. It is so much more.