Manohar Bagoew, who works from Parel
Rishi Majumder hangs out with murtikaars, Mumbai’s traditional idol makers, to get the lowdown on the trade (and the faith that comes with it)

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Anna Shetge - who chose professional Ganpati making after losing his job during the 80's Mill Movement

Anna Shetge - who chose professional Ganpati making after losing his job during the 80's Mill Movement

“First, a tall iron pole. Then iron rods are welded to shape a skeleton, keeping the centre of gravity intact. Grass is stuffed and tied with rope and bamboo. Plaster, rope and kathya (string derived from coconut shell) is used to give further shape. Then patchwork using POP (Plaster Of Paris), rolled out almost like chapattis. This is 50%. A second POP coating balances body contours. Knowledge of human anatomy is required for this. A third thin coating of POP is scraped and leveled to begin the ‘finishing’ process, up to the raised curve of each eyebrow. Then oil paint, primer and colour… finer shading… and a final finish for the final look.”
— The making of the Ganesh Gully Ganpati idol,
   the city’s tallest, described by its makers.



Gajanan Tondalkar, Mumbai Murtikaar Sangh President, at his Parel workshop

Gajanan Tondalkar, Mumbai Murtikaar Sangh President, at his Parel workshop



Gana: Group, category, class, community, association, corporation.

Pati: Lord

Ganapati: Lord of ‘the order’.    

 — Definitions cited from various dictionaries
Rajan Vitthaljad at his Parel workstation

Rajan Vitthaljad at his Parel workstation

   In 1893, Lokmanya Tilak took the annual Ganapati festival from private family celebrations to public gatherings, to bridge the gap between Brahmins and non-Brahmins and build a grassroots unity. The festival served “as a rallying point for Indian protest against British rule”. By the 1970s and early 80’s, the festival was celebrated most in the Dadar, Lalbaug and Parel areas. A primary reason: the vast population present, comprising mill workers. The trend of giant idols caught on, almost simultaneously, with the Mill Worker’s Movement, both serving as rallying points for workers of every caste, region and even religion. Not so far back in 1996, the God of good beginnings blessed another order, formed in 1992, to be registered thus: Brihanmumbai Ganesh Murtikaar Sangh.
   “Murtikaars (idol makers) were being exploited by businessmen, not given facilities by the government, and yet held to ransom by customers,” Gajanan Tondwalkar, current president, recounts. Born out of miniscule meetings, the organization expanded as news of results achieved (especially vis-a-vis the BMC) spread. Results like getting electricity connections on a priority basis, which otherwise a murtikaar would get only by the time the festival was over, courtesy red tapism.
   “Today, a major concern is of the trade being flooded by businessmen who concentrate on quantity rather than quality. This will be addressed by petitioning the government for a training facility,” says Rajan Jhad, a third generation murtikaar and treasurer of the Sangh. This facility will ensure a quality of craftsmanship in the next generation’s trade. The Sangh also intends to plead for a role in the selection process for the Ganpati Prizes doled out by the BMC. “This is to ensure that the judges appointed are qualified to gauge such a specific art, and avoid partiality,” Tondalkar explains. Other smart moves include inviting sponsorship from companies producing the oils, paints and POP that the murtikaars use in return for advertisement, keeping donations and subscriptions in a Murtikaar’s Emergency Fund as an insurance against accidents or business mishaps, and vying for handicrafts initiatives launched by the centre or state government so as to provide seasonal Murtikaars with year-long employment in the profession. 


Ratnakar Kamblee - maker of Lalbaghcha Raja. Enough said.

Ratnakar Kamblee - maker of Lalbaghcha Raja. Enough said.

   “The most vital issue confronting us is the proposed POP ban,” says Shashikant Bagwe, the eldest of three brothers who have been making the Ganesh Gully Ganpatis for some time now. POP, enables a murtikaar to make 30 idols in a day, whereas natural clay would take 3 days for a single idol. This is in addition to the fact that the latter is far more expensive and breakable. And finally lies the issue of land: “If we don’t get BMC permission and land for the mandaps (shed for making the idols) in time, we can’t deliver in time for the festival,” Tondalkar states simply, adding that while June was when they should have ideally gotten their mandaps up by this year, they weren’t able to do so till July end.
   But while what they have been and are fighting for is significant, the most fascinating aspect of the order is its ethnic composition. Most of the murtikaars hail from the Konkan region, where many mill workers came from too. “I was a mill worker, and worked as a Murtikaar only during the festival in my village,” says Anna Shetge, a senior member of the Sangh. “After the mill workers’ strike in 1982, we were left suddenly with nothing. And I turned my hobby into my profession.” Despite the strike’s fallout, Shetge speaks in support of its leader Datta Samant, holding on to a communist ideal as he does to his god. The Sangh has among its members a Muslim and a Christian. Such integration is best enumerated by Tondalkar in describing the Ganesh Gully idol’s most essential feature (he too has been its crafter): “Not one part of the idol is made separately. It is all built at one time, in one place. But the centre of gravity should stay intact.”

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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