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People of Bharat: Sushma

Light is seen tracing its way through the holes in the tarpaulin; the statues within are sun-kissed. I find myself in Domadugu, a village in the outskirts of Telangana. The kaccha home runs wide and is supported by a matrix of wooden logs. Inside, sculpted statues of the deity Ganesh are filed along a straight line. Lightly on the plump end, the sculptor is seated on a charpai. Sushma is draped in a pink saree. The nose ring hanging over her lips has a glint that captures attention. She notices me staring at it and explains how it’s worn by the women folk in her community for the husband’s long life. As sculptors, they all wear identical nose rings.

Unsure where to begin, I ask her age. She responds by stalling her daughter to fetch the Aadhar card. She declares between giggles that she is 50 years old. I eventually settle in the makeshift plastic chair made from two broken ones which her daughter nudges towards me. Sushma begins to talk about her childhood back in Pali, Rajasthan. Speaking in refrain she persists, ‘Waha pay pani nahi hai, waha mein baarish nahi hai. (There is no water in Rajasthan as there are no rains.)’ Scarcity of water made it difficult to cultivate crops, forcing them to move. The memory of how the tribe migrated in search of jobs comes crawling back. Our conversation leaves her reflecting, ‘When I was very young we moved to Ahmedabad where my father would cut wood for a living. After getting married, I learned how to make statues from my in-laws.’ Married at the tender age of 15, Sushma took a year to learn the art of sculpting. After bearing two kids, the family kept traveling; ‘Assam, Nepal, Gujarat, Karnataka, Bihar and what not,’ she blurts out in a single breath. Her 7 grandchildren sit surrounding her. I can feel their playful eyes on me as I continue with my questions.

Sushma continues to speak about the raw materials that make up the frames or moulds; POP, bamboo, wood, coconut husk and glue. A child-like curiosity grips me as I pause to gaze at the statues. Beaming, she details out the process for me, ‘First, the moulds are selected for different shapes. The dye colours are sourced from Raniganj. Moulds are divided symmetrically as an exact replica of the shapes to be produced.’ She elaborates on the POP paste and how it gets poured into the moulds with bamboo added for support. I am told how carving different body parts separately, the paste also helps to assemble them into a statue for the final touch of dye and paint. Discussing the intricacies Sushma mentions how multiple people are involved. She quips in, ‘Ye kaam hume nahi ata hai, hum karigar bulate hai iske liye aur wohi sara kaam karke jate hai — jaise aankhe banana aur chota chota chiz banana’ (We are not skilled for this work so we call craftsmen to carve the minute details — like carving the eyes and other intricate details.) Curious, I ask about how she started. She recounts, ‘Saga-sambandhi seh leh kar kaam shuru kara. (We had to borrow from my kith and kin to start the sculpting business.)’ It’s been six years since she started working on remodelling Ganpati.

Sushma and her family makes nearly 40–50 Ganesha statues annually during the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi. Statues are as tall as 4 feet to 10 feet. They incur a highly volatile profit which sometimes hits as low as Rs. 500 or rise to a maximum of Rs. 5000. The unsold statues are kept for the next season when it is repainted and restored, if required. She spends Rs. 4000–5000 on an average for sculpting smaller statues while the bigger statues amount to nearly Rs. 8000–9000. The profit incurred from each statue varies as the customer does not pay without a haggle. Each year’s sale decides the number of statues that get modelled for the next year. The family decides to either increase or decrease the number by 5–10, depending on how fruitful the past year had been.‘Hum sota sota murti banate jaise gamla, tota, niyay murti, Natraj aur sab Diwali par bayich dete hai (We carve small artifacts such as flower pot, parrot, lady of justice, Natraj and sell it all on Diwali season.)’ The small decorative statues vary in their prices ranging from Rs 100–300. Sushma’s family usually manages to sell three statues in the nearby villages, and uses this earning for their daily expenses. Uncertain sales and inconsistent income keeps the family in debts.

I get distracted as one of the kid nestled next to her on the chaarpai, teases me. Her joint family of four daughters and a son, borrows about Rs 1000 everyday for their meals and water needs. With younger kids, every day is a struggle. Their monthly electricity bill spikes to Rs. 500–1000. She tells me they have a television which doesn’t work and that her husband owns a smartphone. When asked if he uses it for calls, her daughter answers instead, ‘Haan aur kya kartey hai.(Yes, what else could you use it for?’ They have a rickshaw carriage that stores decorative items to sell their statues at nearby villages. Her husband owns 1.5 acre of uncultivated land in Rajasthan. After years of nomadic life, Sushma wishes to permanently settle in Hyderabad with her sons and their family. Her declining health and mounts of unpaid loan keeps her anxious. Peak seasons have helped in slowly repaying the interest-free loans they have been borrowing from their suppliers. Every raw material they use gets purchased from the vendors on a loan. As soon as Ganesha Chaturthi arrives, they pay the money back to their vendors. While some unpaid loans weigh on the lower end (Rs. 10,000), the other two amount to Rs. 50,000 and Rs.1 lac. ‘Hum logoh ko kabhi pareshan nahi karte humare logh, unhe pata hai ki jaise hi thode paise aaengay humare pas, hum unhe deh dengah(Our people never bother us to repay their loan; they trust us to return their money as soon as we earn anything from selling statues),’ explains Sushma as her daughter murmur something to her in Bawari language. With no government benefits or a stable profession, she fears for their future.

Sushma squeals as a herd of goats invade the tent, ‘Oh, bhaiya hatao inhein, yeh sara saman kha jaeyegay (Oh bhaiya, move your cattle or else they will eat all the material).’ Admiring the tiny tots chasing the goats, Sushma confesses about her illiteracy. Pointing at a distance she talks about a nearby private school but sighs that they can’t afford it. Simple life and dreams is all she hopes for in her future. ‘Mann mein kya hai, baache ko padhao, naukri lag jaye, aur kya, (I want to support their education so that they get a job, nothing else matters.)’ She longs to see her grandchildren educated, resting her faith on the deity of good beginnings she sculpts.


*karigar — craftsman

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