Paint, brush and clay, and passing of time at a statue workshop

From one Durga Puja to another, time flies.

The festival is almost here and you’re probably a year older now. If memory serves right, it was only yesterday that cycle-rickshaws brought stained boxes of Asian Paints, wet brushes and clay, with artists and labourers in their discoloured baniyans in tow, to a quiet tree-lined shed at the Bengali neighbourhood Chittaranjan Park in south Delhi.

But only yesterday was last year. Time flies.

By 5 in the evening the air is cool inside the shed despite the humidity in mid-September. The evening sun punctures the gaps in the roof with golden light. The half-finished clay statues of the Goddess, her minions and the demon stare ahead in blank silence. The chubby demon has the startled expression of a paunchy man blindsided by mid-life crisis.

Even in the greyness of the shed, the huge unpainted statues that tower over the few people who happen to drop in and many of whose clay work is yet to dry, look impressive. When the painters apply colours on the statues by the last week of September, in time for Durga Puja that starts on October 4, they will roll out in their full glory.
Where the light is dim, some of the half-made demon statues have an ominous feel about them. But the Goddess will slaughter them in a few weeks.
This year, the labourers are concerned with rising prices of raw material - cotton, clay, wood, bamboo, ornaments, to name a few - that go into making the statues. They will have to push up the selling price to make decent money, after all this is not supposed to be a loss-making season. The small statues that families buy for home installation go for as low as Rs 1,000. The bigger ones bought by Puja clubs fetch well over Rs 1 lakh. At this shed, there are some 300 statues of all sizes.

“We have got a good number of orders as we get every year. But we had to do more work on the negotiations this time. Even the moneyed Puja clubs at posh areas are not waving their cash at us,” says Rajesh Pal, a clay artist from West Bengal’s Howrah. One of his colleagues in a torn blue vest, who is taking a long pull from a beedi, nods in agreement.

“We are charging more but the earnings will be the same as last year. Cotton costs a lot now and you don’t get wood that easily in this city,” says Gopal Paik, who passes on the beedi to the other man. Mr Paik says he hopes to return home to Birbhum richer than he was when he got down from the train at Nizamuddin Railway Station a month ago.
The workers eat and sleep at the shed. Night is day and day night for them as they like working after sunset because the air feels cooler. They retire to their hard cots when the sun is up.
For want of space, they string mosquito nets on statues whose clay has hardened enough to hold the weight of the breathable fabric in place. They have learnt to sleep well. The sound of footsteps of the occasional visitor or the persistent clunk of the camera shutter that threatens the relative quietness of the shed doesn’t bother them.

In a far corner of the shed towards the back that overlooks a spacious colony park, yellow and blue tarpaulin sheets have covered the gap on the roof where it meets a wall that otherwise would have exposed the statues to the elements. It is here that the colours look the best in evening light. The glow cast by the sheets on the yet to be painted statues transform them into lively art. It was the same sight in 2010 as it is now. Then we came in a group to take photos. It was fun. We worked on a series that tracked the pre-Puja, Puja and post-Puja journey of the statues, from their clay stage to their immersion in the ghats. Most of it has been lost to the chaotic wasteland of digital content. But over the years one by one people from the group stopped coming, some got married, some left town, some got bored.

It felt nice to be back here.

Time flies.

Few people drop in at the shed from time to time, but when they do come they make a lot of noise. The neighbourhood teens come for selfies. Here, a woman poses for a portrait.

The labourers sleep for most part of the day. They like working at night as the air is cooler. They have learnt to sleep well as every minute is precious, considering the amount of high-energy work they have to do. Making over 300 statues, painting them and shipping them out in a month is not an easy task.

The artists say the price of raw material needed to make statues has gone up this year, forcing them to charge more from customers. Even the traditionally strong buyer, the posh community clubs, have tightened their wallet.

The evening light seeps through the gaps on the roof. The yet to be painted statues look nice in the golden glow of soft sunlight. One can enjoy the sight from 5 pm on a cloudless day.

The rear portion of the shed has yellow and blue cover on the roof, which illuminates the unpainted statues below and dramatically changes their look. The camera's sensor fails to catch the full import of this corner, but it's a treat for the human eyes. Again, 5 pm on a cloudless day is the ideal time to see this.

The labourers string the mosquito nets on the sturdy statues that have fully dried. The shed is their second home. A room attached to the shed serves as their kitchen.

Paint marks left on a cycle-rickshaw at the shed near Pocket 52, Chittaranjan Park. 

The front area of the shed. This is where all those colourful statues that people see at Delhi's biggest Durga Puja pandals come from. The discreet shed, surrounded by trees, is the perfect place to make the statues.

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