Nisha Kumbhkar, 30, became a potter and idol maker 12 years ago, after she married into a family of kumhars (idol makers and potters). “We are around a hundred families of kumhars who are engaged in this traditional craft,” she said, painting an idol of Lakshmi, locally referred to as Gwalin. The area in front of her house is littered with large moulds of unfinished idols, waiting to be painted. This is Kumharpara – a settlement of potters in Dhamtari town of Chhattisgarh.
There are around 80 to 100 families in the hamlet who are engaged in this craft. The government has provided only around 15 families with an electric potter’s wheel. Although the device saves effort, it drives up the electricity expenses.
Idol-making is a long-drawn-out process. First, the clay is sifted using mesh nets. The sculptures are then crafted by hand. Diyas (lamps), pots and piggy banks are made using a potter’s wheel. Once ready, they are dried in the sun; the number of days required for drying depends on the weather. In the next step of the process, they are baked in a kiln. The diyas, pots and idols are then painted before being sold.
Ramswarup Kumbhkar, Nisha’s 60-year-old father-in-law, has been doing this work for over 40 years. A family business, the kumhars (classified as Other Backward Classes in Chhattisgarh) assign specific jobs to each member of the household; the children observe and learn how to refine, sculpt and paint clay.
“Our labour is not valued,” said Ramswarup, when this reporter visited the area in November 2020. “A quintal of wood costs 1,200-1,300 rupees and we spend that much every week, but a pot sells for just 50-60 rupees. See how little we make.”
“We make 300 to 400 idols every Diwali,” said Nisha. “It takes a month or two to prepare the stock for the season”. When there is a demand, the kumhars also make sculptures of other Hindu Gods such as Ganesha, Parvati and Shiva. Idols of Lakshmi are made for Lakshmi puja that is celebrated on Kartik amavasya (coinciding with Diwali). For Gaura-Gauri, which is also celebrated on the night of Diwali, idols of Shiva and Parvati are made to symbolize their marriage during the festivities. The entire village celebrates the festival together.
In 2020, the kumhars’ peak sales period – Ganesh Chaturthi and Durga puja – was affected by the pandemic and the resulting Covid restrictions. Kumar Chakradhari, 38, said that in the hamlet around 200 Durga statues were made but only 40 sold. The remaining statues lie in a temporary shed and risk being damaged.
Idol-making is a long-drawn-out process. The clay is first sifted using mesh nets, after which the sculptures are crafted by hand or using the potter’s wheel. They are dried in the sun over several days, baked in the kiln and then detailed before they are ready for sale. Photos by Prajjwal Thakur
Kumharpara is a few kilometres from the busy shopping area of Ghadi Chowk. Here, potters bring their work to sell and line up their products on pavements.
Ramswarup said that in recent times the market for idols and diyas has decreased with the entry of electric and Chinese diyas that last longer. Diyas made of cow dung have also impacted their sales.
“Earlier, we were able to earn a living from this business alone. Now it is not sufficient and we do other jobs during the rest of the year. Even during the main season, the business is not reliable. We are advising our younger family members to study and get jobs instead of taking up this profession,” said Ramswarup.
With sales dropping by as much as 80 per cent last year, the families who have practised this craft for generations, suffered their highest losses yet. Kumar Chakradhari, another potter, sums it up by saying, “If [it was] not for the ‘1 kilogram of rice for 1 rupee’ scheme, we would have died of starvation.”
Prajjwal Thakur, a Class 10 student of St. Xavier’s Senior Secondary School, has been observing the potters and admiring the hard work and intricate detailing that goes into this art. “When it was Diwali season, I was thinking about the kumhars and how the Covid lockdown was affecting them. I went to the hamlet a number of times to witness the making of pots, diyas and sculptures,” he said.