Molding Clay

August 27, 2010


Come Ganapati festival season and I would start making rounds of the studio of Sambashiv Painter. He used to make and sell the clay idols for the festival. Every household in the community would have his idol ordered. It is bold to say it was his studio, because he had barely 150 square feet of space. Since he had no mechanical means for molding and painting, maybe it did not bother him that his space was cramped. It would, during these days turn into a number of tiers made up from wooden planks. The unfinished and finished Ganapati idols in clay would be seated there; as if they were smiling silent spectators in a stadium watching the world pass by.

Invariably during these days I would develop a fad for clay molding. I had tried to prepare a clay mix for idol sculpting several times in the house, but mine would always break. If I used the black cotton soil, the idol would crack in a day. It would be the same result if I used red mud, but the result would be known couple of days later. The Elephant God’s four arms would just slither down the next day, the trunk would become straight from the curled one or the ears would just fold. Tough job! I needed a teacher. Who better than Sambashiv himself?

When he saw me bending over the idols many a times, he tried to chase me out first. When I would not budge for days together, he said,

“Mister, do you want to ruin the idols?”

“No, I just wanted to learn to sculpt.”

“Even my own son does not want to learn from me! Why would you? Do you want to spoil my business?”

I could not answer, but I stayed put. In due course, he warmed up and said,

“If you really want to learn, start coming to the studio in summer. No use brooding over the clay-mix in rainy season. The clay needs to be prepared in summer!”

“I cannot spare that much time from school!”

“Then go study! Why become an idol maker? …. Anyway, start collecting clay in summer from the ruins of the small fortress (Gadhee) we have on the outskirts of the town or from the river-bed. Next year, I shall show to you the places where you can find it. One has to meticulously grind the clay, strain it from a fine cloth and keep the dry fine clay in bags packed until June-July”

“You have some secret mix. My idols break every now and then.”

“What is the secret? Just clay, water, cotton or jute fiber, a very little tree oil and gum….. You need to pound the mix hard. This step is very important, because it would decide if the idols will dry fast, last during transportation and how they will receive colors. If good, the dried idols will have a reddish grey appearance on drying and they can be polished smooth with sandpaper.”

It was dawning upon me that it was not as easy as I had anticipated. Looking at my face, Sambashiv said,

“If you are serious, you have to spare time! …..If you have no time, I can understand….. This year, take a lump of clay from my lot and try molding.”

That was a good idea. I came back with a handful. I had to do something before it dried. So, I prepared an idol remaining awake all night. There were no electric bulbs those days and I had to work like a half blind person ferociously.

I was watching my creation in the morning when I sensed Grandma’s presence behind me.

“What is that?” She said.

“Ganapati – prepared in dark” I said.

“Oh! ….. It looks nice, but I thought it was a lotus flower with leaves…”

“This is Lord Ganapati….Where is the lotus? And leaves?”

“Well, I used my imagination…It is not exactly lotus and leaves….”

Before she said anything further, I destroyed my creation, although she was trying to stop me.

“I have to do it on Sunday,” I said, “So that I have a full day and daylight to mold.”

On Sunday morning, I went to Sambashiv. He was busy sanding and white-washing the unfinished idols. He heard my ‘Lotus-Leaves’ story and said,

“Ordinary people cannot understand how little artists suffer….Take some more clay if you want…but not anymore. This is the last installment …… And on your way back, visit the new studio that has come up this year.”

I went there. It was the studio one of our teachers had opened! I never knew he was an artist; he taught us mathematics! I looked at his creations and immediately knew why Sambashiv had sent me there. The idols indeed resembled mathematical symbols instead of God. Sambashiv’s were real statues, with affable faces and perfectly proportioned body parts. If Gods were there, they would look like his creations…. But these? …. Our teacher’s creations were worse than mine. Not even a remote chance to come anywhere near to Sambashiv’s talent … It was only that the idols were already painted and  appeared passable although garish. These were ready for sale, ahead of Sambashiv and half priced. Paint and Price makes the difference, not the clay! I was relieved.

I spent the Sunday crafting the idol. It was better than ‘Lotus-Leaves’ this time. Further, it was ‘mine’ and as I had wanted. My Lord was sitting on a snake that had five heads.

Since it was Sunday, I did not have to bother much about Grandma, except for keeping the meal timings. She however kept a close watch and did not comment this time.

Once finished, I kept the idol aside for drying. In few days, it started developing cracks here and there, but not as serious as with my own clay-mix. ‘Keep Mending!’ was the advice I received from Sambashiv.

I had to fight with Grandma to get me the water colors.

“What a waste,” She said, “The statue looks just as good without paint!”

“Once the idol is painted, I shall use the remaining colors for painting something else. It will not go waste. Promise.” I said, and she obliged.

What I had not anticipated was the amount of white color the idol would need to receive full wash. In a matter of minutes, I had finished all the white and 3/4th of the idol was still in grey.

I knew that there was no point in telling Grandma about the new demand. I went straight to Sambashiv.

“No, No. No colors. These are expensive ones,” he said and summarily dismissed me.

A few days went in hunting. Somebody informed me that a building contractor had erected a lime stone mortar mill in the town. I went there and brought the lime, burnt my fingers, but completed the white-wash. The idol assumed a bit of a personality.

Then I remembered that I had not sanded the idol. Sand Papers! …. Furniture makers! ….. I scurried their bins and brought a number of used ones.

The sanding was now done. But the idol had now changed shape. The rough sand papers and my over skill had taken toll of all the white lime wash as also one elephant tooth.

Grandma said, “Ganapati has one broken tooth anyway, don’t fret too much…….How many more days you must? ….The festival is nearing and you are not helping me in any preparations….. I wanted to use your idol this time and save some money, but it is also not yet ready.”

“Don’t worry. It will be ready in time.” I said confidently.

But my confidence weaned quickly. Painting posed a big problem. As soon as you touched the lime with wet brush dipped in color, the dot would spread like wild-fire. Drawing lines was simply not possible. All you could paint were blobs and spheres. The Lord’s skin had grown snakelike with pox and freckles, very similar to that of the snake on which he was sitting; His clothes braved polka dots and His eyes – fat black holes with aura around. There were no partitions between fingers and toes, stomach and chest, the crown and the face, just a bubly confusion everywhere. I had not dared to paint eyebrows or lashes for the fear of them also becoming a series of dots and therefore a mess.

I got totally frustrated after a day’s work. I could not destroy the idol now, since a lot of effort had gone into it, neither could I appreciate what I had done with it. I just kept staring at it helplessly, a dry brush in hand. This continued for a couple of days.

“We have to keep the idol in our house for seven days only. Then it will be immersed in water. Why are you so disturbed?” Grandpa now joined the wagon.

“Look at it! Then say what you have to say.”

“But I did. It has come out well, for the first attempt. I notice it has not cracked this time…as such fit for rituals and worship.” He said. However, I was beyond consolations.

I went to Sambashiv, told him about my failure and ordered an idol for us. Then I just sat there for some time, watching him paint the green black eyes and gold ornaments, the last and most difficult part, and at those magnificent creations of his.

“How old are you?” He asked.

“Five…reaching six….”

“And how old am I?….Sixty!….. Zero over Six…..Start afresh next year…..next year it will be alright ….. Sometimes things go wrong .…even at my age…..look! I messed up the garland!”

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Sambashiv discounted the price for our idol that year by almost half. At Grandpa’s insistence, we installed both the idols – mine and Sambashiv’s – for worship.

During the final day procession, when we took both the idols for immersion, I could not hide my creation well enough from the prying eyes. People ridiculed it a lot, but also agreed that I was the only one who had competed with our teacher as also with Sambashiv- the- great.

I begged for clay next year and years after that from Sambashiv. He did not refuse. In two  years, my idols became recognizable as an Elephant God. I insisted that we should have Sambashiv’s idol also; every year, alongside mine. Nobody had any issues with that. Sambashiv was quite pleased that my idol making did not spoil his business in any way, but at the same time had started worrying about our teacher’s studio.

After my grand failures, I started admiring our mathematics teacher’s art. The news had spread in the school about me being Sambashiv’s disciple and the teacher started advancing special attention (!) to my math.

My clay molding fad went away as fast as it had developed, or I may say, as soon as I discovered my true potential. Sambashiv’s son must have been very similar to me. He restricted himself to sign-writing. 

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5 Responses to “Molding Clay”


  1. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time, and I’m not exaggerating! Great narration, and I feel that it has got a lot more depth than what is perceived when you read it for the first time. I’ll definitely remember this blog post during Ganesh festivals from here on.

    Just one question; how on earth do you remember so many minute details of your childhood so vividly !?

  2. Lua Says:

    Wow- this was great! You’re really (REALLY) talented 🙂

  3. Ranjeet Elkunchwar Says:

    Nice one Pa. I applaud the memory and vivid description. More so the inquisitive nature and the whole “world is my playground” way of life. I also am very touched with the upbringing….want to read more !

  4. PeACEMAKER Says:

    Thanks Lua, Ranjeet and Nikhil. I really appreciate your taking out time to comment on the post.

    Sorry for my delayed acknowledgement. I was away for a few days.


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