April 17, 2015

The Designer: Gulbai Tekra na Mota Dada

by Anusha Narayanan

Gulbai Tekra in Ahmedabad has been the subject of many a photo essay in the recent past. This settlement is a seemingly small slum connecting two of the busiest roads of Ahmedabad — Panjrapol Crossroad, known for its popular eateries and Ashram Road, the commercial hub of the city. It is popularly called ‘Hollywood Basti’, because of the beautiful women dressed in their unique attire, who pose beside Hollywood posters for photographers, imitating the poses of the actresses behind them.

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Gulbai-Tekra-07Scenes from Gulbai Tekra, close to Ganesh Chaturthi time

Gulbai Tekra is supposedly home to over a 1000 families, who have lived here for the last 25 years at least. Every Ganesh Chaturthi the entire locality is blanketed with white dust, a result of the plaster of paris (P.O.P) used by the sculptors to carve the Ganesh idols. The story begins in 1930, when 88-year old Mota Dada — the eldest man in the settlement — moved here with his parents and family from Jaipur, Rajasthan. His village had been consumed by a seven-year-long drought and when almost all was lost, he decided to move to Ahmedabad. He belongs to a family of marble sculptors, but since Gujarat had no reserves of marble or a market for the art, he began experimenting with clay and wood. However, they were either overpriced or had no durability and malleability, and he decided to try P.O.P.

As he settled in, he remembers, he was the only one living on the road, in his small hut made of bamboo and plastic sheets. The police would often question him, suspicious that he had stolen the idols from the temples nearby, as no one was used to seeing them anywhere else. He showed them the process and soon, the word of his skill spread. As more demand poured in from people in Ahmedabad during Ganesh Chaturthi, the population of the Basti also increased. Soon Gulbai Tekra became a community of hundreds of sculptors and kept growing thereon, with three generations after Mota Dada being born there.

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The name of the Basti comes from a rich Parsi woman Gulabi Bai, who owned the land and leased it to the sculptors for a monthly rent of two aanas (eight paise). After she was married off, she gifted the land to the sculptors and their families as a parting gift. Hence the name Gulbai Tekra. Today the slum stretches a length of almost a kilometer and internally is divided by two roads into four quadrants. Many of the residents can be found sculpting through the year, changing the deity to suit the festival. For instance, they make small idols of Goddess Laxmi for Diwali or Lord Krishna for Gokul Ashtami, or huge stand-alones of Ambe Mata (Goddess Durga) for Navratri. Some are employed from time to time as construction workers at nearby sites during off seasons. Having been here for 85 years now, their Ganesh idols have attracted buyers from many places such as Agra, Jaipur, Mumbai, Surat, Navsari, Ahmedabad, Baroda, Saurashtra and parts of Rajasthan.

The process of making the idols involves raw material that comes in from Gandhidham which is then stored in an allocated area throughout the year. The sculptors go to Maharashtra every two or three years to pick up a ‘base idol’ and transport it to Ahmedabad to their Basti, where they use it as a reference to make a new cast. Casts are produced once every few years, applying 3–4 coats of liquified rubber on the base idol. After hardening, one cast can be used for about two years before it starts to wear off.

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On an average, 400–500 idols can be cast from each mould. After casting, two hours of detailing and finishing is done on these prefinal idols. This decorative facade is stuffed with white painted Bhoosa (hay) to form a flat back after which the entire piece is allowed to dry. These ready white models are then on display for sale. Once sold, they are coloured and transported to the respective buyer. “Phaagun” — the Hindu month that follows the festival of Holi — is when the process begins, and continues (from February) till May. From June to August their focus is to sell the idols, given the uncomfortable heat that makes it hard for the sculptors to work. The income thus produced is their main source of livelihood for the remaining year.

We weren’t able to fathom the fact that if every family produces one finished idol every two to four hours a day, about 1200–1400 idols are produced per household during those four months. That comes to more than a 100,000 idols in a year, and that too in the peak season alone. When we asked Mota Dada what happens if the stock they produce doesn’t get sold out, his son Keshavbhai replied, “Sab kismat ki baat hai.” (It’s a matter of our own fate.) Mota Dada tells us that the excess is kept away in a store and recycled the next year. And if they seem too worn off or yellowed, as old P.O.P. tends to fade, they are repaired or painted in vibrant colors to make them saleable.

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Gulbai-Tekra-10Mota Dada – The man who started this tradition of idol making here

The greatest deterrent to their business has been the ban placed by the State Government on ‘Visarjan’ — the ceremonial immersion of the idols at the end of the festival in a water body. The Redevelopment of Sabarmati River about three years ago saw the implementation of strict laws to prevent further pollution of the riverbed. The laws only allowed for clay idols to be immersed in water, which hit the sculptors hard, reducing their sales by a large number.

We tried to reason with them that the restrictions were ecologically-driven and thus were justified, however, we could not address their concerns for dwindling income. “Eating, sleeping, breathing and working in the white dust, our stomachs are filled with P.O.P. too, so I don’t understand… If I am not affected by it, what possibly can happen to the fish in Sabarmati?” Since the funds for buying raw materials are usually borrowed from small money lenders, the sculptors are perpetually in debt, paying exorbitant interests every month. “This is the main reason”, said Keshavbhai, “that we are poor and perhaps will remain so”, unless they diversify to new ways of selling the craft or learn new skills.

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As we took our leave from Gulbai Tekra, the children held up their sketchbooks proudly, some women veiled their faces with their dupattas revealing only their traditional nose-rings while some posed boldly for us. Descendants of a lineage of 300 years of Rajasthani craftsmen, the Mewari features are still visible on some of the sunburnt faces. We hope their craft continues to live on — on this street or some place else.

Photos by the author. A version of this article was published in Kyoorius 22.

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1 Comment

  1. Rosalind

    05.03.2016

    Reply

    great issues altogether, you just won a emblem new reader.
    What might you suggest about your post that you just made some days in the past?
    Any sure?

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