K. Balu’s paint brush moves effortlessly as he fills in the colours on a statue of the goddess Saraswathy. “The only time I have to really concentrate is when I paint the face, especially around the eyes; the slightest of mistake will ruin the bhava of the idol. It is the same for all idols,” says the 45-year-old.
Navaratri is a busy time of the year for Balu. He’s neck-deep in getting kolu dolls ready in time for the festival. “This year, we have Dasavatharam kolu sets and Ashtalakshmi sets to name a few. While these are always popular, it’s the one which depicts a traditional Brahmin wedding that is fast moving.”
According to Balu, statues of Ganesha are also quite popular for kolus. The deity comes in various forms. “There are ‘Musical Ganapathy’, ‘Pancha Ganapathy’, ‘Playing Ganapathy’... Children who come with their parents to shop for kolus ask for the ‘Playing Ganapathy’, which has the deity in cricket gear!”
And while kolus are traditionally put up in houses during the Navaratri fete, these days some schools also put up kolus. “A couple of schools in and around Manacaud have set up kolus on campus. This is to create awareness on kolus, its history, tradition, and so on amongst the students. We are also completing the finishing touches for statues of Saraswathy, Lekshmi and Ganapathy for various temples in and around the city in connection with Navaratri.”
The shop in Karamana in which the artisan works not only makes and sells idols, figurines, statues and the like for customers in the city, but also caters to customers in Kollam, Tirunelveli and Nagercoil.
“Actually, we are busy throughout the year as there is always a demand for statues during most festivals. We make the statues out of a mix of fibre and Plaster of Paris.” Garden figurines such as dwarfs, birds and lions, which were once popular in the olden days, are making a comeback and are gracing gardens, he says.
Till a couple of years ago orders of busts or statues of Mahatma Gandhi were in high during Gandhi Jayanthi, says Balu. “The last statue I did of Gandhiji was for Cotton Hill Girls High School; I think it was two years ago.”
Balu, who completed his class 10, has been working at Mani Chettiar and his son, Saju N.’s shop for 20 years now. “When I was a child studying at Karamana Government High School, I would pass by Paladesam Chettiar, Mani sir’s father’s workshop and watch the artisans at work. I used to help out occasionally and it gradually turned into a passion.”
Balu does help make idols, but his speciality lies in painting the statues. “You need a steady hand and an attention to detail,” says Balu who starts his day at work by 8 a.m. and ends it by 6 p.m. everyday.
“Our work is such that one does not have the luxury of taking a day off. I don’t mind it though, as I love my job. Per day we mould around 20 to 30 statues and paint around 100 statues, if they are small sized ones, and around 30 statues, if they are large.”
Balu’s wife, Reena, works as an attendant at PRS Hospital. “These days, both the spouses need to be employed if one wants to make ends meet.”
His children, Kiran and Anjana, are still in school and show no interest in their father’s field. “I hope they do well in their studies and get jobs that will ensure them a comfy life,” says Balu as he continues with his work.