In 2019, Scroll.in’s Hard Times series sought to explain and illustrate how India’s slowest economic growth in a decade was affecting ordinary people. This followed reporting by Scroll.in in 2016 and 2017 on the effects that demonetisation had on the lives of Indians around the country.
As the world continues to grapple with the Covid-19 crisis, Hard Times now takes a look at the impact of India’s draconian lockdown on individuals and firms from all corners of the economy.
Forty-five-year-old M Ramesh began his training in sculpting at the age of 14. There is a common misconception that sculpting is largely a family trade and the training is informal. “It takes 8 years of formal education to become a sculptor for someone who has no family tradition,” said Ramesh, a resident of Mahabhalipuram, an ancient town 40 km from Chennai famous for the Pallava shore temples that hosted last year’s Indo-China summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Premier Xi Jingping.
At the age of 14, Ramesh, a member of a Dalit community, who hails from small village named Kunnatoor, enrolled for a pre-diploma and slowly made his way to a degree at the local Government College of Architecture and Sculpture. He began working at a small shop in 1997 and a few years ago established his own. “I had made a name for myself in these years and slowly over the last few years, I started getting business consistently,” he added.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown imposed to slow it down have halted his business completely, to the extent that he now fears his family could slip back into poverty. “My father was a daily-wage labourer. I know that life very well.”
Silence of the sculptors
According to Ramesh, there are at least 4,000 sculptors in the town. Of them, a majority are Dalits.
Ramesh is skilled in making different kinds of sculptures, ranging from the ordinary ones on granite stone and wood to the more luxurious variety, the Panchaloha, made of five different metals, including gold.
Almost all of his business comes from local temples in the villages. “There are very few new temples being built in the big cities. It is only the villages where our business is now supported,” he said. The lockdown meant that all temples were shut and those being currently built stopped work as construction activities were temporarily banned.
Sculpting is no easy work. According to Ramesh, when an order comes in for sculpting an image of a god, he has to first read up on the characteristics of the particular deity. Then comes the task of finding the right stone or the apt wood for the work. “With the lockdown, transportation was shut. There was no way for us to go to the quarries and get the stones,” he said. Since factories were shut, sourcing and cutting the wood was also impossible.
In a normal month, Ramesh could expect orders for one to two granite idols and one Panchaloha idol. The granite sculpture takes about two months to finish and the Panchaloha three months. The business model is such that percentage of the total cost is made as advance and the rest is paid after delivery.
From March 25, when the nationwide lockdown was imposed, until the end of May, Ramesh had no work.
On an average, he earned about Rs 30,000 a month. After paying his workers, he was left with about Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000, barely enough to take care of a family of six, including his wife, two young children and elderly parents. “I cannot describe to you the economic distress we are in. We have even cut down on a lot of things we usually eat,” he said.
But no help has come from the government. Ramesh said it was only after Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader Thol Thirumavalavan issued a statement on their plight last week that a few newspapers took note. “We seem to be completely invisible to others,” he said.
Ramesh wants the state government to provide relief in the form of money. He said it was not a matter of simply lifting the lockdown. “Temples are built by collecting donations. Now, no one has money in the villages so our plight will not improve till at least the end of year,” he said.
Though a few shops have opened with one or two workers in the last few days, a majority of the sculptors are confined to their homes. The sculptor said there were vast class and caste differences in the business, with the bigger shops that make substantial money almost invariably owned by upper caste persons. “Don’t look at these few fancy shops and think we sculptors are prosperous,” he cautioned.
“On a normal day, if you take a walk through this area, you will hear the sound of the nail chipping away at the stones. It is like music. The sound has now fallen silent.”
Read the other articles in this series here.