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Modaiyur's stone women
At first sight, the little village of Modaiyur in Tamil Nadu is just a long row of shacks with thatched roofs. Inside, men and women crouch, holding pieces of stone in place with their toes and chisel away, their arms and faces covered in dust.
Alamelu sits in the little shack in front of her house, supervising two men working on idols of Ganesha. She wields the chisel with confidence, fashioning statuettes out of stone and polishing them with sandpaper before putting them aside. "I've been doing this since I was 11, " she says with a smile. "I can make one small idol a day. " The 38-year-old widow is not the only woman sculptor in Modaiyur. The entire village has about 500 shilpis or sculptors, more than 100 of whom are women.
Making stone sculptures is the only means of livelihood in this hamlet, which is about 180 km away from Chennai. Though the surroundings are picturesque with rolling hills in the distance, the village has very few facilities. The nearest hospital is two kilometres away in Devikapuram, the only school has classes only up to standard VIII and there are no factories or companies to employ the residents.
At least one member of every family is a sculptor though no one has any idea how the art originated here. Till a couple of decades ago, the men did all the sculpting while the women did the detailing and painted designs on to the idols. "The government and NGOs conducted training programmes for us and more women began getting into the trade, " says 26-yearold Anita, who attended a training programme a few years ago. "I have been designing statues for my father since I was 15, but I began making sculptures only three years ago. "
Anita makes tiny Ganeshas, spending a couple of days on each one. "First, I select the stone and shape it, then sketch the picture on it and start chiselling, " she explains, scrunching up her turmericstained face in concentration as she works on an idol. Later, the figurine is polished. For glossy black finish, some idols are dyed black with Indian ink and given a coat of shoe polish.
After training, the women continue to perfect their skills. While some work with the men in their family, others like Alamelu employ craftsmen to help them out. Most of the women work on maavu kallu (soapstone) or pacha kallu (green stone), while the men use the heavier karinkallu (granite). The stones are ordered from Salem or come locally from Tiruvannamalai. "I buy eight to 10 tonnes every six months, " says Alamelu. A ton of maavu kallu costs Rs 1, 750 to Rs 2, 000, while a ton of green stone is priced at Rs 4, 000.
Statues of gods and goddesses vie for space with busts of political leaders in the little shacks. Over the years, these sculptors have found a lucrative market not just in Tamil Nadu but other states as well. Every Sunday, a large group of villagers packs up the smaller idols and boards the bus to the tourist town and heritage site of Mammallapuram or to Chennai. "We sell our statues to the stores there. Foreigners pay well for them, " says Alamelu. The price depends on the stone, the size of the statue and the detailing - a small Ganesha, for instance, can fetch between Rs 75 and Rs 150.
Art and handicraft retailers from across the state also make their way to Modaiyur. "We get clients from Bangalore and Shimoga as well, " says Dhanalakshmi, 38, who works with her husband Ezhumalai. In a place that offers no other means of livelihood, sculpting has come as a boon to many women, who earn between Rs 9, 000 and Rs 15, 000 a month. "I support both my children and my father, " says Alamelu, who is the sole earning member in her family. "I am glad I am able to educate my son who lives in Chennai. "
Women who are not yet skilled in the art of sculpting eke out a living by helping with the designing and finer detailing. Girija, whose husband taught her the art which she has been practising for 15 years, has in turn groomed many other women. "Most women pick up the skills in a month, " she says. However, it's not a very lucrative art. The painstaking detailing done on a four-inch idol, which takes about a day, fetches only Rs 10.
Sculpting is a tedious and backbreaking job. "Our hands and neck hurt all the time from the hours we spend bent over the stone, " says Girija. "But the advantage is that we can do our work at home after finishing housework and tending to our children. " It's also the only ray of hope for women like Girija's sister-in-law Varalakshmi. "My husband was a sculptor but became blind after a stone splinter flew into his eye, " she says, wiping away tears. "I have to support him and my two young children with the money I earn. If I work hard, I earn Rs 1, 500 a month. "
All the women dream of a better future for their children. "My 10-year-old daughter Kasthuri loves to help her father with his work, " says Kumari, who is busy fashioning a Shivlinga. "But she wants to join the police force and I hope her dreams come true."
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