The Maker of Idols

by tybmmjourno

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity of meeting Mr. Vitthal Shanbagh- artist, sculptor, painter and an ex-HOD of the sculpture department at the J. J. School of Arts and have a conversation with him about the inseparable relation between art and the Hindu religion.
Mr. Shanbagh, a firm believer in God, resides in the Parleshwar temple, Vile Parle. He sculpts the Ganesha idol that is worshiped in the temple during Ganesh Chaturthi.
I approached him and told him that I wanted to know more about the art of sculpting Ganesha idols, without getting into the religious details of the festival. To this he said to me, “It is almost impossible to separate the two.” “This,” he said, “is because, the Hindu religion is based entirely on art.” Initially I did not understand what he was trying to say. However he later explained to me, that, “our Gods are a piece of fiction. They do not exist in the form as we know them. It is us who have given them that form. We have created the elephant headed Lord Ganesha or blue bodied Lord Krishna on the basis of stories, mythology, imagination and most importantly, aesthetics. Thus without art, our Gods wouldn’t be in place.” Similarly he said that Ganesh Chaturthi, likeDurga Puja among some other Hindu festivals, without the art of sculpture, would not have the kind of charm and beauty it does. However, he added, that “it is a sad state of affairs that we are so blinded by religion that we very conveniently overlook the major role played by art and sculpture to make the festival what it is.”
“Rhythm, is life,” said Mr. Shanbagh. “Without rhythm, there is and can be no life. Look at your heartbeat, there is a rhythm in there. The moment the rhythm stops, you die. Look at the way your body is shaped. There is rhythm in there as well. Look at anything and everything! Waves in the sea, the way the wind blows, the way the trees sway to the wind, the sound trains make; there’s rhythm everywhere! Similarly, when you make a sculpture, it should have rhythm. Or else, it will not look alive.”
I was lucky enough to be in his studio as he was working on the Ganesha idol, worshipped in the Parleshwar temple. For making the idol, only a specific kind of clay brought in specially from Gujarat was used. Armed with the clay and just about three or four basic tools, he set to make an idol, three feet tall. He divided the clay into 21 balls, all of the same size. Placed one on something that looked like a potters wheel and began working on the idol. “Always start from the base, and then move upwards,” he said. “Sculpture, is different from a painting. Paintings are 2D, a sculpture is 3D. This means that while making a sculpture, it should look proportionate from all angles. Also, proportion plays a very important role. The arms should be in proportion with the legs. The fingers should be in proportion with the nails. The stomach should be in proportion with the chest. The trunk should be in proportion with the ears, and so on. Without the right proportion, the idol will have no rhythm. And as I said before, no rhythm means no life.”

Mr. Vitthal Shanbagh working on the idol

As he was making his idol, I asked him about how he was planning to decorate the idol once it was made. “Minimal jewelry and clothing,” he said. “It is an insult to the artist if the idol he/she sculpts is decked in jewelry and rich cloth. It means that there is some imperfection in the idol that you are trying to hide by decking it up. But I will make sure, I decorate the idol with flowers. After all, flowers symbolize life.” However, he said, the colors used in the idol should be in sync, not only with each other, but also with the size of the idol. Bright colors look better on smaller idols whereas if the idol is huge, it’s better to use a softer color.
He talked about how to make a Ganesha idol through the evening and even let me try my hand at it!
Without meeting Mr. Shanbagh, I wouldn’t have ever thought of Ganesh Chaturthi as a festival celebrating art. There is an artist, an expert, who is behind the festival, and in my opinion, his/her contribution to the festival is way beyond that of the priest who offers his services to the idol. This meeting changed my view on festivals. Festivals are now, way beyond religion for me.

Shruti Shenoy