Sushil Nandi, an idol maker in Old Dhaka's Shakhari Bazar, engraves a serene smile on Goddess Durga's face with a lot of care and love.
But the smile has faded from his own face. He is worried about his livelihood. Nowadays he does not get orders for making idols for months on end. He struggles to earn a living. Where is the time to smile?
One of the reasons for this decline in orders is the supply of cheaper clay idols from rural areas. The idol artisans in Old Dhaka say that they cannot compete with these prices. Another reason is that people are no longer interested in the aesthetic value of idols.
"In the old days, people valued art. So, artisans were also interested in learning how to make an aesthetic piece of art. But now people just want to celebrate their religious festivals without bothering about aesthetics," said Haripada, an artisan of Kailash lane in Shakhari Bazar.
In rural areas, a family usually invites artisans to their home, bears all the costs, including meals, and also pays them specific daily wages. Artisans in rural areas earn more than urban artisans, says Sushil.
Artisans charge between Tk20 thousand to Tk60 thousand for making idols, he adds.
In Dhaka, temple clubs, families, or individual people place orders for idols either with one particular artisan or with a group of artisans. The price is based on the design, material and the time spent in making the idols.
Artisans get orders to make idols for big occasions like Durga Puja, Kaali Puja, and Lakshmi Puja. They also make idols for other occasions as well.
The artisans in our subcontinent are widely known for making idols out of cement, china clay and brass.
Artisans say that people are now more interested in buying idols made of clay. But it is not cost effective for the artisans because it takes a lot of time and effort to make such idols.
Preparing for Durga Puja is a prolonged process. The art of depicting subtle emotions on idols' faces is not an easy task. It takes several months to collect the appropriate soil, prepare it, mix it with hay, frame it with sticks and ropes and then colour the structure to make an idol.
Idol makers have to spend numerous sleepless nights in preparation for the festivals.
"Our hard work pays off when we see that people are celebrating to their fullest," said Suman Biswas, another artisan from Shakhari Bazar.
"We used to start preparing from the beginning of the Bangla month of Aashar (middle of June), but now we do not get much time. Sometimes we get orders to make an idol in just five to ten days before Durga
Puja celebrations," Suman told The Business Standard while sculpting Goddess Durga's nose.
When asked about the difficulties that artisans face, Swapan Kumar Sikder, associate professor of Department of Ceramic at Dhaka University, told The Business Standard, "When someone visits Agra, he or she buys a replica of the Taj Mahal. This culture of having a replica or miniature is not practised in Bangladesh."
He said, "We should plan to commercialise, export, and exhibit replicas which represent our culture; only then can we think of saving the livelihood of artisans from extinction."
Sushil became an idol maker around 50 years ago out of passion for this art. He feels content whenever any of his work is appreciated. But, mere appreciation does not fulfil the necessities of real life. So it is high time to think about bringing a smile to the lives of these artisans.