A bullock cart is trudging down a dusty road. It stops outside a house, the courtyard of which is filled with stone statues. A schoolboy in uniform jumps off the cart, hangs his bag on the gate of the house and attentively watches his grandfather sculpting an idol of Lord Anjaneya (Hanuman). Before long, the elderly man passes the unfinished idol to his grandson with a few whispered instructions, and the boy takes over the work. But this boy is unlikely to start sculpting any idol on his own.
The boy and his grandfather live in one of the many homes in Shivarapatna, a village in Karnataka about 63km from Bangalore, where sculptors have been chiselling stones into statues for a thousand years. The tradition started with Basavalingacharya (the grandson of Shilpi Janakacharya, and a well-known sculptor in his own right), who was encouraged by Shivamara, the palegara (key decision maker) of Shivarapatna, to stay on at this village 1,000-1,100 years ago. Basavalingacharya’s descendants still live in Shivarapatna, practising the Shilpi Shastra tradition that has been passed down generations. Statues made in this village adorn many temples in nearby areas, such as the Ranganatha Swamy temple in Bangalore, and the Sarvagna statue in Kolar, both of which were carved by the late Shilpi Sridharacharya. The lifelike figures are not limited to gods alone. Former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s statue at the international airport in Delhi was made here too.
But today only about a hundred families in the area practise this art full time.
With the cost of stones rising and the number of other opportunities growing in urban centres, the craftsmen in this village are increasingly encouraging their children to take to better-paying careers. Particularly since irregularity of income is one of their greatest sources of insecurity.
Good sculptors can make upwards of Rs 15,000 per month on average, according to one of the artisans, Subramanyachar—but this is largely dependent on seasonal demand and specific orders.
Early last year, to address this concern, the Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation Ltd announced a Shilpi Gram for the village. The Shilpi Gram will be a platform for sculptors to exhibit their works and will also have a training centre. The idea is to encourage the younger generation to stay loyal to the family tradition of becoming a shilpkar or sculptor.
The artisans, however, have mixed feelings about the future of their art and their children’s place in it. Some, such as Gopinathachar, 35, a direct descendant of Basavalingacharya, believe all will be well. He cites the example of his younger brother, who works in Bangalore but returns on weekends to carve sculptures. “He cannot kill the urge to sculpt,” says Gopinathachar. Others, such as Mallikarjunachar, feel differently. “If after learning the intricacies of Shilpi Shastra and spending endless days and nights perfecting our skills,” he says, “we see security guards in the city earning more than us, how can we convince our children to carry on in our footsteps?”