Using his fingers as a spatula, idol maker Ram Ashrey stuffs flesh—a gooey mixture of marble dust and polyresin—inside half a dozen rubbery moulds.
In a small room among iron scrapyards in Delhi’s Anand Parbat industrial area, he expertly pats and turns the moulds. Twenty minutes later, the substance dries, and he pulls off the cast to reveal a row of smooth-bellied laughing Buddhas and gleaming Ganeshas, ready for a final dab of rouge and eyeliner.
Not so long ago, artisans such as Ashrey toiled in fear of Chinese manufacturers, who could more quickly churn out and flood Indian borders with cheaper copies. Nothing made in India, it seemed, was sacred: not Shiva, not Krishna, not Parvati nor Saraswati.
And so imports of polyresin goods, from statues to picture frames made in China, skyrocketed, jumping more than 400% in three years. Indian manufacturers complained they were unprotected and couldn’t keep up with their counterparts’ price and productivity.
Now India’s makers of deities—a centuries-old cottage industry—are fighting back by changing their medium from clay to polyresin, a colourless chemical liquid that can be bought for Rs90 per kg. The tactic demonstrates one approach among India’s small-scale sectors for surviving in the face of the mass-produced imports.
Ashrey, a migrant worker from Martinganj Bazaar village in Uttar Pradesh, used to mould clay and then wait several days for it to dry. Last year, while working at a north Delhi factory, he discovered the new material that adds a certain shine to his work. “With polyresin, I can now make 40 pieces a day,” he says, calling the substance a “gift from China”.
From statues made in China, the Indians create copycat moulds and then stuff them using the polyresin—allowing countless gods to once again be born in India and sold for lower prices. Small-scale manufacturers are copying the technique to cater to the burgeoning domestic idols market, fuelled by a spate of home buying and new home construction. Local traders, also keen to cut back the expense of importing, are pushing sales of the Indian-made products for consumers to furnish puja rooms and mandirs.
Trade between India and China is poised to reach $40 billion (Rs1.76 lakh crore) by 2010, according to a report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, a trade organization. India exported $6.2 billion to China in the first six months of last year, while Indian imports from China stood at $7.45 billion. Beyond the obvious trade imbalance, experts say the equation is actually even more lopsided: India tends to export raw materials such as iron ore and slag to China, while primarily importing manufacturing goods, namely, electronics.
According to data from Delhi-based InfodriveIndia, an export-import trade intelligence company, imports of polyresin products have grown nearly fivefold in the last three years. In 2004, India imported polyresin products worth $1.5 million. That number more than doubled in 2005. Last year, polyresin products worth $7.41 million entered India from China.
Indian manufacturers of statues and other gift items generally work in three mediums: clay, plaster of paris and polyresin. While they can make a lot more with fast-drying plaster of paris, the products have a shorter shelf life. The Indian makers say they can sell a 12-inch polyresin statue to wholesalers for Rs150; in China, it costs Rs200.
Roughly 50-100 wholesale dealers operate in Delhi, importing items from statues to soft toys and electronics, paying customs duties between 4% and 12%. For the Hindu deities, the dealers travel to the Chinese city of Yiwu.
Joginder Pal Dua, an importer who runs a retail outlet in Karol Bagh, travels to Yiwu six times a year. Upon arrival in China, his agent arranges for an interpreter who speaks English or Hindi. “I usually carry a calendar picture of an idol that I like from here,” he said. “Whether you want 30 pieces or 100 of them, your order is ready within three days.”
Dua says roughly eight containers of idols arrive in Delhi every month, each containing between 25,000 and 30,000 idols.
While speedy and cheap, the import of idols poses additional costs and middlemen to retailers, who pass the expenses on to consumers. Three years back, Manoj Gupta regularly bought imported busts of Hindu gods and goddesses from a wholesale dealer in Sadar Bazaar. “But it always pinched to know the importers kept a huge margin,” he says.
Today, Gupta says he can pick up roughly 500 made-in-India idols a month from a local supplier and then supply them to retail stores at a cheaper rate. Where a 12-inch Ganesha idol from China costs Rs1,200 in the retail market, an Indian one of the same size costs roughly Rs400.
Consumers notice a difference beyond price. Amarjeet Kaur, who lives in south Delhi, often buys polyresin statuettes as wedding gifts. She said she prefers them to clay and plaster-of-paris items. “Polyresin products make practical sense,” she said as she browsed a store named Household Items. “They are washable and don’t chip easily.”
Whereas the industry, its workers and their whereabouts used to be largely anonymous, manufacturers and wholesalers say they are starting to brand the deities to develop customer loyalty and recognition. Govind Overseas, an importer of Indian deities and other collectibles from China, has just begun doing so, along with the assurance: “These holy idols are created in a spiritual atmosphere.” The company said it states that because it wants consumers to know its statues—Hindu gods made in China to be sold in India—are not copies.