A shadow on the evil eye: The displaced idol makers of Dehradun

LOkesh Ghai

1 March 2024

LOkesh Ghai finds one of the few idol makers on the streets of Dehradun. Now he has gone, who will protect us from the evil eye?

(A message to the reader.)

On a street of Dehradun, like many other streets of India, there are temporary sheds housing small artisan clusters of displaced families, with displaced identities. Often such artisan families are told that they legally are not supposed to be on the street. But if not for the street, then where else?

December 2022

In the pursuit of happiness, how do we deal with the unseen? Insurance covers only the monetary value after the damage is done. Prevention is always better than cure. What if it is an unseen danger? Could an evil be made an ally for protection?

Nagaram Bhati is an urban nomad. This is not a fashionable term, but his harsh reality. Under severe financial debt and the vicious money lenders’ game, his grandparents were forced to sell the little land they had in the Pali District of Rajasthan. This only multiplied financial difficulties for the family.

The grandfather used to sculpt idols with earthenware clay. But times have now changed due to the economics of production. Nagaram focuses on POP, Plaster of Paris. He still uses the friendly coconut husk to bind and minimize the weight of the hollow idols. He has adapted the use of rubber mould lining, a recent innovation.

Having suffered from COVID twice and an unexpected accident, I needed the head with horns paired with staring eyes, to ally with the demon if the angels were not to be found. The evil eye is a demon face mask, hung on newly built houses and shops to safeguard your success from the envy of others.

Nagaram added the POP powder to the water, then quickly applied coconut husk, and started to press the mixture inside the hollow mould. The mould offers the possibility of quickly multiplying. The rubber between the mould and the mixture does magic. Once this dries a white structure, an idol, is achieved. This is dried and hand-painted by the women between their domestic chores.

For the last few months, Nagaram has been living in a temporary shed next to an open gutter in Dehradun. He has a ten-day-old baby at his in-law’s house. The family will stay in Dehradun and then move to another urban town for a few months to sell the POP piggy banks and the evil eyes that would hopefully protect us all. According to Nagaram, the size of the evil eye hanging masks is bigger in Hyderabad and sold for better prices. But the cost of living even on the street side is way more expensive there. Perhaps, the “collection” made by the mafia in bigger cities is more organised.

(Morning in Dehradun.)

I inquired if a small-sized evil eye could be produced for my rented apartment in Dehradun. The next morning, I was surprised to find a smaller evil eye hanging on a basic temporary structure made of six bamboo lengths. I purchased the evil eye. Meanwhile, Nagaram produced more evil eyes based on the small prototype he had sculpted for me. Small, medium, and large evil eye masks hung next to each other, slightly differently hand-painted and adorned by the women of the family.  I returned the next day with a blanket for the newborn as promised in return for his time. More evil eyes, flowerpots, mother and child, laughing Buddha, and the thinking girl in a hat as a piggy bank were all waiting on the side of the street. Who buys piggy bank toys in the age of digital currency?

September 2023

During the Ganesh- Chaturthi festival dedicated footpaths across cities are filled with one of the most favourite deities, the elephant God idol. These idols are placed in the house for one to ten days of puja (prayers) and thereafter submerged in local natural water bodies. For a few years now some of the cities have taken the initiative of creating man-made pool facilities to avoid the POP ending in nature. There are a few organizations encouraging clay idols, which Nagaram’ s grandfather once used to make. But POP is what is affordable at the cost to the large middle-class population. Devotees carefully choose and purchase an idol according to their aesthetics and budget.

It is the week before the festival. Nagaram is no longer seen, his temporary stall is gone. The footpath by the street was dug up. The idol makers were forced to move to another temporary location and the next day moved again.

February 2024

There has been no sign of the family. Nagaram’s son would have been one year old now. In these six months, he would have already travelled to different cities, finding temporary abode with his parents. There is no evil eye to protect the child and no saving for a piggy bank.

Meanwhile, a parallel change has been taking place. For the first time, in the last few months, plastic mask replicas of the evil eye are available in the local markets. In some cases it is hard to tell the material from a distance.

The clay demons who once rose from the earth and went back to the earth are now shadowed by an evil eye.

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  • Lipi says:

    I hope Nagaram and his family would find themselves saved from any evil eye and hopefully flourish in upcoming times while they produce one for their potential customers.

  • Lipika says:

    Beautifully written and sad reality of evil eye being replaced by plastic one

  • Aditi says:

    Wow I live in the city and always wondered about who made these beautiful masks 🙂

  • marie-anne van der plaetsen says:

    The shadow on the evil eye, leaves us with many questions about the makers,their lives, how to survive and how will we ever handle this plastic mountains we create.

    Grateful greetings to Lookesh and Garland magazzine

  • Sandra Bowkett says:

    Hhhhm. A poignant story.
    India is sinking in plastic.