Yavatmal Durgautsav: A Tale of Little Known Clay Sculptors from Central India

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An artistic depiction of the battle – between the warrior goddess, Durga and the buffalo demon, Mahishasura – from Devi Mahatmya of Markandeya Purana. Featured during Navratri, the scene comes from the Central Indian city of Yavatmal. (Art by Snehal Wankar)

It’s late monsoon and incessant rains are slamming tin ateliers, creating an ear-deafening sound. Inside these makeshift arrangements are sculptors from a tranquil town in Central India, nonchalantly engaged in modelling clay into beautiful idols of India’s most revered goddess, mother Durga. To come up with the most spectacular works of art, they have been burning the candle at both ends. Their passion and dedication towards the art evoke appreciation and praise. Yet they do not get the attention they deserve, and the very work of art remains for them just a source of livelihood.  

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Left – Rustic framework fine-tuning. Right – Bust Manipulation. The story in the making: Nilesh Deshmukh, a senior and famous artist from the town, painstakingly works to bring magnificent Shraptshrungi to life.

Nestled in the offshoot hills of Ajanta Satmala range, is the city of Yavatmal, geographically positioned in the south of Vidarbha. An important cotton trading centre, locally, the city is also famous for the nine day Durgautsav festival that is celebrated here with great fervour. However, it is the grandeur of clay sculpture that distinguishes these festivities.

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The majestic Shraptashrungi, decked in finery, ultimately occupies the pandal. She rides a chariot steered by lions. Goddess’s multiple arms are equipped with different articles – of warfare, arts, and those symbolizing knowledge and peace – which depict her manifold characteristics, demonstrating the sculptor’s creative ability and highlighting his scriptural knowledge.

Any form of art gains eminence when it reaches a very high standard and starts assuming emerging forms. It starts portraying uncommon and unknown styles, and thereby establishes itself as a model. All these features well apply to Yavatmal Durga clay sculpting, and so the art deserve special attention.

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Dhananjay Tayade, a talented new-generation artist, through his masterpieces, is spearheading a new revolution in the town’s art. Below is one of his works.

One simply wonders how the town’s art scaled new heights, when, in the neighbouring areas, there’s no trace of any such work. Roughly, around five decades ago, a handful of Durga mandals existed in the town. These mandals had dedicated sculptors, who would combine artistic skills with devotional sentiments, and render an artistic flavour to Durga worship. Deriving inspiration from the veterans, young artists started following their lead, and with time, the skill literally became a gene.

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Unlike static routine styles, the scene depicts characters in vigorous motion – featuring a stage of the battle. The goddess, full of vigour, is leveraging all her hands in deploying weaponry; snake’s unleashing being the most striking of all. The lion, depicted in high-intensity, has its musculature and flowing manes well matching its attacking stance, as it takes on the defensively postured hefty demon king. Each aspect of the sculpture makes the artistic fineness starkly visible. Within the confines of a limited space, a static scene has been presented dynamically.

In the process of transition, elements of creativity and innovation, too, got fused with the erstwhile styles, giving birth to new ideas. As the number of mandals proliferated, new artists started getting opportunities to demonstrate their talents. The art flourished and coalesced with local elements, and a culture – altogether different – of deity worship through artistic renderings, evolved.

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An exemplary piece of work by Ram Chavan. Gracefully modelled, goddess Hitanveshi and her mount, tiger have been realistically depicted. The goddess’s lineaments offer pleasant countenance, and she reflects an aura of elegance and gentility. The tiger, though aggressive, well suits the peaceful context.

A remarkable feature of Yavatmal Durga clay sculpting is that within the broader spiritual framework, artists try to infuse mythological contexts with dynamic elements. Artists thus give expression to their creativity by portraying themes based on divergent ideas. This sometimes also brings Durga out of the limited domain, depicting her not as a battle warrior rather as a social warrior advocating nature conservation, women empowerment, and social responsibility.

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Gaurav Bhoyar, a young artist, creating a theme on tiger conservation. Today, the town abounds with talented artists, who try to theme idols on contemporary issues.

The people in the town have proclivity to conceptualize decorative ideas; the aesthetically pleasing paintings in the backdrop and beautiful ornamental decorations corroborate this. The clay sculpture intermingles with these pieces of art, which results in elaborate art-combos that catch the discriminating eye of a connoisseur. 

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Left – Durga depicted through save the girl child theme. Right – Goddess being taken for installation. The embodied features resemble those of Vidarbhian womenfolk

The art’s adaption to changing situations demonstrates its dynamicity. This becomes evident especially on the night of Dobree, when devotees dance with gaiety to the tunes of countryside trumpet – dobree – holding in their hands and swaying fearlessly earthen pots with fire. From a distance, it appears as if the goddess is dancing on the fire, with flames reflecting in her eyes that gleam with aggression. The art literally animates an inanimate structure.

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Left – Town’s artist, Saleem Sheikh, giving a fine touch. Defying social boundaries, the artist has been dedicatedly following his passion of Durga sculpting for years now. True indeed, art is a religion in itself. Right – Umesh Badere, famous for his Kali art, engrossed in giving the finishing touch.

These unassuming clay sculptors, through their avant-garde works, have been giving Yavatmal the identity of a clay sculpting centre. While artists and art works from major cities and known centres easily get highlighted, coming to limelight is usually difficult for artists from smaller towns. Such artists do not get platforms to showcase their skills, and the art ends up remaining for them a way of making living. 

However, despite facing odds, the Yavatmal artists continue to work undeterred and with indefatigable spirits. A new season to them is a new hope. Will the story of these humble artists remain unheard, or if, someday, they will get the recognition they truly deserve? 

12 COMMENTS

  1. Very beautifully written just as the sculptures make a lively idol out of nonliving clay, the author has used his words meticulously to deliver his feelings to the reader.
    Hats off..

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