The sound of stone being chipped fills the air as one drives toward Thuraiyur from Nagalapuram in Tiruchi district. Here, around 200 families of stone sculptors undertake the strenuous work of making statues for temples in the area.
Their business that took a hit during the COVID-19 lockdown now shows signs of revival. But, still, the conditions are not really conducive.
Many among the artisans who were pushed to poverty during the lockdown have moved on to become labourers. Those who have returned have no choice, but to stick on to make a daily living.
“The future of our occupation is now at stake. Stone-carving has been our source of livelihood since our fathers’ time. The pandemic has pushed us to the brink,” M. Selva, who owns a workshop said. Some orders were never completed when the lockdown was enforced, and statues that were completed remain in the workshops, he said.
Prior to the lockdown, orders, each worth ₹5,000 to ₹ 10,000, would be placed every month, and the workshop owners would pay the artisans a monthly salary. Now, however, they are being paid depending upon the order. Expenses for electricity, as the workers use electric carving tools, is also high.
The workers were dependent on the ration given through the Public Distribution System (PDS) shops for the last year or so. “We have to eat rice and curd, or remain content with ‘kanji’ (porridge) for months. While our savings lasted us a few months, we were helpless for most of the year”, said Vadivel, a worker at Selva’s workshop.
The winter months are usually a great time for sculpting without the inconvenience of a scorching summer sun. Now, with summer peaking, the workers have constructed a small make-shift shed to protect themselves from the direct heat. “The shed doesn’t help much against heat. But, this is our job and these are occupational hazards which come with the job,” he said.
The stone sculptors are looking for a stimulus package from the government. “We make statues which people pray to, but when we need help, there is not a person in sight,” Vadivel sighed. “The government could also help us get loans to pay our workers and get more orders,” he said.