The Scrapyard Where Gods Go to Die and Be Reborn
For the past 25 years, craftsman Ulhas Utkar has assembed and dissembled fiberglass figures for India's holy festivals.
All photos by the author
It was like the aftermath of some universal apocalypse. The dismembered bodies of gods, demons, and men lay strewn across the desert landscape. Standing among them intact, Ulhas Utkar seemed like the war's unlikely winner.
For the past 25 years, the craftsman has built fiberglass gods and other creatures for India's many holy festivals. The animatronic statues are pulled on carts in parades as they scream, flail, jump, dance, and breathe fire.
"My father was an artist, so I learned many skills from him," the 57-year-old explained via translator. "Later, I studied engineering. So, this work was the perfect combination. Now, I am famous, and respected, and I have money. Everybody knows who is Utkar."
When I visited Utkar, a Bollywood producer has driven several hours out from Mumbai to his desert village of Saralgaon. The executive was there to oversee the assembly and delivery of a giant jumping Hanuman. The mechanical monkey-god is set to appear in an upcoming film called Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
The artist does not sell his pieces anymore; he only loans them. The four-day Hanuman rental costs 200,000 rupees, or about $3,200. We stood around talking in the shade as the artist's team combed the scrapyard out back for the god's limbs. If a piece is not being used, it is disassembled, the components dumped wherever there is room. A reassembly like this brings to mind a scavenger hunt in which mounds of bodies can be picked apart, shifted, and reconfigured several times.
This particular Hanuman, the artist noted, was 27 feet tall. That made it one of his smaller creations. Utkar lifted tarps to reveal the face of a 60-foot Hanuman that roars with the sound of wind. Beside it was the face of the 70-foot baby-killing demon called Trinavarta. Uktar demonstrated how its eyes light up and shift back and forth to scan the crowd. Included with every major god or demon rental is a hoard of fiberglass human and humanoid attendants.
At night, on a simple open-sky bed covered in mosquito nests, Utkar sleeps among his gods and monsters. His family sleeps in another home in the village. His daughter is a housewife and his son wants to be a DJ, so the artist knows that his work will die with him. He acknowledged, several times, his strong desire to leave a lasting legacy. I mentioned that I'm working on a project collecting dreams from around the world, and asked about his.
"I rarely sleep," he insisted. "I'm thinking always about what we can do next. More, more. More that the people will like. I dream to make a big theme park. There will be all the Indian culture with automatization. Everything will be there. The God's battles. The battles of Muslim and Hindu. The English will be there. Everything, everything I will make. I dream only of this."