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Seen those statues repetitively bowing, saluting and waving in pandals? Santosh Kambli’s studio has crafted most of them over three generations

mumbai Updated: Apr 11, 2018 19:30 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Mumbaiwale,Mumbai news
Goddess Kali’s arms and leg move as she vanquishes an enemy, in Mahim.(Rachel Lopez/HT photo)

Wait a minute. Did that statue just move? Of course it did. At religious processions, temples, community celebrations, even at weddings, animatronic statues are more popular than ever. Gods will bless. Shivaji will wave. Sai Baba will stir a pot of food while a child picks morsels of his meal. Devotees will play instruments, complete with sound. Saraswati’s peacock will shake his head.

One family has been responsible for bringing them to life. Santosh Kambli, better known as the man who’s sculpted the Lalbaugcha Raja for 16 years, is also a third-generation creator of chalchitra or moving tableau. He operates out of a studio in Lalbaug.

Hanuman Jayanti celebrations in Shivaji Park included an idol that turned at the waist. ( Rachel Lopez/HT photo )

The mechanics are simple. “The mannequins are hollow and we use rods, plates, gears and small motors to get parts of the statue to move,” says Kambli, 36. “But what makes it interesting is the story these movements tell and how realistically they do it. We focus on creating scenes that are beautiful and spread a message.”

Kambli and his team have created stages with elaborate scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, fashioned Vishnu’s ten avatars, mythological heroes vanquishing villains, and devotees bowing to gods and saints. Sai Baba iconography is the most popular – no surprise when you realise the Kamblis are followers too.

Santosh Kambli’s studio in Lalbaug has mechanised idols of Sai Baba stirring a pot of food. ( Rachel Lopez/HT photo )

“We have one scene, in which Sai Baba is preparing food and people of all faiths are sitting down to a meal together,” Kambli says. It’s one of his most rented set. “People like the message of togetherness.”

The ones that draw the most crowds, however, are what Kambli calls “trick scenes”. In one, Ram shoots an arrow, and a trail of bulbs light up one after the other to ‘follow’ the arrow into the chest of his enemy. In another, Sai Baba reanimates the heart of a man presumed dead. “It brings tears to viewers’ eyes,” Kambli says.

“You see a lot of these stories on TV and people know the miracles are all computer-aided. Seeing it live is a more moving experience.”

In 2003, Kambli and his uncle, Venkatesh, created their most complicated automata yet.

For Shirdi’s Shri Saibaba Sansthan Trust, they fashioned one scene in which the saint wakes up from sleep. “It looked simple, but took many micro-movements, the eyes opened, the arms helped carry the torso from horizontal to vertical position, the body swiveled into sitting position and the legs swung towards the floor,” Kambli says. It would have made his grandfather, Madhusudan, proud. Kambli claims that when King George V visited Bombay in 1911, his grandfather decorated a vehicle to look like an elephant. He also created the first moving idols, using hand-drawn pulleys and levers to operate heavy plaster idols. By the ’90s, when sculptors switched to lighter, more loadbearing fiberglass, the animatronics had greater freedom to move.

Statue of a child eating is popular at wedding feasts. ( Rachel Lopez/HT photo )

Kambli‘s idols have been exported to South Africa, Switzerland and the US, with moving sculptures of Krishna and Saraswati at a museum in Amsterdam. Back home, however, they’re most popular at wedding and community celebrations. “We’ve even done likenesses of our clients,” Kambli says. But some he just won’t do – like Shivaji’s attack on Afzal Khan. “Why worsen the religious divide?”

First Published: Apr 11, 2018 19:21 IST