When I decided to go on a craft recce down south, I went in search of a little-known craft, but returned with the entire belief system of the people there. Bhuta- a craft form, caught my attention in the book authored by Aditi and MP Ranjan- ‘Handmade in India’. The sculptures looked uniquely expressive and were clearly different from the classical and intricate wood and metalwork that comes from southern India.
After some background research by my friend Hema Raghunathan who is also a crafts buff and a designer, we set off from Bangalore towards Udupi, a temple town in the state of Karnataka. After a swerving, tumbling overnight drive in an ST bus, we reached Karkala in the early morning hours. We then rode another 22 kms in a trundling auto rickshaw which took us to the upper regions surrounding Kudremukh National Park. We were to stay that night in an old Manglorean bungalow. We found it charming and verdant but there were too many mosquitos waiting to feast on us. And it was a bit too remote (Distances can be deceptive when you are on an exploratory trip). And so, after a great breakfast of Vermicelli Upma with capsicum and grated onion, crisp Dosas, Banana Halwa (fudge) and strong filter coffee, we decided to keep moving ahead and not spend the night here.
We visited a local Parashuram temple- a simple two-storeyed building with carved and painted woodwork. Thereafter, we met a sheet metal artisan – who created art for temple doors and statues. It was intriguing to know that these artisans were not allowed to touch the deities. The priests made a temporary resin type mould and gave it to the artisans to work on.
Next, we drove down to Karaikudi, to visit the Canara Bank Institute for Artisans. This school was training local students to do sheet metal, terracotta and stone artwork. The school had ample space, green surroundings and well-lit workshops. The metal arts professor here, had heard of Bhuta crafts but was not able to tell us too much on the topic. In any case, he was helpful and gave us the names of a couple of sheet metal artisans.
On arriving at the town center of Moodbidri, we found a store that carried Bhuta Metal work. And these figurines were the most intriguing of gods that I had ever known- Panjurli the Boar also referred to as Varaha, Pilchamundi the Tiger Goddess, Veerbhadra – son of Shiva, Varte- sister of the Boar and Nandi- the Bull. I had heard some of these names before, but never as referred to as classical gods. I wondered about what their meanings could be. We purchased a few old metal Bhuta figurines here.
We ended the day by visiting a stone-art centre, which did excellent granite and basalt stonework. One much awarded master artisan had set up his own, very prosperous unit.
We were tired that night and a bit dejected. There was no sign of the Bhuta artisans anywhere yet.
The next morning, we drove down to a temple which was like no other — it was a revelation. The 200-year-old, Mekkikattu Nandikeshwara temple was a pantheon of over 300 unique gods. Tall and short, sinuous and sinister, beautiful and spirit like — these gods took my breath away. There was the 30-foot-tall Veebhadra, elongated Nandis in different postures, Egyptian-style jackal-headed gods and captivating smiling goddesses that filled every part of the temple. These gods were approachable, and you could spend time with them, even touch them if you wished. This temple was completely unlike the renowned temples in the south where all you can do is get a quick glimpse of your God due to the rush of people and the dominating priest culture. Here there was a priest, who did the Pujas for everyone who asked. And he did not shunt us out — two alien-looking camera-wielding women.
From here we decided to call the number of one Guddigar or Bhuta doll maker and we set off to his home. Unfortunately, we found that he was not making dolls anymore and only had a few dolls stored in his home to look at. He guided us to his brother’s home which was 3 kms away. To our great joy, his brother and another artisan together were carving wooden Bhuta figures. And they looked incredible- made of jack-fruit wood, these figurines were expressive and well-carved. The group looked like they had enough work to keep them busy year-round. We had found the perfect Bhuta artisans! And we had many questions. What we understood here, was that these were not simply artifacts, they were meant to be deities in homes. People worshipped these spirit gods for protection from difficulties, wrath of the elements and for general prosperity. It is said that these Bhuta gods granted wishes faster than the classical gods! The wood artisans all had the surname of Guddigars (doll makers) and metal artisans were all named Acharya (teacher).
Back in the city of Udupi, we shopped at Ramesh Acharya’s store, whose father is a renowned artist. We purchased a few modern day Bhuta figurines from his store. And in the evening, we went over to the famed Krishna temple where we saw the lovely black statue of Lord Krishna, through a small window grille. No photographs were allowed and once again, I was struck by the contrast between the two temples in their beliefs, levels of access and ways of worship. We wrapped up the day with the best Dosas at Amantara restaurant near the temple, which was recommended to us by a relative of mine.
Finally, the day of our departure had come, and we had found our Bhuta artisans. We just had enough time to make a stop at the Heritage Museum at Manipal, where we hoped some of our numerous questions would get answered. Here, we saw some of the most incredible and ancient Bhuta figurines, said to be over a thousand years old and tugged out of ocean waters. Once again, these enigmatic statues stared back at us, as if daring us to uncover their secrets. Strange gods like Betal the vampire, Babburi the bearded Islamic god and other unknown ones frowned and smiled at us. These were gods, but they were also alive in people’s imagination today as spirit protectors and wish granters. Many homes in Udupi carry on this sacred worship alongside the worship of Lord Krishna, Shiva, Vishnu and Ram.
Some say these gods could be the Bhuta’s (follower clan) of Shiva and some claim they were Lord Parshuram’s followers… whatever their story, I am deeply intrigued and intend to find out more about these incredible gods and the unique art they inspired in this region. Every such connect ties me more securely to this intriguing, beautiful and spiritual land of ours —India.