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India's effigy sculptors turn to human memorial statues

October 31, 2012

Third generation Indian statue maker Minglesh Sequeira (R) taking stock of figurines of Christian icons before shipping them at their home and workshop in Small Giriz, some 70 kms north of Mumbai. — AFP Photo

INDIA: In a busy sculpture workshop in west India, there is one unfamiliar face alongside the images of divine figures such as Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Hindu goddess Parvati.

This is Ivy, the late beloved wife of 82-year-old Peter Pereira, and she is being commemorated in a life-size bust. The fibreglass figure is the latest example of a growing trend: commissioning memorial sculptures of the dead.

For when a photograph is not enough, the Sequeiras - a third-generation family of religious effigy makers - operate a successful sideline to bereaved relatives who want a three-dimensional tribute to their lost loved ones.

Using old photographs to capture a likeness, the statues and busts are made of wood or fibreglass, coloured with paint and completed with realistic glass eyes. In Ivy's case, they plan to finish the look with spectacles.

“I will feel she is still here because of the statue,” said bereft Pereira, a retired cinematographer who will keep the bust in his Mumbai apartment to remember Ivy, who died aged 77 almost four years ago.

“Some people don't like to remember people who have died and gone, but not me,” said the widower. He has even commissioned a second marble-effect bust, for the garden of another family home.

The Sequeira business is based north of Mumbai in Small Giriz village, nestled in the coconut trees and banana plantations of Vasai, once a stronghold of Portuguese colonials who brought with them Catholicism and carpentry skills.

The family name itself echoes the Portuguese connection, and Benzoni Sequeira says that it was his grandfather who started the religious woodcarving business in 1920.

After several decades of producing altars and effigies, they completed their first personal memorial about 20 years ago, and demand has surged in recent times.

“It was one or two orders, but now it's continuous,” Benzoni told AFP.

This photo taken on August 31, 2012 shows Indian carpenters working on statues at the Sequeria brothers' home and workshop in Small Giriz, some 70 kms north of Mumbai. — AFP Photo

The Sequeiras' work draws comparisons to the Madame Tussauds waxwork museum in London, but Benzoni believes he has a far more difficult challenge in creating a convincing lookalike.

“They get all the photographs they need from every angle, they get all the measurements they need,” he said. “Normally our clients provide only an old black and white photograph. There's a lot of trial and error.”Relatives of the late Andrew Machado, a dairy farmer, commissioned the Sequeiras to complete a full-length statue that now stands proudly at the entrance to his family home in Vasai.

The figure has garlands around his neck and is wearing a distinctive outfit of just shorts and a simple shirt.

“We didn't want any drapery, it's just like the clothes he would wear. We wanted it to feel like real-life,” said his 75-year-old widow Santan.

The process begins with a clay modelling, checked several times by a family member to ensure the likeness.

It is then recreated in wood, costing 85,000 rupees ($1,600) for a bust, or in fibreglass for a cheaper 50,000 rupees.

“We have to have a lot of patience. It's not a fast-paced job,” said Benzoni's older brother Mingleshwar in their workshop, where body parts lie around like the limbs of giant dolls.

The brothers have carved wood since they were youngsters, learning from their father Renold and uncle Roque, a mustachioed 71-year-old who still sits carving on the porch steps despite the loss of sight in one eye.

Renold, 68, also remains an active woodworker and a keen amateur astronomer, especially proud of his self-made celestial globe that shows the position of constellations in the sky.

This photo taken on August 31, 2012 shows third generation Indian statue maker Benzony Sequeira working on an unfinished statue of Goddess Gauri at the Sequeria brothers' home and workshop in Small Giriz, some 70 kms north of Mumbai. — AFP Photo

Building a good local reputation, the Sequeiras don't advertise: word-of-mouth has helped their commissions to increase both at home and abroad.

In their house sit two dozen crucifixes, with flashing red bulbs depicting dripping blood, which are destined for the Middle East.

A full-size sari-clad woman in the hallway is to be shipped to an Indian-run hotel in Britain.

The family's gilding work has also won them accolades: their painstaking restoration of Mumbai's 140-year-old Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum helped it win a Unesco Asia-Pacific Award in 2005 for cultural heritage conservation.

“Our work is very special. We're very satisfied at the end of the day,”said Benzoni.

The business came from humble beginnings. In their grandfather Michael's youth, the local church was so poor that it had to borrow statues of Jesus and Mary from another parish on Good Friday.

The Easter service was held early in order to return the effigies to the lending church for the feast day - a situation that spurred Michael to start making his own religious figures.

“He did the face of Jesus, it's still in the church. Then slowly he did other statues and altars,” said Mingleshwar.

The Sequeiras say they have planned for years to make their own sculptural memorial to Michael, the founder of the family business, but they are always too busy doing client work.

“We have a saying: a carpenter doesn't have a bench in his house,” said Benzoni with a laugh.

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