x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Busts part of growing trend to commemorate the past

After decades of making religious effigies, the Sequeiras finished their first personal memorial 20 years ago. Now business is booming.

Third-generation Indian statue maker Benzony Sequeira works on an unfinished statue of Goddess Gauri at the Sequeira brothers' home and workshop in Small Giriz.
Third-generation Indian statue maker Benzony Sequeira works on an unfinished statue of Goddess Gauri at the Sequeira brothers' home and workshop in Small Giriz.

SMALL GIRIZ, India // In a busy sculpture workshop in west India, there is one unfamiliar face alongside the images of figures such as Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the 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 for 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 Mr Pereira, a retired cinematographer who will keep the bust in his Mumbai flat to remember Ivy, who died at 77 almost four years ago. "Some people don't like to remember people who have died and gone, but not me."

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 Roman Catholicism and carpentry skills.

The family name itself echoes the Portuguese connection, and Benzoni Sequeira said 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," said Mr Sequeira.

The Sequeiras' work draws comparisons to the Madame Tussauds waxwork museum in London, but Mr Sequeira 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."

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

It is then recreated in wood, costing 85,000 rupees (Dh5,900) for a bust. A bust made of fibreglass costs 50,000 rupees.

"We have to have a lot of patience. It's not a fast-paced job," said Mr Sequeira's older brother, Mingleshwar, in their workshop. There, carved 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 on the porch steps carving despite the loss of sight in one eye.

Renold Sequeira, 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.

Building a good local reputation, the Sequeiras don't need to advertise. Word of mouth has helped their orders to increases 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-sized 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 Sequeira.

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 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 Sequeira.

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

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