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'Who likes seeing their hard work go up in flames?' Meet Delhi's Raavan-makers

From flower-sellers to chai-makers, everyone in Titarpur is pitching in to build effigies before Dussehra.

The October sun was blazing down, but 17-year-old Dewa Singh Rathore barely felt the heat under the canopy of banyan leaves. He glowed instead, with pride. Along with two other helpers, Rathore was working on a 35-foot high effigy of Raavan, the mythical antagonist in Ramayana. He had just finished lining a 10-foot bamboo frame with scraps of cloth.

Rathore and his colleagues work in West Delhi's Titarpur, a neighbourhood famous for its Raavan-makers. The artisans here create Raavan, along with Meghanad (a Lankan prince) and Kumbhakaran (Raavan's brother).

Typically, each artisan is paid a daily allowance of Rs 300 to build effigies. Working overnight, they can earn between Rs 500 and Rs 700, along with a portion of rice, vegetables, lentils and rotis. On the weekends, most workers prefer the morning shift.

Decked up Raavan heads keeping each other company on a road divider. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter
Decked up Raavan heads keeping each other company on a road divider. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter

Umesh Kumar, 32, drives an auto when he is not building effigies which will see their end on Dushhera.

"I do not like it when the effigies are burnt down," he said. "Who likes seeing their hard work go up in flames?"

But someone has to put in the hard work. Every year, thousands of Raavan effigies go up in flames. Titarpur has a legacy to live up to. With Dusshehra around the corner, the workers are churning out hundreds of 40-foot effigies, as some of them have done for the past 40 years.

Occupying nearly three kilometres, the space between Tilak Nagar to Subhash Nagar has been converted into a huge workhouse. From flower-sellers to chai-makers, auto-wallahs to rickshaw-wallahs, everyone pitches in to build effigies.

Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter
Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter

Johnny, 32, and Shiv Charan, 36, are the contractors of the setup right beneath the Tagore Garden Metro on Delhi Metro's blue line.

Johnny explains that the off-white liquid, bubbling in cauldrons on the street, was arrowroot powder, a cornstarch substitute, used to make the glue for the idols. The powder is boiled with water for a few hours until it turns into paste. It is then cooled and used immediately, or it loses its potency.

Effigy-making paraphernalia. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter
Effigy-making paraphernalia. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter

Does no-one bother them about permit and fines?

"We have everything under control," said Charan. "We work in our allotted work area, as you can see." He gestured towards the non-functional footpath, currently crowded with bamboo shoots, scraps of old saris and disembodied effigy heads.

Charan makes paper mache animals for schools during the rest of the year. Swiping through his phone to look for an image of sheep with cotton-wool fur, he said, "I made these for December 25 for St Martin's school."

An effigy-maker catches a nap next to his wares. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter
An effigy-maker catches a nap next to his wares. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter

Charan says he has also made effigies of militants. "We turn the moustaches down and add beards," he said. "The Bharatiya Janata Party members get [effigies of] militants made, for burning..."

Charan refused to show any images of the militants he had made.

"We don't keep them in our homes nor click any pictures of them," he said, "it is considered bad luck."

Johnny posed for a photograph in front of an unfinished effigy, as he explained the profit margin of their wares: "The cost for an average one is around Rs 3,500 to Rs 4,000 and I sell them for anything from Rs 8,000 to Rs 25,000."

A Raavan head waiting to be assembled. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter
A Raavan head waiting to be assembled. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter

Sachin Pandey, 22, has been painting bushy moustaches, threatening eyes and sharp teeth on Raavan and others' faces for the past 12 years. Standing aloft a rickety stool on a road divider somewhere in Subhash Nagar, he applied finishing touches to the bulging black eyes of a 12-foot face.

He gets paid Rs 150 per face to paint eyes, eyebrows and teeth.

Johnny's fingers are covered in blemishes as he shows the arrowroot powder used as a glue substitute. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter
Johnny's fingers are covered in blemishes as he shows the arrowroot powder used as a glue substitute. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter
The arrowroot powder and water mixture. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter
The arrowroot powder and water mixture. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter
A lone Raavan head standing tall. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter
A lone Raavan head standing tall. Photo: Rhema Mukti Baxter
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