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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 Scroll.in 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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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

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