Photo feature

'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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As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

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Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

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At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.