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Meet the people who make Diwali happen for you

Meet the men, women, families, communities and behind-the-scenes heroes who work their hardest during this season so that your festive celebrations sparkle.

brunch Updated: Nov 23, 2015 18:58 IST
Hindustan Times
Essabhai,Mehernosh Khajotia,Anjali Malhotra

What does Diwali mean to you? A precious break from work to chill with the family? A chance to celebrate light before dark winter nights set in? A full-on reason to shop, give gifts and gleefully wonder what you’ve received in return? A bona fide excuse to gorge on sweets? Or a fantastic opportunity to make happy memories with loved ones?

For the people featured in our story, Diwali means pretty much the same... and something more. It’s also the busiest time of the year. Diya makers, lantern crafters, mithaiwalas, rangoli artists, fireworks dealers, high-end chocolatiers and creators of funky décor – Mumbaikars across the city work extra hard to brighten your Diwali.

There’s chaos, sure. Tension, of course! But there are also wonderful stories. Of making time to work together as a family, of celebrating traditional crafts, of dreaming bigger for their business and of battling challenges one more year to emerge triumphant in time for the festival. Take a peek into their lives.

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The kandil crafters with an eye for style

From handcrafted paper lanterns to soft-focus Chinese imports, the nights are only getting brighter.

For 13 years, the Raul family has prepared for Diwali a little differently. While the city indulges in rounds of shopping, grandpa Vasant, grandma Vaishali, their electrician son Rajesh, daughter-in-law Swapnali and six-year-old Swara make as many as 500 traditional kandils by hand. Their warehouse, down a tiny lane off the busy LJ Road in Matunga, is where the family measures out colourful paper, binds bamboo strips into a hexagonal skeleton. Over this, the paper is laid, decorated with thin criss-crossed strips of contrasting designs, trimmed with gold foil and finished off with long tassels at the bottom. Each of the Rauls has their own subtle style – grandpa loves high contrasts, while little Swara likes to change the game – she twirls her strips when the others lay them flat.

Many hands make light work: (from left) Every year, Swapnali, little Swara, Rajesh, Vasant and Vaishali Raul pitch in to make 500 traditional paper lanterns by hand. (Photo by Kalpak Pathak / Hindustan Times).

Kandil-making is two hours of delicate work from start to finish, and it’s the exact same way generations of Maharashtrians have been making their own jelly-fish-like Diwali lanterns.

Right now, the warehouse is full. About 100 kandils in three sizes are stacked everywhere, waiting to be delivered to the retailer. There’s just enough room for three (and a tiny six-year-old) to sit. “This kind of work needs focus, an understanding of colour, materials and structural integrity,” says Vasant Raul. “And of course, a willingness to do it. Not many families have the patience to make their own kandils anymore, we do it for them.”

It’s tedious, he admits. They work in two-hour shifts through the day, sometimes ordering pao bhaji for dinner when there is no time to cook. But they see the bright side. “What we make cannot be replicated in China, it’s Indian-made, handcrafted, traditional and eco-friendly, and people now appreciate it,” says Rajesh Raul. “Plus, it brings the family together.”

Hanging out

The Raul family lanterns cost around Rs 500, have been shipped abroad, and have popped up in Diwali scenes in films, but the majority of them are sold just next door. For 10 days before Diwali, the stretch of pavement near Mahim’s erstwhile Citylight Cinema, is transformed into Kandil Galli, perhaps the brightest, most colourful spot in Mumbai. The area is illuminated with more than 100 lanterns – Chinese, Indian everything – up for sale.

Harjyot Singh Bedi (above) manages the lantern sales at Kandil Galli (below) in Matunga. (Photo by Kalpak Pathak / Hindustan Times)

This 30-year-old market is where Lata Mangeshkar buys her kandil, claims Harjyot Singh Bedi, who manages the lantern sales. “We look at wholesale markets, Chinese dealers, small-batch handmade sellers and lanterns made by social groups,” he says. “That kind of variety can confuse a retail buyer, it’s our job to pick the best designs for them to choose.”

Even then, it can boggle the mind. Lanterns have their own trends, bestsellers and limited-edition models. “Everyone’s always asking, naya kya hai,” Singh says. “Lotus-shaped kandils were all the rage last year, this year we’ve got a new duck-like design that will be popular.” Traditional lanterns sell the best – some cost just Rs 100.

But every year, there’s a showstopper. A lantern that pulls out all the stops for design, originality and price. Only one piece is made and then never created again. This year’s diva is a powder-pink-and-baby-blue concoction, with a strip of running LED built into the frame. It costs Rs 5,000 and looks like a pastel-princess fantasy!

Harjyot Singh Bedi’s showstopper this year, a pink-and-blue LED model costs Rs 5,000. (Photo: Kalpak Pathak)

Singh has no doubt he’ll find a buyer. He always does: “Lanterns sell themselves – I have a happy job”. The only dark cloud over the lantern business is the BMC, which allows only 10 days of street sales. “Kandils are an Indian tradition, need lakhs in investment and support local businesses, and yet we can’t sell them for longer.

It all wraps up on Diwali morning, when people start to celebrate. “On Diwali, all I do is pack up,” Singh says. “It takes two days to put it all away so my celebrations come only two days later.”

-Rachel Lopez


The rangoli artists colouring your life

For Ved Katti and his rangoli creators, Diwali joins the dots between art, religion and people.

How do you know Diwali has arrived? You can look at the skies and see the fireworks; you can look at the homes and spot lanterns; you can look at the people dressed in festive splendour. Or you can look at the floors, even the ground comes alive at Diwali. Rangolis adorn the entrances of homes, stores and workplaces – each one represents hours of patience.

The floor is yours! The Rangvalli Parivar has stretched rangolis across 16,000 and 24,000 square feet.

Graphic designer Ved Katti has put in more hours than most. For 15 years, his organisation Rangvalli Parivar has worked towards popularising rangoli as an art. He’s held workshops, claims to have taught 26,000 people, organised demonstrations and helped rangoli get bigger – literally. Two years ago, his team of 150 created a 25,000 sqft design in Thane. It covered an entire maidan, called for 1,200 kg of white powder and another 1,200 kgs of colours.

Rangvalli Parivar’s members – many are doctors, engineers and bankers – are busy through the year. “Gudi Padwa and Ganpati are busy times,” he says. “But Diwali is when people come to brush up on their skills.” Men and women, “some of whom who have never touched rangoli powder in their lives,” learn the basics of working on a dotted grid, controlling the flow of powder through their pinched fingers, working with colours and graduating to larger, more dramatic carpet rangolis. “They get the confidence to draw a small rangoli then,” says Katti, for whom small is a good six feet.

Powder-packed art

Most Indian cultures use some form of wall or floor decoration. In Kerala, flowers are arranged on the ground to form a Puvidal. Tamils make a Kolam using rice flour while the Andhras and Bengalis draw their designs in thick rice paste. Freehand Mandana dominates home decorations in Rajasthan, while square Chowk Purnas are common in Madhya Pradesh. In Thane, however, when the rangolis cover 16,000 feet, it is when the adventure begins. “Some 100 people work on a single design. Of course we could make small patterns and connect them, but we don’t,” he says. Instead there’s two months of planning and practice. “When we finally get to the big design, no one even talks to each other. They know where to start and what to do and how to do it.”

Two members, Manjiri and Uttara, have been busy conducting workshops in the weeks leading up to Diwali (Photo by Praful Gangurde)

They also know what their designs mean. “Every symbol, a dot, a line, a half or full circle, centripetal [spiral], chakra, cow foot, swastika, kalash or om has a meaning and a place in the rangoli,” Katti explains. In addition the Parivar has also developed Roman and Devnagari calligraphy, fashioning letters using spoons and scoops.

Katti has been letting powder slide through his fingertips for over 20 years and finds it offers lessons for life. “After 20 years you still make mistakes, but the key is being able to learn from them,” he says. “When you think about it. rangoli is such an impermanent art – it’s swept or blown away so easily. But you can’t let that bring you down. See it as an opportunity – for how else will you be able to create more?”

To the hundreds who’ll take lessons from his organisation this year, Katti has only one trick to crafting great work: passion. “That is what makes both the creator and viewer happy.” That’s exactly why it will come as no surprise to know that Katti will spend his Diwali like all his previous ones: making a rangoli.

- Rachel Lopez


The fireworks family that does business with a bang

For three generations of the Essabhai family, Diwali means working with kin without making sparks flying.

Abdullah Ghia is one of few people in the world who will admit to supplying Bofors Guns. He’s also got Kargil Bullets and Brahmos Missiles. Don’t call the cops, the 75-year-old grandfather deals in fireworks, not weapons. His store, Essabhai, near Crawford Market, stocks perhaps the widest range of fireworks in the country. You can choose from charmingly named Vulcano (yes, with a U), Cappacino (yes, with an A), Red Tails, Jupiter Attack or Dada Dhamaka. Or go old-school with a trail of iconic Red Fort crackers – red ones that still go rat-tat-tat-tat-tat for a full five minutes in gallis when India wins at cricket.

Or you could just play out your war fantasies with a Gun, Bullet or Missile. Ghia won’t judge; he has no time. In the run-up to Diwali, everything happens at once – a look at new shipment, wholesale orders for Rs 44,000, families buying Rs 40 sparklers, chai, phonecalls, even this interview.

“This is a year-round business,” Ghia says. “People buy fireworks for every happy occasion, plus during Ganeshotsav, elections, cricket matches and weddings. But Diwali is the busiest.” This is when the shop is crowded until 10pm, stays open on Sundays, and ropes in 5 to 10 more workers to cope with demand. It’s when families spend up to Rs 2,500 for a few seconds of light-and-sound thrills that go up in smoke. It’s when Essabhai sells up to Rs 10 lakh of goods at a go to wholesalers.

Light and sound show

Ghia is one of nine partners in the business, all relatives. The store has been around since Salebhai Essabhai, the son of a fireworks dealer, set it up in 1938. Over the years, Salebhai’s sons took over, and today, the in-laws and grandsons have joined in, selling explosives to noisy crowds without flaring up. Ghia has been at the store since 1958, “when rockets cost just Rs 5”. Today they cost Rs 50 and Essabhai’s most expensive goods – aerial pyrotechnics that whoosh into the sky, burst into a rainbow of colours and shower down to nothingness – are priced at Rs 2,000.

Firebrands: Abdulla Ghia and his nephew Huzefa Mukhtyar will sort our your sparklers and pyrotechnics. (Photo by Anshuman Poyrekar/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

They find lots of takers. The store sources from Sivakasi, India’s fireworks hub, and buys enough to fill its four godowns. “People have been coming to us for 20 years,” Ghai says as one loyal customer touches his feet after a purchase. “They know us for quality and safety.” The family in turn upholds those standards with frequent wiring checks (a spark means disaster in the fireworks business) and updating fire-fighting equipment. “We also don’t stock China maal,” Ghia says. “It’s so fickle, it can explode spontaneously.” Essabhai’s godowns also have 18-inch thick walls so no damp seeps in. “Fire and water are both enemies.”

Go with the flow

The other enemy is simply the march of time. “There’s less craze for phatakas,” Ghia observes. “Kids know about air and noise pollution now.” There’s also a shift towards visual spectacles rather than high-decibel thrills. This is where being a family business helps. None of the brothers or sons were sent abroad to study. This is why have a sharper understanding of local customers and can sell them complex pyrotechnic creations: How is Titanic Falls different from Golden Octopussy? Are Thriller, Commander, Ranger and Challenger bright or noisy? Should you go for Naya Naya Pyar or White Chicks?

Another advantage of a family business? There’s always someone to man the store. Essabhai is one of the few festive suppliers open on Diwali too. “Let me tell you, it’s just as crowded!” Ghia says.

- Rachel Lopez


The potters who make diyas glow

In Kumbharwada, the warm heart of Dharavi, artisan families bake diyas despite the odds.

Aarti Solanki’s 20-year-old hands remain steady as they paint bright green paisleys on a red three-tiered earthen lamp. Around her, the world of Kumbharwada in Dharavi is bustling. Noisy children run around, some even brush past her, many times over. But Solanki carries on, just like her community, which has been moulding clay into diyas, pots and handicrafts.

Kiln bowled: Lalji Danji Tank says the pottery trade embodies the entrepreneurial spirit of Dharavi. (Photo by Kunal Patil/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

Diwali is hectic in Kumbharwada. “You won’t find a single person who has even a few minutes to spare,” Solanki says. “I am looking forward to buying new clothes for Diwali, but where is the time?

Dharavi’s 2,500-odd kumbhar families are some of India’s largest makers of diyas. They start from the scratch, with fathers, brothers and husbands kneading clay, moulding them into diyas on wheels and baking them red in kilns. Then mothers, sisters and wives take over, adding colours and designs before packing them for sale. The children help out with painting and packing.

Feat of clay

“What we do is in our blood,” says Lalji Danji Tank, who says his grandfather came to Dharavi from Saurashtra to continue his craft in the city of dreams. “No one sat down with us to teach us. As soon as we see a mound of earth, we just know what to do with it.”

Work starts early, soon after Holi, and happens non-stop from dawn to night-time. Shanti Kanji Kapadia, 48, works faster than young Solanki – but even she doesn’t sleep before 1am. Thick black smoke from the kilns fills the air – and yet the work goes on.

“We make 35 paise per diya and up to `10 for a tiered one,” says Vanita Tank. That’s Rs 200 a day in the most profitable season.

Mahesh Wala, who says his family has been involved in Dharavi’s pottery trade since the 1930s, believes the system works because there’s community support. “We live in little houses. So our neighbour opens up his home and shop to store our wares,” he says. The neighbour, Parekh, says this is not big a deal. “We live like one family. This is the spirit of our Dharavi.” Even the area’s impending redevelopment doesn’t scare them. “We never think this is our last Diwali here. Jab tak dil mein jaan hai, karte rahenge,” says Kapadia.

- Chandrika Sen


The mithaiwala who packs it in

For mithai store owner Kunal Bajaj, a cool head is essential for doing a sweet job.

In our 20-minute conversation with Kunal Bajaj, he had 15 missed calls. There was constant background chatter as his staff kept asking him questions. For the owner of Punjab Ghasitaram Halwai, one of the city’s best-known mithai brands, every minute counts in the run up to Diwali – and still the minutes fall short.

“We have automated kettles and machines that speed up the process, but good mithai-making takes a lot of time and effort,” says Kunal Bajaj, owner of Punjabi Ghastaram Halwai. (Photo by Vidya Subramanian/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

It’s chaos at his Mahim factory. A staff of 200 deals with consignments that can be as big as 5,000 kgs of mithai. “Since ours is a perishable product, we prepare sweets on order,” Bajaj says. So even though the boxes and packaging material are kept ready by September, food preparation can only begin a month in advance.

But once it does, it’s a system that celebrates both India’s geography and history. Bajaj, who studied finance and went to Mysore’s Central Food Technological Research Institute, is a fourth-generation sweetmaker. The company was set up in Karachi, in 1916. It lived through Partition and was set up in the newly formed India, in Kalbadevi, after Independence. Today his staff includes experts from across the country to keep his offerings authentic. “A Maharashtrian will make great pedas but only a Bengali will know how to make authentic Bengali sweets.”

Assorted ideas

For the Diwali rush, however, additional staff of 150 comes on board. “My mother and wife come to help us with the packaging and other preparations too,” he says. They work round the clock – Bajaj remembers one Diwali all-nighter when he only returned home at 9am. “We have automated kettles and machines that speed up the process, but good mithai-making takes a lot of time and effort,” he says.

The best way to keep the operation running smoothly is to keep his own cool and set the tone for the workplace, Bajaj believes. And not take on more than he can deliver. “Everyone wants things quick and customers get angry when we refuse last-minute orders, so we have to patiently explain,” he says.

Diwali has changed over the years, Bajaj observes. And with it consumption patterns have changed too. Earlier, people wouldn’t mind sweets soaked in ghee. Today, “it’s a sugar-free culture. People prefer figs and dates,” he says. The store has low-sugar and low-calorie sweets, and has learned to cater to more demanding customers. Still, tradition outsells trends: the most popular sweets are kaju katli and boondi laddoos. They sell three times more stock of those at Diwali.

So when does Bajaj celebrate? Only during the day of Diwali, he says. “Honestly, the biggest celebration is completing the deliveries on schedule.”

-Nidhi Choksi


The Confectioner With A Sugar Rush

Mehernosh Khajotia comes close to melting, all so that his chocolates hold up against the best.

Mehernosh Khajotia claims he could shut his gourmet bakery and confectionery for the rest of the year, work only on chocolate hampers during Diwali and still stay afloat. That’s how much revenue the festive season brings in for his company, Celebrations Fine Confections. “More people have starting giving chocolate instead of mithai,” observes Khajotia, 44, who first started making confections at 16. “For me, these weeks make or break the year.”

“More people have starting giving chocolate instead of mithai,” observes Mehernosh Khajotia, who started making confections at 16. (Photo by Kalpak Pathak / Hindustan Times)

That box of handcrafted chocolate you give or receive at Diwali may have a special meaning for you. But it holds a significance of an entirely different sort for people like Khajotia. His chocolate is sourced from Switzerland, France and Spain; similarly imported ingredients go into his apricot-orange fudge and truffles with orange peel. The little bites made with Iranian wild rose and saffron cost Rs 4,800 a kilo. “They’re bought by corporates who’ll gift them to diamond traders, heads of multinational banks, high-net-worth clients,” he says. “This is my chance to impress them.”

Candy crush saga

It helps to start early. Khajotia imported one tonne of raw chocolate two months ago, “before the Diwali rush pushes prices up and forces others to buy lower quality”. He works out his menu, festive packaging and options for brands that want their logos on the confections (they all do!). Then, closer to the festival, the orders fly in, the aprons are on, the sleeves rolled up, it’s Willy Wonka time.

Khajotia starts at 10am, working solo long past midnight after his labour force has caught the last train home. “I’ve spent nights at the factory, come home and gone back to do it the next day,” he says.

Wrap brigade

Help comes via family and friends. His mother Perin, 85, assists with packing. Buddies from the Hikers Club Of Bombay chip in – they often perform better than his own staff. “One of them, Behram Bordiwala, is the best wrapper I’ve seen!” says Khajotia who also hires visually channelled staff – and is impressed by their dedication.

Khajotia finds that Diwali shines a light on human nature: “You get to see who cares about their gifts, who’s cheap, and who’s doing it for show.” He’s had to turn away clients who order big boxes and ask him to stuff the bottom with paper. He’s refused to compromise when bulk buyers have asked for “fancy boxes with cheap stuff inside”. But he’s dealt with as many customers who refuse to scrimp on gifts for employees.

Khajotia always looks forward to Diwali because, “it means work is done and I can finally sleep”.

- Rachel Lopez


The designer with a trendy touch

Anjali Malhotra creates quirky gifts, which call for creativity and cunning too.

Anjali Malhotra sells diyas made out of stacked bangles, candles in cutting chai glasses, and coasters that with slogans that read ‘Mom Batti - Chota Batti’ and ‘Eh Phataka’. (If you ever need a flirty Diwali present, this is it!)

The 25-year-old product designer has been running her studio, 10am, for two years and sells the kind of kitschy India-inspired goods that people can use all year long. They make great gifts for those who need a break from traditional décor, and that’s why Diwali is a key sales season.

Bright Ides: Anjali Malhotra’s gifts company 10am sells quirky diyas and popular bangle-stacked candles. (Photo:

Preparations begin months in advance but “no matter how early you start, people always order last minute,” she says. This means late nights at her Nepean Sea Road studio, bringing work home to finish, and roping in her entire family to cut ribbons and help in packaging. “I call my artsy friends over for a cup of coffee and good conversations while they help me finish my work,” she says. And so, her studio and house is filled with boxes of gifts, wrapping paper, glitter and “there’s literally no space to walk”.

Out of the box

Malhotra remembers the time she got two big orders a day before the festival, when she was set to leave for a two-day vacation. “I was packing my bags and hunting for products that had already sold out by then,” she says. She did manage to deliver. But the customers had to take them in cardboard boxes.

10am’s clients represent a changing India. “You’d be surprised, but there are more 30- to 40-year-olds and startups among our buyers,” she says. Young people tend not to spend, but when posts about quirky products pop up on their Instagram and Facebook walls, it’s their word of mouth that helps.

Malhotra’s bangle diyas are a hit with her customers and the only customer problem she’s ever had is running out of stock. Though it does involve last-minute errands, arguments with her vendors and running around the city to get things in place, she plans her days well, cuts down on her sleep, skips her workout sessions and some times even meals. It’s all for a good business season.

- Nidhi Choksi

From HT Brunch, November 8

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First Published: Nov 07, 2015 16:07 IST