The Ravan supermarket
Even in death, the ten-headed demon king provides sustenance to effigy makers in the urban village of Titarpur.
It’s one busy Ravan supermarket. On an otherwise languorous winter afternoon, Titarpur, a dusty urban village in west Delhi, resembles a Big Bazaar sale in festive season, with shoppers gripped with a frenzied desire to buy the ten-headed demon at the eleventh hour.
On both sides of the pavement of the road below the Metro line leading to the Titarpur station, giant-sized heads, torsos, arms and legs, along with heaps of bamboo, are stacked in apparent disarray. But within hours, magically, these will all be loaded onto every means of transport possible, en route their final destination.
It isn’t that there are discounts going on these effigies. But in the age of plastic money and cashless cab rides, Ramleela committee members roaming the streets of Titarpur with wads of cash bulging from the trouser pockets of their safari suits, seem like an anachronism.
Two days before Vijaydashmi, they have no option but to ferry their own Ravan by hook, crook, truck or scooter from Asia’s biggest effigies market. Pramod Kumar, a Dussehra organiser from Safdarjung Club, for instance, has just finalised a deal for a 40-foot Ravan with effigy maker Sanjay Kumar and is hailing a Tempo truck to transport it to the Dussehra maidan. “Over the last decade, I’ve seen the price of Ravan more than double from Rs 9,000 in 2005 to Rs 20,000 now. But so have prices of everything else in big cities.”
The cost of a sack of Assamese bamboo, renowned for its tensile properties, used for making frames for effigies, for instance, has risen from Rs 200 a sack to Rs 500 now, say effigy makers. Similarly, the price of khaki paper which is wrapped around the steel wires that hold the bamboo frame together, has also risen.
This doesn’t appear to have dampened the fervour of any of the 45 retailers engaged in selling Ravans in Titarpur, who pour their blood, sweat and tears into the cauldron which feeds the demand for effigies in the run-up to Dussehra. They even rope in their kin.
“Since Rakshabandhan, every member of our family has been preparing for the festival,” says Vinod Kumar, 50, a third-generation Ravan-maker, as he uses blue paint to create an eye on a Ravan bust, kept on the terrace of his single-storey home.
Next to him, his wife Sharda, 47, is using a stick to stir a drum kept on a fire, which is used to prepare lei, a gooey white adhesive comprising dough, arrowroot and water, which comes in handy while pasting shiny coloured paper onto the effigies. Kumar’s sons Naveen and Amit, along with daughters-in-law Mamta and Kirti, also pitch in with the business when deadlines are approaching.
“Our Ravans are in demand in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and even abroad,” boasts Sanjay Kumar, as he gives me a guided window-shopping tour, Titarpur style. “This Ravan here is booked to go to Mumbai. This one here will be burnt in Bangalore. Two of my associates have even gone to Canada this year to assemble and set up a Ravan there.”
Virat Dhingra, 42, a software engineer based in Paschim Vihar, stops his Honda City on the roadside to examine a five-foot-tall Ravan being sold by Sandeep Tanwar, and clinches the bargain for Rs 2,400. “I am taking this for my children. Instead of braving the crowds on Dussehra, we’ll just host our own Ravan-Dahan in the garden,” says Dhingra. Ravans which are sized five feet and 10 feet respectively are being sold for Rs 2,500 and Rs 5,000 on an average. At the top end of the price spectrum, a 40-foot high effigy can fetch as much as Rs 12,000.
Artisans sans religion
Many of the more than 2,000 artisans engaged in making the close to 1,500 Ravans in Titarpur every festive season, migrate from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar for the eight weeks before Dussehra. “We work in shifts of 10 hours and make about Rs 500 a day along with food and tea,” says 27-year-old painter Nuruddin Ansari, 28, as he sits on the pavement next to the Tagore Garden Metro Station. “People from my village in Uttar Pradesh also come here especially on Dussehra to install the fireworks inside the effigies and set up Ravan putlas,” he says.
“While selling Ravans in Titarpur has traditionally been the prerogative of Dalit entrepreneurs, it is Muslims from rural areas around the National Capital Region, who are experts in the art of aatishbaazi,” says Michael Ekka, 48, a seasoned Ravan-maker, explaining the socio-ethnic dynamic at this hub of Ravan-making.
Ekka’s son Amit, a student of commerce at Saraswati College, heads to his father’s shop after his classes are over to help with the business, particularly in the month before Dussehra. “Apart from attending customer queries on the phone, my job is to supervise the artisans,” says Amit.
Making an effigy is an intricate process. To begin with, bamboo is torn into thin strips and bent to prepare the frame on which the effigy will be hung. The frame is then covered with old saris and subsequently pasted with brown paper. The veneer can be painted in black or any other colour that the client fancies. But making the head is the toughest part. Creating the eyes and the mouth require finesse and a high level of skill. “Everything in an effigy is painstakingly made by hand,” explains Sanjay Kumar.
Kumar, 41, has been selling effigies since he was a teenager. He learnt the nuances of making Ravans from his teacher Sultan Singh, who, in turn, was one of the first disciples of Chhuttan Lal, also known as Ravan Wale Baba, credited as the pioneer of effigy-making in the village in the 1970s. Kumar, who employs more than 15 artisans, runs a transport business in the months when he is not a Ravan manufacturer. The artisans, well, they work on construction sites, do odd jobs or turn into temporary decorators during the wedding season. But come Dussehra and they will again work like a people possessed, till the labour of their love goes up in flames.
Even in his death, Ravan provides sustenance to the tribe of effigy makers in Titarpur. Any putlas that remain unsold after Dussehra are burnt where they have been kept by the artisans. “There’s no use for an unsold Ravan. He won’t be able to withstand the elements since the effigies are kept in the open. So we light a match and burn every unsold Ravan on Vijaydashmi itself,” says Sanjay Kumar.
Ashes to ashes, dust to... gold dust! Ravan will return to Titarpur next year.
Most effigies have six major sections: the crown, the face, the torso, the skirt (ghagra), the feet and the footwear. On Vijayadashmi, these parts are transported separately and then assembled at the Dussehra site. The largest section, about one-fourth of a 40-foot Ravan, is the torso.
The second largest section is the ghagra or skirt. This usually has the largest concentration of crackers and rotating fireworks behind the navel, at which Ram aims on Dashami. Burning an effigy higher than 40 feet requires a no-objection certificate from civic authorities.
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From HT Brunch, November 1
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