One thing I love about India is that it never ceases to amaze and surprise. There I was, driving through West Delhi, when I saw the most unlikely sight. Two gigantic Ravana heads with glittering eyes and slavering red mouths stood at a DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) bus stop, looking so ludicrous that, of course, I had to stop and find out more about them. It turned out that I was in Tagore Gardens — the only Ravana-makers’ colony in the capital. A short walk revealed Ravana heads stacked under the metro underpass and torsos leaning nonchalantly across urinals. All around me, people were busily pasting layer upon layer of paper on the effigies. Unpainted and still bereft of their traditional razzmatazz, they looked like ancient relics just unearthed.
I cornered a guy working on a large torso. He was, he said, Michael from Moradabad. “We’ve all learnt to make Ravanas from the legendary Ravana baba, our guru who died about 20 years ago. He started building effigies here and it quickly turned into a flourishing business,” he said. Apparently, when Ravana baba began making effigies over half a century ago, the entire colony would sell about 30 Ravanas in a year. Today, business has grown to around 3,000 effigies a year. This, at Rs 200 per foot, translates to better and easier profits than what these people make in other jobs the rest of the year. And, from August to Dusshera, this otherwise quite ordinary looking neighbourhood tranforms into a colony of Ravanas.
“Ravana-making is a seasonal business. All of us have other primary businesses to sustain us in the other months,” said Michael, who sells vegetables through the year. “I call my cousins from Moradabad for three months to help me manage both the jobs,” he said. “We are making 30 Ravanas this year, mostly in larger sizes. Fifteen days before Dusshera, I already have orders for 10.”
The atmosphere in Tagore Gardens in the days before Dusshera is extremely festive, he said. “We all start painting and decorating the Ravanas then and suddenly, the street looks like it is full of gigantic warriors decked in silver and gold! Sometimes, for special orders, we make fancy Ravanas with electric eyes and weapons that flash colour...” he said. Closer to the festival, he said, buyers pour in from not just Delhi, but from the neighbouring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. He patted the torso of a Ravana that when assembled would be at least 50 feet high. “Before Dusshera, we send effigies this size in large trucks across hundreds of kilometers!” They also make smaller effigies, barely two feet tall, for use at homes. “The demand for these smaller ones is steadily increasing,” he said.
The Ravana-making business is a bit of a gamble, though. “I have to buy all the raw material before the Dusshera season starts. Also, I’ve to pay for the boarding and lodging of all the people from my village who come to help. All of this when I don’t know if all the 30 Ravanas I have made for the season, would sell or not!” he said. Keen to sell his entire stock, Michael plans to go out marketing his wares the week before Dusshera. “I’m going to assemble one full effigy before the others, to attract the attention of buyers,” he said. What did he plan to do with the Ravanas left unsold after Dusshera? I wondered. He shrugged: “It doesn’t usually happen. And, if it does, it’ll be my money up in smoke instead of my buyers!”