Ride the Blue Metro Line West and get off at Tagore Garden Station. Walk onto the crowded highway and scan left and right. Behind the hustling traffic, leaning against the roadside stalls and piled underneath the metro pillars you will see giant papier mâché creatures waiting to be born. A head here. Arms and legs there. Some have wide flaming eyes already painted on, others have their bamboo frame covered in Christmas wrapping paper. All have the distinctive mustache that is the signature of the Ravan makers of West Delhi.
For 2 months a year, dozens of families who otherwise spend the year working in mechanics shops, in wedding bands, as car painters or taxi drivers, bring their usual routine to a halt to build the giant Ravan effigies that will expode across the city on Dussehra. Towering up to 50 feet tall, each of these effigies take approximately 1 week each to make, piece by piece. First, a frame is built with thin bamboo sticks. The frame is covered with second-hand saree fabric and, at strategic spots, straw is added – for example to make distinct, protruding eyebrows. Then a layer of white paper and sometimes another layer of coloured wrapping paper, for extra support and flare. Finally, with the help of women and children, the bodies are painted and hand-cut decorative paper pieces glued on them in a whirlwind of sparkly patterns. The pieces will be assembled only after being purchased by one patron or another – resident welfare associations or neighbourhood committees – and only once they reach at their final location. The head goes on the body, the arms and legs are attached, and big, box-like shoes finish it off. Each Ravan will stand for a few days in a vacant neighbourhood ground until the night of Dussehra, when stuffed with straw and hundreds of firecrackers he will explode to celebrate the victory of Good over Evil.
One artist can build up to 30-35 Ravans a year (depending on their size and resources), adding up to a total of 3,000 Ravans in this market alone every Dusshera season, catering to celebrations all across North India. A 50-foot Ravan can cost 15,000 rupees ($300 USD) or more, depending on the detail and craftmanship involved, but most Ravans range from 5,000 – 8,000 rupees. (The actual cost of making a small one is about 500-1,000 rupees). The demand for Ravans has been decreasing lately, and the artists strive to innovate to maintain and increase their appeal however they can. The mustaches get progressively more elaborate, the eyelashes take the shape of flames and curls, and trending slogans against corruption or promoting equality appear on the Ravans’ cheeks.
But not all of them are in for innovation. For the biggest effigies and for the most spectacular Dussehra celebrations, like the ones carpeting the lawns in front of New Delhi’s Lal Qila, special Ravan makers are brought into the city with their whole family from villages throughout Haryana for three months. These artists have a distinct style that they apply to crafting effigies 120-150 feet tall. These Ravanwalas consider themselves as the ‘real-deal’ as far as making demons goes, more authentic than the commercial Ravans of Titarpur market. “Real mustaches don’t come out from the face like that,” they will tell you, looking at photos of Titarpur effigies. For the Old Delhi Ravanwalas, it’s a matter of pride and tradition, not style and innovation. The lips of their Ravans are slightly parted, the mustache is flat on the face, and their noses have actual nostrils. They strive to make their Ravans as factual as possible.
Whether in the form of the cartoonish Ravans of West Delhi or the monumental Ravans of Old Delhi, these are the people who give birth to demons…so that we can watch them get defeated. None of the artists partake in Dussehra as the result of their time, effort and artisanship burns and explodes. Instead, they pack up their supplies and go back to their daily routine for another 10 months in one job or another, until the time comes again for their demons to be born.
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