October 23, 2012

Ravana making in Tatarpur, New Delhi

In continuation with the previous post introducing Dussehra and other associated festivals (Pixelated Memories - Navaratris)


In the well-tucked heart of the affluent south Delhi sits an unheard of, little urban village literally known as Tatarpur but popularly referred to as Titarpur, whose only claim to fame is the two-month period preceding the advent of Navaratri worship and Dussehra celebrations when it comes alive with brilliant colors, boisterous designs and sparkling glitter – Dussehra, one of the most important festivals of north India, cannot be completed without the ritualistic incineration of the effigies (“put-le”) of the evil lord Ravana and his associates – and it is in this small locality that all the effigies are constructed for supply to almost every part of north India. Not many people are aware of this heritage activity that begins in the narrow lanes and winding alleys and gradually spills out in the major streets and arterial roads around Tagore Garden-Subhash Nagar areas (amongst the most developed and modern places in the entire state – and yet not untouched by religious fervor and colors).

The colors of Tatarpur 

Couple of days before Dussehra, one can spot parts of the effigies – huge heads with glistening teeth set in perpetual grin, gigantic skirts and torsos composed of cardboard, paper and bamboo and adorned with sparkle work and glistening paint – scattered throughout on roofs, streets and pavements in the area. Travelling in the metro during this time of the year is particularly delightful – the overhead view of rows upon rows of large, multi-hued effigy heads and blackened limbs stacked together is heartwarming – and often one comes across unusual scenes, for instance, several feet long, jet black and curved moustaches decked on rooftops, or newly-painted torsos hanging from balconies to dry. The craftsmen start working on the effigies at least two months in advance of the festive season, many leaving their day jobs during the period in order to prepare these exquisite pieces of art. And though money is a factor guiding them to this business, most do it in order to show their faith in Rama, an ideal king-son-husband-warrior-statesman (“Purushottam”) and supposedly an incarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and nourishment. Nonetheless, the artists feel remorse every time an effigy made by them is “killed and set ablaze” in any part of the country. Confesses Subhash Raavanwala, one of the most prominent master-craftsmen functioning in the area, that though he has been making effigies for the past 30 years, he has never himself set foot in any of the numerous grounds where these symbols of arrogant evil and misdeeds are ritualistically burnt since it pains him to see his efforts go up in fire and smoke. One of his most beautiful works bore on its colossal moustache the legend “I am Ravana. I am evil hence considered worthy of being burnt every year. But if not for me, what of the hundreds of artists and craftsmen who earn their meager livelihood of two square meals only because they create my imitations”.

One of the master craftsmen

Colorful and covered with glistening sheets of myriad-hued paper – blue, orange, green, black, golden, silver, pink, red, yellow – the effigies are certainly a visual treat. Constructed from a skeleton of thin bamboo strips that are tied together to form body-like frames (limbs and torsos that more or less look like tapering cylinders), then pasted over with thin sheets of cloth followed by thick sheets of brown paper and finally repeatedly painted and adorned with patterns and facial features by skilled and experienced painters and craftsmen; final touches are added with slender strips of colored paper, gold and silver foils, sparkle paint decorations and serpentine pattern work in silver paint. Once completed, these parts are left to dry on the pavements and traffic dividers, propped against metro stations and in public parks, before being joined and prepared to be transported on trucks and cars to different parts of the country where these are stuffed with an immense quantity of fireworks and erected in community grounds in anticipation of Dussehra, the tenth and final day of Navaratri worship. Often when the effigies have to be transported over long distances, the patrons prefer to purchase and transport individual parts instead of an entire body put together and have it assembled by a team of laborers in the community ground itself.

Towering amidst apartment buildings - A completed Ravana effigy

Since the effigy and the fireworks are a costly affair and not everyone spares time and money for the same, most of the killing and burning (“Ravana Dehena”) of Ravana and his relatives is accomplished by local drama committees and teams that collect donations from throughout a particular locality for the purpose. Usually, a small ensemble team of actors portray Rama, his brother Lakshmana and the vanaras (simian followers and friends of Rama) – entering the ground on a decorated chariot and firing the symbolic flaming arrows towards the effigies of Meghnaad (Ravana’s son), Kumbhakaran (his brother) and Ravana himself, in that particular order, indicating that the demon lords have been killed and should now be set on fire. On a deeper level, the act of burning the ten-headed Ravana is symbolic of eliminating the ten evils from one's mind (lust, anger, attachment, greed, pride, jealousy, selfishness, injustice, cruelty and ego). Often the residents welfare associations (RWAs) collect the stipulated amount and place orders for the effigies on behalf of the population of the locality under their aegis, and eliminate the whole play-acting and costume-dressing before the incineration by requesting one of the prominent citizens/guests or the RWA president himself to set the effigy/effigies ablaze. What follows is a cacophony, the effigies are burnt in the order mentioned and the crackers blast off with great light and noise often amidst the regular shouts of “Jai Shri Rama” (“Victory to Lord Rama”). Though the massive crowds gathered to watch the fearsome spectacle are kept at bay from these towers of fire by enclosures made of ropes and bamboo poles, there is nothing preventing the onslaught of hundreds of devotees towards the spot where the smoldering ashes and afire bamboo frameworks drop. Belief is that keeping under one’s pillow or suspending over the bedside the ash and remains left over after the annual cremation of Ravana, who also happened to be an extremely learnt sage-philosopher-writer-musician, helps increase one’s knowledge and intelligence. Hence, the rush to gather the ashes. Unbelievable, right?

Now we know why Tatarpur is jocularly referred to as "Lanka" (Ravana's citadel)

The whole Ravana making business started some 50 years ago when a man from Sikandarabad (Uttar Pradesh) migrated to Delhi and set up a small-scale business of funeral and cremation materials. One particular year, when the business was exceptionally slow and the festive season upon him, he used the bamboo logs and fine cloths, that would have been otherwise sold to people for cremation purposes, to make a small effigy. Everyone liked it and it was burnt with a grand ceremony during the Dussehra celebrations – motivated, the man, by now being referred to as “Ravana Baba”, began making effigies every year during the festive season and few years later even started getting up to 10 orders from affluent patrons and festival organizing committees. The local children would sit around him and see him at work and often intern for him too for some quick cash – after his demise, these children took the business forward and now they all are the master craftsmen training new workers and painters under their tutelage. The business has grown to hundreds of effigies manufactured each year, yet the craft is characterized as a dying art since, despite putting in months of back-breaking toil and efforts, the profits are extremely low and most craftsmen/workers do not prefer to have their children in the same business. Harassment by locals and policemen are also a factor, though in recent years many newspapers, blogs and photography clubs have photographed, written about and highlighted this alluring heritage activity. And the saddest thing of all is that nobody, not even the generation of craftsmen-artists whom he trained, remember “Ravana Baba” or know his real identity – though one claim is that his actual name was Ustad Chuttan Lal, but many of the older craftsmen disagree.

Brilliant blue! - Am sure Ravana never looked so amusing!

The effigies can be brought – big or small – depending on your budget from Tatarpur. They are priced according to the skill of the craftsmen who made them and the additional features they sport (light bulbs for eyes, large horns, moustache, snake motifs, weapons and accessories etc). The quoted price is Rs 300/feet, but most artists and craftsmen confess that they are able to sell a 50-feet tall effigy (the most common size available here) at an average of Rs 12,000 only – the total price for making it from scratch pegged somewhere around Rs 8,000. Some patrons order even more magnificent effigies – often measuring over 80 feet and equipped with several features like headgear and weapons – such effigies require 24X7 hard work worth several days and usually fetch relatively heftier profits. But one can also spot miniature effigies, just over a few feet tall with a little head mounted atop, thin as sticks and conical in shape, but layered with lots of glossy paper and decorated with fluorescent sheets and sparkles. These are usually bought by individuals who prefer to celebrate Dussehra at their own home and with only their near family instead of indulging in the community carnival that the festival turns into in the local parks and grounds. The best part, other than the riot of colors, are the long moustaches of the Ravanas – many a times the patrons request the craftsmen to make excessively large moustaches or scribble words on these. The craftsmen, nonetheless, think the demons look “beautiful”. 

Subhash Ravanawalla, with some of the effigy heads he commissioned

Interestingly, amongst the rows upon rows of effigy figures lying around, one can spot the artistic modifications creatively introduced by different artists – foremost amongst these are the facial expressions – while one effigy might be depicted looking sad, others might appear happy, and many even sport an expression of unbridled amusement with their large uneven teeth glistening in the sun, nonetheless all of them seem to be contemplating their “fiery” end and laughing at the human vanity of claiming to burn the mighty Ravana. The vibrance of so many shades of colors and glitter, combined with these hundreds of modifications and the different stages of completion in which several effigies sit next to each other makes for beautiful compositions beckoning enthusiastic photographers and impressed onlookers alike. Over time, this sacred craft tradition too has started sporting modern touches – many organizing committees have started burning four effigies – the last one portraying some relevant social/national issue such as female foeticide or corruption; the effigies are increasingly being composed of natural products and avoiding toxic substances like paints, glues, plastics and metals; the creativity has been further enhanced by inscribing slogans on the moustaches or pasting large stickers of fire-spewing dragons and silver jewelry.

That moustache, those teeth! This one at least is spooky!

The workers toil from early dawn to dusk to make these “art pieces” (that’s what they consider them) more elegant and stunning and the impeccable craftsmanship shows in the form of the decorative designs and motifs added when giving final touches to the effigy, just before being shipped off to its destination. Scores of workers cohabit here under the guidance of the master craftsmen during these few months to create hundreds of effigies in a span of two months, every master craftsman commissioning 30-35 effigies each – obviously, the competition to sell earliest while also cornering some profits is high. Yet often, the craftsmen are forced to indulge in distress-selling to even procure part of their investments; many find themselves unable to sell all their product at the end of the festive season – the effigies are then broken down and their constituent material put to more lasting uses – bamboo is utilized for making chairs and stools while paper and glossy sheets are converted into posters. At the end of their two-month employment, each of the workers/carpenters/artists/painters is paid approximately Rs 6,000/month for the services rendered.

A Ravana and his torso. He seems to be grinning perpetually and stupidly 

Walking through the streets of Tatarpur is a wonderful enriching experience where one gets to witness craftsmen and artisans hard at work, converting seemingly simple pieces of bamboo and thin sheets of paper and cloth into towering effigies and masculine heads with astonishingly large moustaches. But one also observes another side of this labour-intensive business – often small kids, not even ten years old, frail and thin like the bamboo sticks they join, can also be seen working with the elders. Every time I have visited the village to click the work in progress, most of the kids stop in the middle of whatever they are doing to jovially interact and pose for me, only to be scolded by the elders – and it is heartbreaking to see them work and questions like shouldn’t they be studying or playing around bubble up unintentionally. Most of these workers, living impoverished lives and often not earning enough to spend on quality food (leave alone proper education, housing and health), face harassment from locals. Couple of years back, they were especially threatened by biker gangs who had taken to stealing the effigy heads and body parts – nowadays, as a preventive measure, most of the heads are kept tied through the nose to walls/railings by means of long strips of cloth – it eliminates part of the photographic composition, but is definitely a necessary measure. The craftsmen also face an uncooperative police force and are often derided for blocking roads and covering footpaths with these huge effigies – for some people, unappreciative of the toil these artists put in for the sake of their patrons and the people who come to see Ravana Dehena, this entire show turns is a nuisance, and they often argue for the removal of effigies from arterial roads. But for most, viewing these brilliant colors, funky shapes and blinding glitter is simply an ethereal experience. Having so many large heads flaunting strange moustaches and headgear strewn around makes for amusing street furniture and compelling photographic perspectives. Scattered all around are not just some pieces of paper-covered wood, but hard toil of workers worth several months, experience worth several years, and a ritual continuing since several decades!

Two's company, three's crowd? Not at Tatarpur where hundreds of effigies jostle for space everywhere one can see. 

Location: The effigies are lined on all the pavements, road side and flanking parks on the stretch connecting Tagore Garden and Subhash Nagar metro stations.
When: From mid-August till Dussehra (early October). The best period is couple of days before Dussehra when the effigies are near completion.
Suggested timings: Early morning, specifically 6-9 am since later the traffic chokes the main street rendering photography extremely difficult.
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Suggested reading - 


  1. sehr gute Fotos..

  2. You should actually start a website about these places. I think that would help your cause better..
    Please write about other Indian states too!!

  3. nice clicks, and i m totally agree with this previous comment

  4. Sanjeev WadhwaSeptember 09, 2014

    Great, too good pictures and each pics is so well defined. like a lot your efforts,energy,interest and the knowledge you are gaining over all these period. keep it up, proud of you.

  5. beautiful artwork!!!!! great pictures..
    and totally love the way u write!
    Don't ever stop exploring the small small places.. [i will join when i can :) ]

    they need to be known :D

    1. Thank you Sakshi for the warm comment! Yeah, it's been some time since we went together exploring Delhi, let's team up soon.