NEW DELHI: The pavement is lined with giant Ravana heads in festive pinks, yellows and blues.
It's the first Dussehra celebration after more than two years of Covid but the road to recovery is slow and difficult, say the artisans who craft the effigies that form the centrepiece of festivities.
Two days ahead of Dussehra, when effigies of the demon king, his brother Kumbhkaran and son Meghnad go up in flames in a symbol of the triumph of good over evil, Delhi's Titarpur village is distinctly festive with colourful effigies ready to be shipped across the country.
Scratch the surface, however, and the despondency is evident. Things are better but a far cry from what they used to be.
"Some years ago, I would make as many as 100 effigies for the festival. This year I am making only 21. With neither margin nor demand, there is no reason or motivation for me to increase the count," 73-year-old Mahendra Pal, who has been in the business of making effigies for the past 45 years, told PTI.
Not so long ago, the street in west Delhi would be teeming with artisans busy making the tall, intricately woven bamboo frames a month before the festival and buyers looking for the best offer.
Torsos, limbs and demon heads would be carefully painted and then assembled on frames packed with explosives. But the pandemic, increasing levels of pollution and the ban on crackers have meant that the demand for the effigies has steadily dipped.
The street is quieter and the crowds are thinner. The effigies, height ranging from three feet to 50 feet, take almost six to seven hours to complete and cost around Rs 500-Rs 700 per foot. There are just not as many takers as earlier.
The "effigy community" has slashed production from almost 60-100 pieces per vendor in pre-Covid times to 20-30 pieces now.
Pal, who works as a taxi driver in Panipat, Haryana, takes satisfaction in the fact that he'll be able to make at least some money and get to paint his home, a task pending for the last couple of years.
"Yes, it is much better than the Covid pandemic when I could barely sell any effigies other than the few I made to be sent to Ayodhya. But sales and demand are just not enough for me to be really happy," he explained.
Many artisans, sometimes referred to as "Ravanawallas", are making peace with the situation.
"Market ka kuch pata nahi hai iss saal (We are not sure about the demand in the market this year). Then there is also the fear of a ban on celebrations or crackers so most people thought it is better to prepare fewer effigies only as we no longer have the appetite to bear losses," Mahinder Kumar said as he painstakingly applied adhesive on fluorescent paper and put it out to dry.
Kumar, who is from Delhi and works in a shop selling Ayurvedic medicines, said he got many queries but not enough upfront bookings. He has managed to sell only eight effigies, put together in a makeshift shop littered with paper, wood and bamboo.
Many of the artisans are daily wage labourers from Rajasthan, Haryana and Bihar who come to the capital to make an extra buck or more. This year, many of them said, they won't manage to make more than Rs 8,000-Rs 10,000 in the season.
In their heyday, many of these vendors delivered their effigies across the world, including to the United States, Canada, Japan and South Africa.
Dular from Begusarai in Bihar is impatiently waiting for the times to get better but doesn't know if they ever will.
Selling his wares at Beriwala Bagh, a little distance from Titarpur, the 45-year-old said he has so far made 30 effigies -- exactly half of what he made in 2018.
Dular, who works at a garment shop back in his hometown, dismissed news reports claiming "high demand" of effigies this year as "false".
All he wants now is to sell all his effigies.
"Jhoot bolte hai news wale (people writing such news stories are lying). There is no pent up demand or anything. I had made 60 effigies back in 2018. Had there been such a huge demand this time, I would have created more effigies," he said.
After two years of lockdown, it is a happy Dussehra, but maybe next year will be happier. For the "Ravanawallahs" of Titarpur, that's the fervent hope.