With a festive bang!
By Sanuj Hathurusinghe
Ceylon Today Features
We are at the dawn of yet another Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Signs for the upcoming festival are apparent, wherever we look.
New Year treats are being prepared in every household and shops are swarming with people who are busy with their Avurudu shopping. Households prepare themselves and the seasonal calling of the Sri Lankan cuckoo bird (Indian Koel) signals the New Year is not that far away now. As soon as the New Year craze hits us, a special item enters the market. Almost every shop sells them and more often, roadside temporary stalls that are made just to sell them could even be observed. They are fireworks. We all love fireworks, at least some kinds of them. Boys in general, love all types of fireworks, especially, crackers. To many of them the louder the cracker the better. Girls and children might cover their ears when a cracker is about to be set off but would love to hold a sparkler or would look up in awe when a sky rocket is set off.
Fireworks have become an integral part of our Avurudu celebrations in recent years. Almost every household buys them. Some buy them cheap whereas some buy them expensive. Some go for any brand when some buy only famous or most heard of brands. But regardless of the price or the brand of the firework, almost all of them come from one particular area. Most of the fireworks sold island wide are manufactured in Kimbulapitiya.
A year-round production cycle
Many households in Kimbulapitiya are in the business of making fireworks. Fireworks attract best demand during the months of December, January and April. A cracker going off outside the festive seasons is somewhat of a rare occurrence but that does not necessarily mean the manufacturing process is limited to certain months of the year.
Susantha Kumara who is a professional sky rocket manufacturer says that making fireworks is a year round process. "We work almost every day. We started making sky rockets on 01 January and will continue until the 10th of this month. Then we will take the rest of April off and start making them again in May" said Kumara. According to Kumara the demand for fireworks doesn't die down during the off season. There is always some religious festival or a wedding or some event that requires the presence of fireworks. "There is a good demand for fireworks during the months of May and June, every year. Auspicious times are frequent during those months so many weddings and other ceremonies take place during this time period," explained Kumara.
Another reason for many to make them year around is the inability to keep them in store during the off season. "We don't have the facilities to keep them stored. And it is not good to keep them stored for long periods of time. It is risky to do so and any way it is better to use them while freshly made" further added Kumara.
An undying demand
April, especially being the Avurudu season and all, creates much demand for fireworks. Kumara, in his workshop, makes about 7,500 sky rockets a day and all of them are sold out like hot cakes. Lakshitha Aravinda who is another firework manufacturer from Kimbulapitiya is in the business of making not just sky rockets but whistle sky rockets, crackers, sparklers and bambara chakra as well. "In April we make about 6,000 whistle rockets. On other days it is about 4,000 a day. Crackers have the most demand. We make about 15,000 a day. All of them are sold within the day" said Aravinda.
Made to fulfil orders
Almost all the products Kumara and Aravinda manufacture are done so to fulfil orders. All the big names in the firework industry reach out to the likes of Kumara and Aravinda in search of fireworks. "We take orders from companies which give the best rates.
They usually provide the ingredients as well. We make and label them with their tradmarks and hand them over. This season, at the moment, I'm making sky rockets for two companies" said Kumara. Kumara and Aravinda have buyers for their products island wide.
According to Kumara, companies prefer outsourcing their needs for fireworks as it is cost effective and creates less of a hassle.
Otherwise companies have to maintain their own labour force and with them come a whole lot of issues like safety and wages they need to think about. This way the companies don't need to worry about anything and only have to sit back and relax until the orders are fulfilled by the deadlines by the likes of Kumara and Aravinda.
The nitty-gritty stuff
Kumara buys the tubes, the body of a sky rocket, in bulk. Empty tubes are first pressed on one side but not closed completely. A little space is left to insert the fuse later on. Pressed tubes are then packed, pressed side down, in large trays. Powder mixture, specifically made for sky rockets, is then sieved on top. The powder needs to be properly compressed inside the tube. The explosive potential of any cracker depends on how tightly the powder mixture is packed inside.
Kumara uses a stainless steel rod with the exact width of the inside of the tube to hammer the mixture down and compress it.
"You need to give two or three light hammer blows to make it packed tightly. A skilled maker feels the ideal amount of pressure on his hammering hand" said Kumara.
After tightening the mixture inside, the open end is sealed off with a small piece from a mixture of clay and glue. Sealed-off tubes are then left to dry for a couple of hours before the insertion of coconut ekels and labelling. It is Kumara's wife who does the bulk of the labelling and packing back at home. She also is the one who inserts the fuse - gun powder-coated thread, into each sky rocket.
For crackers, it is more or less the same procedure with different mixtures of explosives. Aravinda buys tubes with the clay sealing to make crackers which saves him a lot of time and trouble.
Innovative and evolving
Fire crackers and sky rockets, with the possible inclusion of sparklers, are what basic fireworks are for us Sri Lankans. But the industry is advancing by the year and coming up with new types of fireworks from time to time. "Whistle rockets became a thing in Sri Lanka last year. They made a whistling sound while going up and sparkled but didn't pop. This year they are made to pop too" said Kumara. Whistle rockets have shed off the conventional cardboard tube and have adopted new plastic tubes. Coconut ekels too are replaced by barbeque skewers.
"Most of the companies care only whether the products work or not. They come and set off five chosen randomly and buy the lot if all goes off properly. Every year, it is us makers who come up with different combinations of explosives to make fireworks more colourful and interesting" said Aravinda. "Some makers even tend to keep their mixture recipes a secret," he further added.
Risky but profitable
The venture has its fare share of risks and dangers. Mixtures of explosives such as Potassium Chlorate, Sodium Nitrate, Sulphur and Aluminium possess health hazards such as being allergic to skin and causing respiratory problems. "Wearing gloves and masks is an option but you really can't work efficiently with them. You kind of have to get your hands dirty in this line of work" said Kumara. Ingredients in whistle rockets are said to be allergic to the skin so Aravinda and his workers wear gloves while making them.
The risk of everything going off in flames within an instance is ever present. It has happened a number of times before as well.
Kumara says that many of those previous incidents could've been avoided if the supervisor was vigilant enough. "When there's a huge demand, makers tend to hire extra hands, some of them are not that skilled. Many fires have broken out before because some worker was smoking in the working area" said Kumara.
"Skilled ones are needed, especially when making whistle rockets. The mixture is extra flammable and the slightest spark created while hammering to press it down could create fire. Only a skilled professional knows how much pressure needs to be applied" said Aravinda. According to him, some fires in the past were caused by electric short circuits. Some even were caused by excessive heat in the area.
Even with all the risks and dangers included, Kumara and Aravinda continue making fireworks because it is a profitable venture.
"More profits could be made if you invest more of your own money. Sometimes we borrow loan money to invest and then the profits gets slim after the loans are paid" said Kumara.
"Business is good, especially this year. But the profit solely depends on how much you are willing to sweat" expressed Aravinda.
(Pix by Rajitha Jagoda)
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