Have you ever taken a flight on a Diwali night in India? The country looks like a ball of fire from the sky. Colourful parachutes, dazzling fireworks and shining crackers give the skyline a completely different look on that day. And not only the sky, this spectacle can also be seen from every rooftop on Diwali.
That said, environmentalists and other authorities have been appealing to revellers to celebrate Diwali responsibly and minimise the use of fireworks to avoid air and noise pollution. And many responsible citizens over the years have cut down or completely given up on indulging in fireworks on Diwali. So much so, that even a large number of firecracker makers have quit the profession over the years.
Fireworks have been part of Diwali celebrations since time immemorial. While China-made firecrackers have invaded markets in the last few years, traditional India-made firecrackers have had for years amused revellers. From the traditional charkha, to the anar to the sky rocket to the sparkling electric wires, the traditional India-made crackers have an appeal of their own. But have you ever wondered how they work? What goes behind making a sky lantern float in the air or how does a rocket launched from a small bottle goes up hundreds of metres before dismantling in a floral design or how does an anar spread out from a small pot into a sparkling shower of fire? Sunday POST spoke to a few firecracker makers in the state to know the science that goes into making these crackers work.
Manoranjan Bhadra from Charichhaka, Kakatpur, is a known name in the cracker-making business. He was into the profession for more than two decades but quit making firecrackers lately. The veteran says, “I used to make firecrackers for marriage ceremonies and Diwali, but given the increasing level of pollution I decided to stop making firecrackers a few years ago. I learned the art of making firecrackers from my uncle. There were no restrictions then.”
“Firecrackers have been around for more than 100 years now. The main ingredient that goes into them is black powder (also known as gunpowder). It is packed in a tight paper along with a fuse to ignite the powder. Black powder comprises charcoal, sulphur and potassium nitrate. The composition and process is different for each variety of firecrackers,” he adds.
Manoranjan says, he excelled in making Talaphotoka. “This variant is still a hit with youngsters. The process of making talaphotoka is very intricate,” says Manoranjan.
First, dry palm leaves are cut into long straight pieces and then black powder is placed in the fold of the leaves along with the fuse, which is made of brown paper. The quality depends on the number of folds and the size of the palm leaves. “The sound quality of the cracker depends on the number of folds. The more the number of folds and the tighter it is packed, the louder is the sound. The sound is not as loud as that of bombs and it is also safer compared with other noise-generating firecrackers,” he adds.
Sanatana Bhoi, a firecracker maker from Bhingarpur, Bhubaneswar, quit the profession after being in the profession for 30 years. Sanatana excelled in making sparklers, although he regrets that China-made firecrackers are fast taking over the market. He says that sparklers are one quite unlike other firecrackers and is a hit with people from all age groups.
“A sparkler burns over a long period of time (up to a minute) and produces extremely bright and showery light. There are two types of sparklers available in the market, one is paper made and the other is made with copper rods. I used to make sparklers with paper, which was quite popular. A lot of components like black powder, oxidiser, iron or steel powder go into making sparklers. The crackling sound that comes out is because of the iron or steel used in it. Binders are used in sparklers that are made with copper rods. Else the mixture is put inside a tube made of paper and then attached to a wooden stick. The bright sparks that come out are from the burning of bits of metal dust like aluminium, iron, steel, zinc, or magnesium,” he says.
Cuttack-based Madanmohan Rana was a star in his hey days. He excelled in making aerial fireworks. “When you think of fireworks, aerial crackers come to our mind first. These go up in the sky and explode. My handmade aerial firecrackers sold like hot cake during the marriage session and on Diwali. The crackers that I made had to be launched from a mortar. Mortar is a short pipe made of paper. It is then packed with black powder and has a lifting charge that explodes inside the pipe when ignited and launches the cracker. When the lifting charge fires to launch the cracker, it lights the cracker’s fuse. The fuse burns while the cracker rises to a certain height and then ignites the bursting charge so that it explodes in the air,” says Madanmohan.
“Gunpowder-based aerial crackers essentially function as two-stage rockets. The first stage of an aerial cracker is a tube containing gunpowder that is lit with a fuse. The only difference is that the gunpowder is used to propel the firework into the air instead of making it explode inside the tube. There is a hole at the bottom of the firecracker, which helps the expanding nitrogen and carbon dioxide gases to launch the firework into the sky. The second stage of the aerial cracker is a package of gunpowder, oxidisers and colorants, “he adds.
Multi-break shell crackers
A new variety, multi-break shell crackers have gained popularity within a short span of time. This cracker comprises multiple shells. These shells are placed inside a container, which burst in two or three phases. These crackers contain star-shaped sprinklers in different colours and compositions, which create a bright light.
“Some of these shells also contain explosives designed to crackle in the sky or whistles that explode outward with the stars,” says Madanmohan, adding, “Multi-break shell crackers can also be made with a single shell containing multiple sections. The sections in the shell are ignited using different fuses. The bursting of one section ignites the next. The shells must be assembled in such a way that each section explodes in sequence to produce a distinct separate effect.”
One of the most common Diwali fireworks, rocket continues to appeal both the young and old despite the invasion of China-made crackers. Padampur in Cuttack was once attracted huge footfall only for its rockets. Bhagirathi Jena, who used to make rockets, says, “People today prefer the Chinese variants and we have been left with no choice but to shut shop. Moreover, the price of raw materials is also increasing. I was known for making rockets. Making rockets is an intricate process and requires an experienced hand or else the cracker can lead to accidents when it catches fire,” says Bhagirathi.
A rocket has four parts — head, tail, body and fuse. The top part is cone shaped and lighter than the body. However, it should be hard so that it can reduce the air friction during its journey in the air. “At times parachutes or effects are placed in this cone. Effect is that part of the firework which makes the amazing display once the firework is safely high in the air. A rocket can have either a single effect or multiple effects, packed in separate compartments, firing off in sequence, ignited by a relatively slow-burning, time-delay fuse, which works its way upward once ignited by the main fuse. The body of the rocket contains gunpowder that propels it into the sky. Stick, the tail of the rocket is a long wooden or plastic stick protruding from the bottom that ensures the firework shoots in a straight line,” he adds.
The stick plays dual role. First, it helps the firework go where you intend to instead to making it fly in random direction. The length of the stick is proportional to the weight and size of the body. Fuse is the section that launches the main part of the firework and ignites effects at the cone. The fuse comprises a piece of paper or fabric that you light with a match, which propels the rocket into the sky. The other fuse in the rocket then ignites the effect which explodes into parachutes, stars or other colourful balls. The stars burn to produce bright sparks of light that we see in the sky. The explosion spreads the stars in all directions, which creates a beautiful display.
The support staff
Much like the hard labour that goes into making firecrackers, a lot goes into arranging the raw material. Diwali is also a time for those involved in the ancillary industries to make some quick money.
Rabhunath Moharana from Bhinagarpur, Bhubaneswar, who used to supply earthen ghadis to firecracker makers, says “Every year I used to make more than 30,000 earthen ghadis of different shapes and sizes. You can’t make the anar without these ghadis, which have to be stuffed with gunpowder. However, the craze for anar is fading fast with Chinese variants.”
Gobinda Chandra Bhoi from Sakhigopal, was one of biggest suppliers of palm leaves and bamboo sticks to the cracker manufacturers. “The demand for palm leaves goes up every year before Diwali because it is the most important ingredient in the Odisha-made talaphotoka,” he says.
Eco-Friendly Green Crackers
Given that climate change and global warming have become a global concern, environmentalists and the government have been urging citizens to curtail usage of fireworks and celebrate Diwali responsibly by minimising air and sound pollution. Keeping that in mind, Government of India recently launched a set of crackers that helps in reducing emissions by 30 per cent, while producing the same level of light and sound effects of traditional fireworks.
The new set of crackers, which comprise popular sound-emitting fireworks like flowerpots, pencils, chakkars and sparklers, has been developed by a consortium of eight laboratories under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) led by Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute.
The project adopted a two-pronged approach. While one stream of activity was focussed on improving the traditional crackers through reduction in the level of barium nitrate, the second aimed at replacing barium nitrate with a more benign potassium nitrate.
The new set of crackers will carry a prominent green logo so that they can be differentiated from the conventional ones. Further, it will also carry a QR code for monitoring. One can get access to all information related to the product including the chemicals and the process used by scanning of the code.
Gunpowder was invented in the 10th or 11th century in China. It was earlier dubbed as “devil’s distillate,” as it attracted onlookers with flash and bang.
It is believed that gunpowder technology was brought to India and Europe from China by the Arabs.
Fireworks had begun to become part of grand scale Diwali celebrations by rulers during 18th century. A historical account by Rai Bahadur DB Parasnis in Marathi, translating to English fireworks, mentions the arrival of an English pyrotechnician in India in 1790 AD, who first impressed the British in Calcutta.
The first fireworks factory in India was set up in Kolkata in the 19th century. Soon after Independence, Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu emerged as India’s firecracker hub.
Unlike in the colonial and medieval eras, with the increase in the population and economic growth of the Indian middleclass and with ready supply coming in from the domestic industry, bursting firecrackers increased tremendously.
- Gunpowder, which is basically 75% potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal and 10% sulphur, is at the heart of firecrackers.
- Fireworks get their colour from metal compounds (also known as metal salts) packed inside.
- Metals used to give colour effects:
- Magnesium, aluminium and titanium are used to give a white effect
- Strontium carbonate is used for a red effect
- Calcium chloride is used for an orange effect
- Sodium nitrate is used to give yellow effect
- Barium chloride is used to create a green effect
- Copper chloride is used to give blue effect
- Strontium and calcium are used to create a purple effect