Diwali: The association of firecrackers and Deepavali is an act of marketing success that rivals De Beers’ successful association of diamonds and love. This marketing miracle was the result of two business geniuses from Sivakasi: Ayya Nadar and his brother Shanmuga Nadar.
There is no description of using fireworks to celebrate Deepavali anytime before the Mughal period. During the Mughal era, Deepavali was celebrated primarily using lamps; and, to a very limited extent restricted to the Gujarat area, illuminative fireworks. (On a side note, Aurangzeb banned the public exhibition of both lamps and fireworks for Diwali in 1667.) After the Mughals, for much of the British rule, the stringent Explosives Act restricted the manufacture and sale of the raw materials used to create fireworks.
In 1923, Ayya Nadar and Shanmuga Nadar planted the seed that would grow to become the phenomenon that is Diwali fireworks today. Having migrated to Calcutta in search of their fortunes, and having found their fortunes working in a match factory there, they returned to their native Sivakasi and established a match factory. In 1940, the Explosives Act was amended, making the manufacture of a certain class of fireworks legal. The Nadar brothers seized the opportunity and in 1940, created the first fireworks factory in Sivakasi.
The Nadar brothers worked hard to associate Deepavali with fireworks, and their nationwide presence from the match industry gave them a platform to do so. The fireworks industry in Sivakasi grew by leaps and bounds, and by 1980, there were 189 factories in Sivakasi alone, manufacturing fireworks and supplying them all over the country.
Today, for many people, Deepavali and fireworks are synonymous with each other – but this connection is no more ancient than 1940.
No fad can grow exponentially without leaving a bloody trail behind it. When De Beers made diamond rings de rigueur for engagement and marriage ceremonies, they lit the spark of ravenous consumerism that is today responsible for ecological destruction and political devastation in countries like Congo, Angola, Liberia and Ivory Coast, which shows no sign of stopping. Likewise, the fireworks industry in Sivakasi was responsible for child labor, occupational death and disability, and fueling caste tensions in its hometown; and it leaves a legacy of noise, smoke, pollution, and a terrifying day for babies and animals all over the country.
Deepavali is the festival of lights and lighting a few lamps is all the celebration that is needed for this amazing festival. When you buy and burst crackers on this day, all you are doing is proclaiming to the world that you, too, have been successfully conned by the scam orchestrated in 1940 by the Nadar brothers. There is no pride, honor or spiritual reward in that.