Sep 11, 2010
On such occasions like this,
All time and nonsense scorning,
Nothing shall come amiss,
And we won’t go home till morning.
-John B. Buckstone, English comedian (1802-1879).
That is the spirit that moves Mumbaikars from the time Lord Ganesh is installed in their homes and neibhourhood on September 11 and immersed on various days thereafter. Two Hindu festivals – Lord Ganesh and Deepavali – are celebrated within a month of each other. Mumbai being the commercial capital of India, Deepavali is celebrated with elan, specially by the business and the upper classes. But nothing beats the Ganesh festival for the involvement of the populace across the board and its spiritual, emotional, cultural and even political dimensions. If Deepavali is a celebration focussed in the urban setting, Ganesh festival is a mass movement embracing the whole of Maharashtra with Mumbai taking the lead.
When Mumbai’s famed textile industry was shining, mill workers in their lakhs made a beeline, with goodies for their families, to their native villages in the Konkan belt to celebrate Ganesh festival. The near eclipse of the textile industry and the consequent mass unemployment has now reduced the scale and fervour of Ganesh festivals celebrations in Maharashtra’s hinterland where the symbolic guddeepas might flicker in the dark nights.
But, the cities like Mumbai and Pune come vibrantly alive for the thirteen-day celebration from the installation of Ganesh statues till their immersion in stages. Thousands of Ganesh mandals mushroom for the season. There is great lot of competition among the mandals based on large residential colonies, streets, lanes, wadis and even chawls. Subscriptions (vargani) are collected in the respective watersheds of mandals and pandals are erected on public maidans, streets and halls. Some of the settings for the Ganesh statues mimic and compete with historical forts and palaces. There is big money in the movement and politicians and underworld dons compete with their patronage to win the loyalty of Ganesh devotees.
The political angle of Ganesh festival in Maharashtra is a legacy left behind by the stalwarts of our freedom struggle like Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He used Ganesh festival to whip up national fervour among the masses in aid of the freedom struggle. Beyond the political patronising of Ganesh festival is Mumbai’s ubiquitous underworld which finances some of the biggest pandals costing multimillion rupees.
Thus, if Tilak projected Ganesh festival as a uniting factor against alien rule, it has now become a subtle dividing factor. Like Lenin said, religion is the opiate of the masses, vested interests are turning Ganesh festival into opiate of the masses for their own ends.
Beyond this is the show and glitz is the common man’s devotion to Lord Ganesh. Even poor people from the sprawling chawls of Mumbai purchase token statues and carry them home, on their head or hand carts, with devotion. The larger ones, some fifty feet high, have lorries and trailers for transport. While installation is quiet and orderly, in many cases immersion is pure chaos. Though Mumbai is surrounded by water, there are limited immersion points like Girgaum Chowpatty (at north end of Marine Drive), Shivaji Park Chowpatty and Gateway of India. So, on immersion days, specially on the final day, the north-south arterial roads are choked with mass of humanity on its one-way march to bid farewell to their Lord Ganesh with their chant: Ganapathy Bappa Morya; Pudlya varsa laukar eya.
The police try to cope with the massive processions by diversion of traffic, setting up watch towers, floodlighting the beaches and providing rescue and emergency medical services. Lost children are restored to parents. Drowning devotees are saved. Motorists fill their tanks with extra petrol to cope with stop-start crawling for hours.
There is an underbelly or flip side to Ganesh festival celebration, beyond the underworld factor already noted. The surging mass of humanity is great opportunity for pickpockets, chain snatchers and bottom pinchers. When community or mandal Ganesh statues are installed in public places, bands of youth keep night vigil in the pandals. To keep out of falling asleep they pass time playing cards.
The involvement of politics and underworld has generated some negative reaction. The Ganesh mandals often play loud popular music using amplifiers, causing disturbance to senior citizens and ailing patients. Of late, environmentalists have come on the scene decrying the pollution caused by the immersed statues. These, made of plaster of paris, clay, paints and chemicals are non-biodegradable and hence cause pollution in water bodies. Ever ready to meet a felt need, a city based organisation has come out with waste paper pulp based raw material – a sort of paper mache – which easily disintegrates with water.
If this comes into vogue, it is a long journey for Lord Ganesh from the heavy but easily breakable clay to fairly unbreakable light plaster of paris to still lighter water soluble paper mache. Is Lord Ganesh on his way to lose weight as is fashionable these days? Heavy or light, Ganesh will remain the top draw among Maharashtrian masses, specially Mumbaikars.
John B. Monteiro, author and journalist, is editor of his website www.welcometoreason.com (Interactive Cerebral challenger).
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