By Ramjaane Sep. 15, 2018
The Ganesh festival started as a well-intentioned social movement, but has now turned into a game of political one-upmanship and misplaced pride. Now every suburb has a Raja with a hefty insurance cover and the size of every idol is a reflection of the corporator’s ego.
Maharashtrians are a spartan community for most of the year – our festivals are austere, humble affairs: All we need to celebrate Gudi Padwa is a stick and a pot. On Makar Sankranti, we distribute ladoos made of sesame seeds and jaggery, proving that even our festive sweets are simpler than a Punjabi lassi and healthy enough to find a place in any woke organic café. Frankly, we don’t want the “showshaa”.
But there comes a time every year when we lose our usual Zen, don’t-give-a-damn outlook to the beats of dhol-tasha. That time is Ganesh Chaturthi.
Ganpati brings out a different side of our community. It’s the only time our “ughich kashala” attitude takes a backseat. We actually smile. We leave our stinginess behind, and serve modaks by the fistful. We drop our laziness, put a pause on our cribbing; we actually appreciate the efforts of others. Try getting the ageing Marathi mama to do that on Christmas and it’ll probably be met with, “Hi jagaa aahe ka jhad lavaychi? (Is this a place to put a tree?)”
One reason I suspect we feel so passionately about Ganesh Chaturthi is that though it is a festival for everyone, we believe it belongs to us Maharashtrians – unlike Holi, the annual grope fest that Bollywood has championed, or Diwali, which belongs to advertising. I often wonder why this is the only Marathi festival that everyone has taken to. Much like Christmas or New Years — which used to be the sole preserve of Bandra and some corners of Orlem in Malad and Amboli in Andheri — Ganpati is now celebrated from Bhendi Bazaar to Borivali with just as much gusto.
For 10 days every year, Bappa and his devotees take over the city. Unfortunately, today, the one way to announce your arrival in the festival circuit is to send young boys on the streets on bikes, riding triple seat without helmets, licences, and preferably cat-calling. Those not riding are dancing. The other way is a public procession, that turns a five-minute drive into a 45-minute crawl. What a beautiful tribute to the fact that Ganesha is a remover of obstacles.
Ganesha’s story of being created out of mud, also provides some food for thought, especially now that Plaster of Paris idols pollute the sea every year.
When I look around at the melee it has become, the Ganesh festival is probably the biggest example of something well-intentioned turning into a disaster. Lokmanya Tilak once changed the festival from a private celebration to a grand public event to bridge the gap between Brahmins and non-Brahmins. This attempt to unify has turned into an ear-splitting ruckus. What started as a social movement has turned into political one-upmanship and misplaced pride. Now every suburb has a Raja – Andheri cha Raja, Kurla cha Raja – completely missing the point that if everyone is a king, by implication, nobody is.
And the size of every idol is a reflection of the local corporator’s ego, with rich pandals boasting of insurance covers running into crores.
Today, every gully of Mumbai is encroached upon by a pandal. There are pandals on service roads, under the flyover, some even in the middle of a main road, catapulting the city into complete chaos. Again ironic, considering Ganesha is the God of Wisdom.
There’s plenty to learn from Bappa. It’s an old legend that in his big belly, Ganesha digests all the good and bad, and is all-forgiving, a lesson for Mumbaikars who often don’t let go of grudges. Ganesha’s story of being created out of mud, also provides some food for thought, especially now that Plaster of Paris idols pollute the sea every year. The visarjan itself is a lesson in detachment – no matter how much you love something, you need to learn to let go, something we all can learn today in an age of a cornucopia of everyday addictions. But who has time for any deep thought or any thought at all when you have to drink and dance to “Chikni Chameli” all the way to Chowpatty.
Ganesh Chaturthi, a beloved festival of us Maharashtrians, today is celebrated with as much enthusiasm in Gujarati, Marwari, Sindhi, and Punjabi homes. It’s only fair — all traditions need an update and morph into newer variants. But somewhere, as Ganesh puja became a trend, the sanctity and simplicity of it is lost. The no-fuss decor of marigold flowers and mango leaves, the simple home-cooked ukadiche modak as prasad, and the traditional aratis have turned into folklore.
Today Ganpati comes with abs, riding a motorcycle. But I long for the Bappa of my childhood: With a belly, an undir mama (mouse) by his side.