As millions in Maharashtra observe the largest festival of Ganesh Chaturthi in the state, it is difficult to believe that the celebrations, at least in its current form, are just over a century old.
The Hindu festival in honour of the elephant-headed god is primarily celebrated in homes and in public by local community groups or mandals who install images of Ganesha in their homes and pandals.
Ganesh Chaturthi was observed after the Maratha empire was set up by Chhatrapati Shivaji in the 16th century and it was an important day in the festival calendar of the Peshwas, the prime ministers of the Maratha rulers, but was largely confined to individual homes.
In 1892, one of the stalwarts of India’s freedom movement, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, reinvented the festival as a rallying ground for nationalists. The streets of Mumbai and Pune turned into venues for the 10-day celebrations and huge gatherings of devotees.
“Tilak channelised the patriotic spirit by bringing the household Ganapati out onto the streets of Pune. He was able to bring a feeling of unity among the masses against the British through the festive fervour as opposed to a political gathering that the British would not allow,” Tukaram Raut, treasurer of Brihanmumbai Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Samanvay Samiti (BSGSS), said.
A year later Tilak met with a number of freedom fighters and progressive thinkers in what was known as Bombay then and decided to bring the festival to the city where the Keshavi Naik Chawl Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Mandal, the first and oldest mandal came into being at Girgaum in 1893.
“Within a decade, the spirit of the festival spread like wildfire with mandals coming up in small pockets at Dadar, Parel and Girgaum. People from different religions finally had 10 days to interact with each other without the British beating down on them,” Raut said adding that from then on, independence and nationalism became central themes during festival days all the way up to 1947.
“There was a time when the festival meant everything to the people because their freedom depended on it.”
Between 1940 and 1950, while the festival rituals continued to be simple, themes related to the first and second World War were a sign of a progressive society.
According to members of Keshavi Naik Chawl Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Mandal, the festival themes during the early half of the 20th century roped in everyone irrespective of their caste or class.
“In a first, cultural events like dance dramas, musical nights, and religious gatherings were organised and the British did not interfere,” Jeetender Clother, the mandal’s secretary, said.
“Bombay had little more than 10 lakh people during the inauguration of our mandal. Idols were made only from mud, collected from rivers, lakes and the main idea was to spread awareness about a free India. Public forum debates were organised and leaders from different parts of the city participated to silently aid the freedom struggle,” Clother added.
Post Independence, the festival took a political turn as Hindu culture was the primary theme for devotees visiting each mandal, president of BSGSS Naresh Dahibhavkar said.
“Themes such as Mahabharata, Ramayana and other stories from the Bhagavad Gita were enacted through plays, essays, drawing competitions, and dance programs during all 11 days of the festival. However, some mandals did put forth themes such as problems regarding plagues, droughts and issues faced by the agrarian society,” he said.
- 1892 – One of the stalwarts of the freedom movement, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, brought a revival of the patriotic spirit of India by brining the household Ganapati out onto the streets of Pune
- 1893 – Tilak decided to bring the festival to then Bombay, where the first and oldest mandal — Keshavi Naik Chawl Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav mandal — was set up at Girgaum in 1893
- 1890-1920 – Cultural events like dance dramas, musical nights, and religious gatherings were organised with central themes such as independence and nationalism
- 1940-50 – While the festival rituals continued to be simple, themes related to the first and second World War were depicted during the festival
- 1960s – The festival took a political turn post-independence, with increased focus on the Hindu culture — Mahabharata and Ramayana were enacted in plays, and reflected in essay writing and drawing competitions in addition to dance programmes over the 11 days of the festival
- 1970-80 – Black-and-white war films were the highlight of the festivals. Themes revolved around the China and Pakistan wars, and nationalism
- 1982 – An umbrella body for mandals was formed after pressure from the state government regarding increased conflicts between different groups. First count of total Sarvajanik mandals in the Bombay was 1,340 up to Mahim (suburbs did not exist)
- 1995 – Count goes up to 3,000 Sarvajanik mandals
- 2008 – Number increases to 5,000. By 2012, there are 6,500 mandals and 11,756 by 2016.
Political parties have also invested in the local mandals in the form of huge donations and sponsorships for various programmes like orchestra or prizes for local programmes. The reason being the youths of these mandals wield a lot of influence in their areas and also play a crucial role during campaigning.
The Shiv Sena used the festival to expand its reach. From the 1970s onwards the party dominated the festival. Ganesh mandals were formed in every area and Sena office bearers led by Shakha Prabhu (unit chief) occupied important posts in these mandals. Donations were collected mostly by threatening the local business communities.
“The Sena used this festival to mobilise the people and it really helped them to gain a foothold among the Maharashtrians,” B Venkatesh Kumar, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS), said.
The situation can be gauged from the fact that every top leader in the Sena had in his formative years headed a local Ganesh mandals.
However, this began to change when Congress-Nationalist Congress Party leaders started getting assertive in recent times. The real change happened in 2005-06 when the Sena saw the defection of two top leaders Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray. Supporters of both the leaders started making inroads into these mandals.
The BJP, which had hardly any significant presence in the Ganesh festivals, is now making itself highly visible with an eye on the 2017 BMC polls. The city unit headed by Ashish Shelar is currently being seen in all major mandals with banners and posters of the party. Shelar has instructed his cadres to make their presence felt in all major events taking place in the city in the run-up to the polls.
As political parties competed to claim the festival, the celebrations became bigger. In 1982, the first survey of all Sarvajanik mandals revealed a total of 1,340 in the city alone. By 1995, the numbers increased to 3,000 and crossed 5,000 in 2008.
In 2012, the numbers went up to 6,500 but the major jump was seen in the last four years with 11,756 mandals currently in Mumbai.
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