04 September 2008

Ganpati Bappa Moraya!

We often reduce some things in life to token symbols. Ganesh Festival? Oh – it’s a great time to eat modaks, check out the decorations in the city (and check out guys / gals in the process ;-)). Beware of those tough-looking guys that come to collect ‘vargani’ (donation) before the festival. So much noise – when will they learn? And yes, the huge traffic when the final immersion processions. But beyond the token symbols there is so much more.

In the good old days, the Ganesh festival was purely a family affair. Records reveal that it was celebrated even during the reigns of Satwahana, Rashtrakuta and Chalukya. (Who are the Chalukyas, you say? Never mind – bottom line: old times.) There used to be similar celebrations during Peshwa times, Lord Ganapati being the family deity of the Peshwas. The celebration would commence on the first day of the month of Bhadrapada and would go on for ten days (anyway we Indians don’t need an excuse to celebrate, do we?).

Years later it became a practice to end the festivities on 'Anant Chaturdashi' with the immersion of the Ganapati idol in water. The celebrations were universally popular with rich and poor alike. The poor were given sweets and clothes (a primary reason why it became popular with them). Brahmins were fed on delicious meals (lucky chaps!!). On the concluding day, the idol of Lord Ganesh was carried in a beautifully decorated palanquin in a ceremonial procession and taken to the river for immersion.

Lokmanya Tilak took this private festival, turned it into a public celebration and lent a new image to it (makeover in today’s lingo). His noble objective was to create a cohesive unit of people irrespective of caste, creed and class who could commemorate this great festival in its true spirit. Tilak also had another objective – to mobilize public opinion against the British. The Ganesh festival was a great platform to raise social/political issues and awaken the people. With time this festival greatly increased in significance and relevance. It has now become an integral part of not only Maharashtra but the Indian consciousness as well.

As mentioned earlier, social education was one of the main themes of the festival. So the earlier programs undertaken as part of the festivities had lectures from eminent personalities. These speeches were meant to educate the masses on national problems and songs to inspire patriotism.

Today there are no speeches (“Thank God!!”). Earlier the Elephant God was regaled with devotional songs that used to come from the heart and touch the soul. Now He gets to listen to “fast songs” that come from the body and touch only the body. “Kajra re!!” goes one Pandal. “Dhoom machale !!” says another. “Save me”, says Ganapati Bappa!!

Time has wrought more changes. Lavishness has increased in all areas – spending, pandals, processions, size of the idols, etc. These bring with them their own problems. The increasing noise pollution caused due to blaring loudspeakers of the innumerable pandals cause distress, especially to the young and elderly. The ever-increasing size and height of the Ganesh idols creates problems at immersion time, not to mention wrecking havoc with the hygeine of the rivers .

A very important feature of the Ganesh festival is the “pandals” (covered platforms with decorations) that are erected by many “mandals” (organizations) throughout Pune city. (Nowadays, there is a lot of stress on eco-friendly Ganesh decorations - out with the Thermocol). These pandals often have scenes depicted in them along with a short story or skit being performed. These skits are often historical / mythological in nature and are performed by mechanized statues. One pandal may show the “Draupadi Vastraharan” scene, another a story from Shivaji Maharaj’s life, a third one may show a scene from the Ramayana. Still others show themes that highlight current social problems or issues. A lot of thought and effort goes into these pandal decorations. People flock to see them from all over Maharashtra, and beyond. You even have foreign tourists coming to experience the grandeur of the Ganeshotsav.

Previously, the dancing during the festival used to be only in tune to drums and using the “lezim” (a wooden stick having mini cymbals embedded that clash together and make music). But now there is not-so-religious dancing by inebriated people dancing to the latest Bollywood numbers.

All is not lost, however. Even today some people retain the original meaning of the festival. Many pandals contribute to social causes. The religious fervor that brings people from all over is still intact. People of various religions celebrate the Ganesh festival with equal spirit.
When the ‘tashas’ (kettle shaped shallow drums) start beating, and the tempo reaches a fever pitch, if you allow yourself to be swept away by the music, you can actually feel uplifted. At such moments, there is only you and Ganapati bappa. Nothing else matters.

I was introduced to the many facets of this festival only after coming to Pune city. The different pandals decorated innovatively each year, the variety of sweets prepared and also the processions carried out during immersion of the Ganesh idols. I particularly liked the idea of keeping the children of the house busy with the different decorations. There are Ganesh decoration contests in our society and Ganesh idol-making contests. Older children get involved in the different mandals for decoration. Only the other day, my maid informed me that her teenage son was part of 1 such mandal and was up until the wee hours of the morning decorating the Ganesh idol. Its a neat way to keep children out of mischief and also instill in them the spiritual and traditional values of our rich culture!

Ganeshotsav has begun for this year with the usual pomp and show. Bappa, I welcome you with open heart and arms!

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