& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, September 07, 2013

A city & its festival

Bombay will turn into a bride for the next 10 days as it celebrates the Ganapati festival.

It’s a celebration that has come to define the city both negatively – crass, commercial, loud and gaudy, and positively – bringing about community camaraderie, remembering the values of freedom, independence, self-reliance, and rising above casteism.  

These days, Ganapati celebrations are held across India, most notably in Hyderabad, but it’s Bombay that really takes the festival to a different level.

Bombay’s identification with the festival is a bit surprising considering when it was started in 1893 by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, it was held in three venues in Poona and only one in Bombay.

But students of history will agree that Bombay was known to frequently steal Poona’s thunder in the late 19th century. For instance, the first session of the Indian National Congress launched by Allan Octavio Hume was to be held in Poona in 1885, but had to be moved to Bombay because of the sudden outbreak of the plague in Poona.

Tilak started the public celebration of the festival in 1893 largely to resuscitate his dwindling political fortunes.  As the leader of orthodox Hindus, he had met a series of political reversals – the biggest being the passage of the age of consent bill by the English governor Sir Andrew Scoble, raising the marriageable age for girls from 10 to 12.

Historian B. R. Nanda, tracing the uneasy relationship between the moderates and the extremist elements of the Indian national movement in the 19th century has observed, “Pherozeshah Mehta, Dinshaw Wacha, and indeed the entire Bombay group of moderates had a lively distrust of Tilak. Its origins lay partly in ideological and partly in temperamental differences. For at least fifteen years there had been a sort of cold war, which hindered not only mutual understanding, but even mutual comprehension between the Congress establishment in India – of which Pherozeshah Mehta was the virtual chief – and Tilak.”

In the first year, the Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav was held at three centres in Pune and at the Keshavji Naik chawl, Girgaum in Bombay. It was widely perceived as directed against the Muslims of Bombay. However, A year later, In October 1894, the English acting commissioner of the central division of Mumbai, commenting on the festival wrote to his seniors: "I must confess that my convictions lead to me to support the view widely entertained in Poona by the more respectable natives that the agitation fomented by the Deccan Brahmins is directed in reality not against the Muslims but against the government."

To read about the history of that tumultuous era, click here.
Many writers have described this festival and Bombay’s unique relationship with it. And none has done it better than Salman Rushdie. Here are two passages from his two best novels: Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh.

“Our Bombay, Padma! It was very different then, there were no night-clubs or pickle factories or Oberoi-Sheraton Hotels or movie studios; but the city grew at breakneck speed, acquiring a cathedral and an equestrian statue of the Mahratta warrior-king Sivaji which (we used to think) came to life at night and galloped awesomely through the city streets-right along Marine Drive! On Chowpatty sands! Past the great houses on Malabar Hill, round Kemp's Corner, giddily along the sea to Scandal Point! And yes, why not, on and on, down my very own Warden Road, right alongside the segregated swimming pools of Breach Candy, right up to huge Mahalaxmi Temple and the old Willingdon Club…

As for Mumbadevi – she’s not so popular these days, having been replaced by elephant-headed Ganesh in the people's affections. The calendar of festivals reveals her decline: Ganesh – ‘Ganpati Baba’ – has his day of Ganesh Chaturthi, when huge processions are 'taken out' and march to Chowpatty bearing plaster effigies of the god, which they hurl into the sea. Ganesh's day is a rain-making ceremony, it makes the monsoon possible, and it, too, was celebrated in the days before my arrival at the end of the ticktock countdown – but where is Mumbadevi's day? It is not on the calendar.”
Midnight’s Children

“Once a year, the gods came to Chowpatty Beach to bathe in the filthy sea: fat-bellied idols by the thousand, papier-mâché effigies of the elephant-headed deity Ganesha or Ganpati Bappa, swarming towards the water astride papier-mâché rats – for Indian rats, as we know, carry gods as well as plagues. Some of these tusk'n'tail duos were small enough to be borne on human shoulders, or cradled in human arms; others were the size of small mansions, and were pulled along on great-wheeled wooden carts by hundreds of disciples. There were, in addition, many Dancing Ganeshas, and it was these wiggle-hipped Ganpatis, love-handled and plump of gut, against whom Aurora competed, setting her profane gyrations against the jolly jiving of the much-replicated god. Once a year, the skies were full of Colour-by-De Luxe clouds: pink and purple, magenta and vermilion, saffron and green, these powder-clouds, squirted from reused insecticide guns, or floating down from some bursting balloon-cluster wafting across the sky, hung in the air above the deities 'like aurora-not borealis-but-bombayalis', as the painter Vasco Miranda used to say.”

The Moor’s Last Sigh

I’ve been fascinated with the festival since I was a child, and vividly remember standing on the balcony of my mother’s home at Prathna Samaj watching the processions of Ganapati idols vending their way to the Chowpatty beach for the immersion of the idols into the Arabian Sea at the end of the ten-day festival.

Over the years, even as religion has lost its relevance to my life, I continue to enjoy the festival, and especially the way it transforms to the mammon-worshiping metropolis into a city that comes together to be good.

Ganapati is worshipped as the god of knowledge, and is the first scribe who recorded the Mahabharata as Ved Vyas narrated the epic.

Incidentally, 1893 is also the year when Mohandas Gandhi left Gujarat for South Africa and returned two decades later to become the Mahatma.

That year, Swami Vivekananda also addressed the World Congress of Religion in Chicago, addressing the congregation with the now famous salutation of ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’, leaving the largely Caucasian audience bemused presumably because it had never been addressed thus. 

They gave him a resounding standing ovation.

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