My early years were spent in old-world, working class South Mumbai amid Mumbai’s sought after Ganeshotsav destinations, Lalbaug, Kala Chowki, Parel and Dadar. My first brush with the God of new beginnings, though, was quite the beginning in itself.
When our eyes first met
I can’t recollect how and when I was drawn to Ganesh idol-making, but I distinctly remember where it happened. At the cusp of Chinchpokli and Lalbaug, below the Chinchpokli railway bridge, a makeshift workshop would appear every year before monsoon in the late 70s. Pitched on a framework of bamboo and rope that held up a sloping khakhi canvas roof, the workshop employed artisans led by legendary murtikaar or idol-maker, Vijay Khatu, the man behind Ganesh Galli’s Mumbaicha Raja, and protégé of the equally illustrious Dinanath Veling, the pioneer of Mumbai’s towering Ganesh idols.
Khatu took over the mantle from Veling, sculpting Mumbaicha Raja until his demise in 2017, along with other famous tall idols, including Chinchpoklicha Chintamani, Tulsiwadicha Maharaja, Kalachowkicha Maha Ganapati, Khetwadi 11th lane’s Mumbaicha Maharaja and Fortcha Raja.
Khatu’s fame transcended the height of his idols. His craft was also distinctive for realistic skin tones and life-like eyes. I would return to the workshop to watch Khatu and company create those mesmerising eyes and the majestic idols they belonged to, recreating their brilliance year upon year.
When I moved to the suburbs, the visits became infrequent and eventually ended, leaving me with a selection of vivid memories—the brush-painting of eyes, the potent whiff of sprayed paint and the earthy smell of wet Plaster of Paris. I can imagine readers from Lalbaug-Chinckhpokli breaking into a knowing smile and a gentle nod of agreement.
Back in the days
The intervening decades transformed the nature and scale of Sarvajanik (public) and household Ganeshotsav. I first experienced the festival at age six or seven, in the homes of my Maharshtrian neighbours, still unknowing of their devotion to the God and to his festival. There was admiration for simple decorations, quaint scents of incense and flowers I was beginning to discover, and the delight of sampling modak, sheera and the like. I recollect we would tour the famous Lalbaug, Chinchpokli and Kala Chowki pandals in a few hours, about the same time it takes these days for darshan of a single Ganapati in Lalbaug.
Decorations are perceptibly creative and ostentatious now, costing more time and money. Aartis are sang along or read out from digital devices, and traditional sweets have made way for store-bought goodies, chocolate and modaks of novel and sometimes bizzare flavours. But of course, Ganapati Bappa is aware it costs a great deal more to host him: ostentation, aspiration, inflation and all.
Ganapati Bappa is aware it costs a lot more to host him: ostentation, aspiration, inflation and all.
In the public realm, however, there’s greater awareness of our collective actions during Ganeshotsav, and the need to strike a balance between the good and not-so-good parts of those actions. Every passing year adds new Ganesh mandals, big sponsors with bigger budgets, record-breaking crowds, more pomp and increased pollution—the very issues that beset public celebrations across religion and geography. It’s a different matter that faith and tradition are the true pillars of religious celebrations, not material glitz—be it Diwali, Durga Puja, Eid or Christmas.
Your God, and mine too
In Govandi, a common pandal has been used for Ganeshotsav and Moharram for three years. Ganeshotsav mirrors Mumbai’s secularity like few other public celebrations. From donors to volunteers and politicians to public, it draws Mumbaikars of every faith, denomination and region. They make up the mannat (wish) seekers at Lalbaugcha Raja, lend a hand to the local mandal, and participate in the merry-making.
It’s well known that the Lalbaugcha Raja immersion parade passes through the Muslim-dominated localities of Byculla, Agripada and Nagpada. Local Muslims observe decade-long traditions of garlanding the idol, offering aarti, and at times, upholding devotion alongside tradition in years when Anant Chaturdashi (immersion day) coincides with Eid al-Adha (Bakri Eid). What’s less known is the immersion parade has, on occasion, paused to allow conclusion of evening namaz. There’s no dearth of stories about Ganeshotsav bringing people together.
It’s also worth every Mumbaikar’s knowledge that established mandals have a history of giving back to society. Organisers of Lalbaugcha Raja run a dialysis centre that charges a token fee of ₹100, offer financial aid to patients in municipal hospitals, supports multi-faceted educational initiatives, and contribute to numerous social causes. This year, organisers will run a blood and plasma donation camp, and donate their entire purse to Maharashtra’s CM Cares fund. Other prominent mandals take their own route to charity, every year.
Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav attracts people from around the nation and the globe to its spectacular culmination at Mumbai’s beaches. It’s a sight that both, defines and distinguishes Mumbai. No other festival draws millions of ordinary folk to dance on the streets, queue up hours or overnight for a momentary glimpse of a temporary idol, and demonstrates the kind of communal harmony that’s a trait of both, Ganeshotsav and Mumbai.
2020 is about to get worse
Back to the present, mandals across Mumbai had begun planning when COVID-19 struck in March. With life on halt and the festival at hand, they waited with intent, unsure of the outcome. Then, Lalbaughca Raja became the first to announce cancellation of festivities, a first in their 93-year history. The next door king followed suit: Mumbaicha Raja, the mandal from Ganesh Galli, announced installation of a 4-feet idol and cancellation of public festivities. Other mandals announced postponement of Ganeshotsav to Maghi Ganesh Jayanti in 2021.
The shadow of the pandemic has been cast on Ganeshotsav, as it will be on the festive season that follows. Maharashtra announced guidelines for celebrations at home and in public, curtailing the height of public idols to four feet, asking mandals to setup online-only darshan, avoiding public immersions, instructing households to immerse idols at home or defer immersion to next year. Mumbai has not witnessed such pullback of public festivities through government intervention in recent memory.
What about next year, the year after, and…?
A year’s hiatus for Ganapati Bappa and the reason behind it makes one dwell on what was and what may be. The pandemic has changed our way of life for the foreseeable future. It’s about to change a lot more going forward. Yet some good comes out of every adversity, and will from this one too.
The pandemic has changed our way of life for the foreseeable future. It’s about to change a lot more going forward. Yet some good comes out of every adversity, and will from this one too.
Might it be a good time to question why it took a ban to banish thermocol from decorations when we Mumbaikars could have done so on our own without a governmental diktat that followed years of apathy on the topic? Why we promise and renege on giving up chemical-based paints and PoP idols polluting the sea and its inhabitants? Why the noise we make is disconcerting and unhealthy for humans and animals who too are creations of God? Why Dhol-Tasha Pathaks are true bearers of tradition, not DJ turntables and speakers on mounts? Why it’s primarily the responsibility of civic authorities to fill up holes dug into footpaths and street sides, bring down banners and clean-up water bodies?
Read read the questions with intent and you will see the answers lie within. They lie with Mumbai’s citizens, not its authorities.
As for the future, will it take the absence of a vaccine until next Ganeshotsav to stop mammoth crowds and king-size merrymaking? Will the faithful refrain from crowding only if social distancing norms persist? Will mandal volunteers and cops quit physically herding people only because they fear close contact? Do we really need to wait until next year or the year after?
Here’s hoping 2020 is a temporary blip in the Ganeshotsav calendar, which Mumbai will desire to celebrate with renewed fervour in 2021. But the blip brings with it an opportunity to change for good, permanently. And who better to invoke for a brand new beginning than the God of new beginnings and the remover of obstacles.