Deafening beats of cymbals that you can’t help but tap your feet to, pandals on every corner and men in Nehru caps navigating traffic, cardboard boxes filled with modaks and celebration all around — Ganesh Chaturthi is one of the few occasions that successfully slow down the usually hurried Mumbaikars and their fast-paced lifestyles.
The month of September (and on occasions, August) is when the whole of India, especially Maharashtra is abuzz with the preparations and festivities that come with celebrating Lord Ganesh’s birth. However, off late a lot is being said about the inconvenience that comes along with the chaotic processions and boisterous celebrations that are characteristic to this festival. These debates have caused a divide of sorts between those who believe that Ganpati celebrations are probably the ‘common-man’s’ only chance to let his hair down and those who feel that the nuisance accompanying the festivities just isn’t worth the trouble. What most don’t know is that this fragmentation goes entirely against the reasons that led to Ganesh Chaturthi turning into the decorated affair it has come to be.
Many say that the origins of celebrating Lord Ganesh’s birth can be traced to as far back as 271 BC when the Satvahana, Rashtrakuta and Chalukya dynasties were still in power, while others suggest that the festivities were Chatrapati Shivaji’s way of promoting culture and instilling feelings of nationalism among Indian citizens. However, what isn’t spoken about enough is how this occasion, which at the time of inception was nothing more than a quiet family affair has transformed into a celebration where all strata of society come together to rejoice.
The man responsible for this radical transformation is one of the more prominent Indian freedom fighters — Bal Gangadhar Tilak. It was in 1857, post the Sepoy Mutiny that Tilak realised the dire need for uniting the citizens of India, who were divided thanks to the rigid caste system. Ganesh Chaturthi was one occasion when no one gave hierarchy a second thought, all that mattered was the faith, fervour and joy with which the proceedings of this auspicious occasion were carried out. Tilak recognised this sentiment and its potential power to bring together a country that stood divided at a time when unity was all that was needed.
In 1893, Tilak introduced India to what is now referred to as Ganpati Visarjan, as a way to unite Indians from all walks of life. He went around the city of Pune, plastering the town with posters and hoardings of the deity. He spread the message and brought people together to celebrate, and this phenomenon was more than infectious and spread to other parts of the country like wild fire. That’s how Ganesh Utsav, as it was referred to then, became a meeting ground for people. It also facilitated social and political gatherings at a time when the British government had banned public meetings of any sort. Tilak’s move of identifying this loophole in order to promote Indian nationalism and congregate without raising suspicion was nothing less than a stroke of genius.
Today, more than a century later, it is difficult to believe that this festival that brings hordes of people out on the streets was at one point just another festival that was marked by a mere puja at home. Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations in the present-day are marked by the unparalleled turnout and by strangers rejoicing together like long-lost friends. It is this time of year when everyone gorges on delicacies from the same pandal without a second’s worth of thought wasted on gauging differences.
And now, we know who to thank for it.
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