Expression of faith or excessive show of power? When it comes to ‘Ganpati’, Mumbai is a city divided, says Shashi Baliga

Ganesh Chaturthi is not a festival for the faint of heart in the city that loves the elephant god. Negotiating Mumbai’s Girgaum Chowpatty beach on Anant Chaturdashi, the final day of visarjan or immersion, is an experience that requires legs of iron, shoulders of steel, decibel-defying eardrums and a faith that is ready to be tested.

Indeed, as I discovered, the famed Kumbh Mela at Haridwar was an elegant, genteel ceremony compared to Mumbai’s night of the behemoths and bravehearts. I braved it once but I didn’t get anywhere near the sea, buffeted as I was by waves of milling, pushing, shoving, screaming gangs, with policemen screaming “Chala, chala! (Get a move on!)” above the din and wielding their lathis manically. There was an incredible amount of energy in the air, but somewhat too much on the ground.

A less intense but equally deterring experience awaited me when I set off for a darshan of the city’s most famous idol, the Lalbaugcha Raja, emperor of the staunchly Maharashtrian enclave in the heart of the city. After spending over one hour in a sweaty, winding queue for a fleeting glimpse of the massive idol and a couple more getting there and back, I haven’t ventured there again.

And that was in the days before the many riots and bomb blasts and attacks that have bloodied Mumbai, and before sandbags and gun-toting security personnel became a fixture on the city’s landscape.

Lying low

Now, I have to confess, I am one of those Mumbaikars who tend to lie low during ‘Ganpati’ as the 10-day-long festival is succinctly known in Mumbai. I stand on one side of a divide that highlights the city’s polarities as few other events do.

On the one hand are those for whom Ganpati is the highlight of the year. They collect lakhs for their sarvajanik (community) celebrations, play all kinds of music (but mainly Bollywood numbers) loudly through the day, and they see off Ganesha by spilling out on the streets as they dance with infectious abandon to the beat of incessant drums and the dazzle of giant lights.

On the other hand are those who have their private pujas, disapprove of the growing commercialisation of the festival, the increasing inconvenience caused to citizens, the loudspeakers and the traffic jams.

Both sides have an equally valid point of view and share the same fondness for Mumbai’s favourite god. Where they differ is in their modes of worship.

As Bharat Kumar Raut, former journalist, now Shiv Sena MP in the Rajya Sabha, sees it, “The festival is a necessity in a metropolis like Mumbai, where there is a large labour class, and lower and middle-class segments. These sections need an outlet to vent their anger, forget their sorrows and escape the deadening routine of catching the 8.43 a.m. local every day. They don’t have too many avenues for recreation and Ganpati is the handiest and cheapest option.”

Psychiatrist Dayal Mirchandani sees a broader need: “Everyone celebrates it in their own way, in their own social hierarchies. If the wealthy hold elaborate pujas in their homes and have their friends drop in, the less privileged have their sarvajanik (community) Ganpatis where everyone gets together to celebrate. It is an important festival for both, a good institution for bringing people together.”

Multiple divides

But the divide is real and it is not always pleasant. “I think all festivals polarise the city but there are many axes of polarity,” believes author and poet Jerry Pinto. “There is the belief vs. culture axis. On the belief side are the people for whom the festival is an expression of faith; on the culture side are those who say that they enjoy the tropes but may well be atheist-agnostic. Then there’s the compassion vs. rage polarity. On the compassion side, there is the ‘Well, the poor need their opiates,’ explanation; on the rage side, there is the ‘Why don’t they put the money into education?’ question.”

Money — the lack of it and an often suspicious abundance of it — is a constant point of conflict. “I believe the problem with the festival of Ganpati, as with all festivals, is its commercialisation. And money is the handmaiden of politics,” says Pinto.

PR professional and former journalist Smita Deshmukh is harsher: “The Ganesh festival is a big political circus that is expanding dangerously and it needs to be reined in with tough laws before it gets out of hand,” she says. “All political parties encourage their cadres to start mandals (associations) and crowded parts of the city now have three, four, five mandals, all encroaching on road and pavement space, in one lane.”

Too politicised?

Y.C. Pawar, former Joint Commissioner of Police, Maharashtra, is even more caustic: “Power, not religion, has become the prime driving force for the Ganesh mandals. Like so much else in Mumbai, the Ganpati celebrations have become politicised and criminalised. They are a means of acquiring and flaunting money power, muscle power and voting power.”

He points out that at Gokulashtami, politicians compete with each other openly to offer the biggest prize money. “With Ganpati, the competition is less obvious but very much there. And all kinds of ill-gotten wealth make their entry,” he says, in his Spartan, sea-facing home.

“Political involvement is inevitable,” argues Raut, “since politicians command a large following that can be mobilised for organisational activities. It is the commercialisation that is more worrying because, with it comes extraction of money from citizens, shopkeepers, etc., and with that compulsion comes criminalisation.”

Indeed, there was a time in the 1980s and 90s, when underworld dons sponsored some of the city’s biggest Ganpatis. Raut says he can vividly recall the day he saw don Varadarajan Mudaliar atop a truck, driving through the streets with his Ganpati idol: “He was dressed in a silk lungi and kurta, gold ornaments flashing, and more people were bowing to him than the murti.”

It was the redoubtable Y.C. Pawar who finally drove the don out of the city. He recalls how he tamed another, Chhota Rajan, who organised massive Ganpati celebrations in the suburb of Chembur. “For many years, his mandal had taken over a large part of a public park where many senior citizens went for their walk. In 1993, I told his men that they could not do so any more and that their pandal would be the same size as others. It didn’t go down well with them, of course, but they had no choice,” he laughs.

Chhota Rajan may have had to capitulate but the mandals as a whole can still be defiant. This year, despite pressure not to have idols over 18 feet, many mandals have gone over 20 ft, saying work on them had already begun months ago. The giant idols cause massive traffic pileups as they lumber through the city’s narrow, potholed roads, often taking circuitous routes to avoid flyovers and bridges. And when immersed, they provoke much environmental concern as well.

With over 10,000 sarvajanik mandals in the city and an estimated three lakh idols, big and small, being immersed in various water bodies across the city, environmentalists and citizens are understandably worried. Especially since many of the idols are made not of traditional clay which dissolves easily in the water, but plaster of Paris, leaving the beaches strewn for days with gigantic body parts of semi-immersed idols, along with tonnes of flowers and decorations.

Annual game

“It is a game played out every year: the police put restrictions on the mandals and the mandals keep flouting them,” remarks Y.C. Pawar. This year, the government has warned of strict action taken against mandals displaying advertisements for gutkha, which is banned in the State, but whether such action will be necessitated or taken remains to be seen. Sponsorship from tobacco and liquor companies is also common.

However, Jayantrao Salgaokar, former President of the Akhil Maharashtra Ganeshotsav Mandal, and now an advisor to the association, promises that next year, at least the 18-foot rule will be observed. “It was agreed upon in a meeting right here, in my drawing room,” he declares. Salgaokar is co-founder of the Kalnirnay calendar, which, at over 12 million copies, is said to be the world’s largest-selling almanac and his own family Ganpati is worshipped with traditional rituals and bhajans. (Pandit Bhimsen Joshi sang before this idol every year for 14 years.) Understandably, he disapproves of the ever-increasing competition between mandals, the unaccounted money, use of Bollywood music and drinking that have become rampant today. “When I was younger, I would go out on the streets and pull up any of the dancers who were drunk,” recalls the octogenarian.

But he is indulgent when explaining why rich mandals decorate their idols with kilograms of gold and jewellery. “We all want to see our daughters and daughters-in-law wearing nice jewellery; why not our god, too?” he smiles.

Mumbai’s richest Ganpati, the GSB Seva Mandal’s, received Rs. 5.75 crore in cash and had ornaments worth Rs. 15 crore last year. It has sought an insurance cover of Rs. 224 crore this year.

Signs of pride?

Extravagant decorations — golden or less valuable — are as much a matter of pride as the idol’s size. Bharat Kumar Raut’s explanation is: “If you’re staying in a Dharavi slum, how do you take pride in living there? Having a big, richly decorated Ganpati is one of the ways.”

He also remarks about the long, noisy processions taken out on immersion day, “Why do people come out and dance on the streets during these processions? Because it is the one day there is societal approval for that kind of uninhibited behaviour. That’s why there are so many women dancing too. A middle-aged woman doesn’t go to discotheques or parties; this is her one chance a year to dance with abandon.”

Gay activist Ashok Row Kavi says his community looks forward to the festival for somewhat different reasons. “It is a time when the gay community comes out of its safe havens and out onto the streets and feels part of society in a way that it doesn’t often.”

He estimates that 15,000 to 12,000 gay men will be out there this year and adds, “The crowds and festivities provide the perfect cover, many of the young men are high on alcohol or hash, their inhibitions are down and well, you can imagine the rest.”

To each their own. In affluent South Mumbai, the festivities include a Trance Ganesha. Held near the Mahalaxmi temple, it sees models, TV stars and other celebrities join the crowd as they dance to trance music and Ganesha chants on visarjan day.

The one group of Mumbaikars who can’t always join in the enjoyment is the Mumbai police, for whom it is a tension-filled fortnight, given the city’s recent history. Preparations start about a month in advance when the police hold meetings with mandals to discuss the height of the idol, their visarjan schedule, number of volunteers, 24/7 security and a host of other matters, including of course, the all-important traffic arrangements.

“It is a tough time for the police,” says Y.C. Pawar. “After the 1992 riots, the police have tended to look the other way during all festivals in the interests of communal peace. But matters have become very, very difficult now because the counter-forces on both sides are not scared of the police.”

It’s one of the downsides of Mumbai’s biggest day. For the police as for the city as a whole, Ganesh Chaturthi involves much hard work, inconvenience and transgressions, not all of which can be policed or controlled. But there is much joy, cheer and genuine religious fervour too. And once it’s over, all is forgotten till next year comes around. As Jerry Pinto puts it, “Ganpati’s eyes are the charismatic knowing eyes of the elephant. He remembers, He knows, He forgives.”