From the land of Marathas

Two years after Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak celebrated Ganesh Utsav as a public festival (sarvajanik) in 1893 in Pune, it was held in Cochin by the small but staunch Maharashtrian community, the festival being the heart of Maratha life. The handed-down memory of the event, and of being the first migrant Marathi community outside Maharashtra to do so, is held with great pride by the few families that reside in the city.

The first flush of migration of Marathis to this shore, the “early settlers”, is surmised to be along with the Konkanis from Goa, fearing persecution by the Portuguese. But the major shift, similar to the Gujaratis and Kutchis, was mainly for trade and in batches in the mid-1800s. “Vengurla in Sindhudurg had close commercial contact with Cochin. There was exchange of goods,” says 86-year-old Dr. R. N. Arwari, who remembers harvested paddy from his farmlands in Vengurla landing at his home here.

Pramod Gore, a retd. scientist from National Institute of Oceanography and S.K. Pandit, from Cochin, who is compiling a musical lineage of the Maharashtrians for the Ramnath Pandit Research Centre coming up in Talegaon, Pune, say that families with surnames like Phadke, Shevade, Borewankar and such came to these shores at the turn of the 18th century (1799-1800). “They were mostly merchants and came in ‘mass boats’ called fathemaris,” he says.

It was ostensibly in 1865-67 that Babu Govind Pandit, a wealthy merchant, arrived here with his two brothers and bought large swathes of land in Vypeen, “the present LNG terminal”. He is attributed with the setting up of the Gopalakrishna Temple in Mattancherry in 1879, which became the hub of community activity and remains so till date. In due course about 20 Pandit families settled along side the temple and the road linking their homes and the temple was named Panditan Temple Road.

The same boat from which alighted Govind Pandit came two brothers Ramachandra Mahadeo Gavaskar and Gopal Mahadeo Gavaskar, one of who went on to become the Chairman of the Cochin Municipality. Dr. Arwari says, “Gavaskar was an exporter of coir and spices and was the only Indian to have a firm along with British companies Aspinwall and Pierce Leslie.”

He also speaks about a Sampley, who too came in a mass boat and built a mammoth warehouse on the sea shore, as one of the few who travelled in a horse buggy.

By the middle of the 19th century the well-established Marathis started bringing relatives to work in their expanding businesses. Pramod Gore’s great grandfather from Hindale brought down his five sons in 1865, three of who moved to Kozhikode, present day Calicut, to work. One of the five, Balakrishna Anaanth Gore, who stayed behind began a Marathi magazine Keral Kokil in 1881. “It was a monthly magazine, and was brought out at the Devji Bhimji Chaap Khana, a Devanagiri printing press started by Ganapat Singh, a relative of the Municipal councillor GS Dara Singh.” A Marathi school was set up for the children who spoke in Canarese and Marathi and a doctor too was brought down for the community members. Dr. Arwari’s father came down in 1901 to join his uncle and established Hill Produce Company that traded in ginger, pepper and farm produce.

Another distinguished person from the community was Vaman Sadashiv Gore, a scholar with a fascination for music. Pramod says about his father, “He was interested in many subjects and learned music. He organised musical soirees graced by none other than the great Bhimsen Joshi. He also hosted several eminent musicians like Kumar Gandharva, Parveen Sultana and Mallikarjun Mansur.”

Despite the community flourishing, it found that many youngsters during the 50s began moving back to Bombay for greener pastures. Dr Arwari himself left Cochin for 20 years but on return in 1963 found the community going strong. In 1969 his wife Sudha was one of the two women anaesthetists in the city, working first at Fort Cochin Government Hospital and latter at Lissie Hospital.

It was V.G. Saraf, an elder of the community and relative of Arwari who set up the Maratha Mandal, a cultural organisation in 1965. The Ganesh Utsav became a grand 11-day affair with people of other communities participating. Arwari, with an interest in theatre and films, began to stage dramas, coaching local actors. “We had rehearsals and I used to work on the accent of the actors,” he reminisces. Famous Marathi films like Sant Tukaram, Kunku and such were screened at Town Hall and plays like Lagnachi Bedi by famous writer Pralhad Atre was staged.

The highlight of these thriving cultural activities was reached when Marathi scientists were felicitated after the launch of the first space satellite from near Thiruvanathapuram. “All the Maharashtrians from across Kerala used to come for these cultural activities. Those were the best times,” says Dr. Arwari. Ulhas Saraf, whose family is associated with the Saraf Hospital and tea trade in Kochi says that the floating population and Naval personnel, during their postings, here added strength to the community. The running of the organisation has since passed on to the hands of the well known Deo family.

Mrinalini Gore says that the despite her and her Marathi daughters-in-law’s attempts at preserving their cultural ethos the community here is not the same as before. “In a few houses we still keep the Ganesh deity for two days during the utsav. The ladies perform the haratalika. During navrathri we have our traditional songs and dance, the bhondla and hadga; during kojagiri purnima we prepare masala doodh and distribute…these are some customs a few of us still follow.” In her own little ways to preserve and perpetuate the community’s core traditions Mrinalini has bought a nine-yard sari, a traditional dress, for her granddaughter and along with idlis and puttu she prepares poha, sabudana khichidi and staple Marathi food.

“My husband was born here, he loves Malayali food. We speak Malayalam and Marathi and we belong to Kerala; Maharashtra lives in our hearts,” she says showing the seven volumes of History Of The Peshwas, a favourite read of the family. Chandra Prakash Deo, current secretary of the Maharashtra Mandal says that intermarriage with local Malayalis and also because of the new generation migrating back has caused the community to shrink in size and fervour, from the good old days. If Ulhas speaks of an Ogale Glass Works in Kalamaserry and of a Solkar in Cochin Port, of a Kelkar and a Pai as Harbour Master and Deputy Conservator then Pramod rattles off surnames – Lele, Gaglekar, Gokhale, Paranjpe, Deshpande, Paradaker, Chinchalkar, Dhamdhere, Karmbelkar….. Families who came, made a life here and whose vestiges remain. “Many have gone back, we are scattered now, about 17-odd families, ” says Dr Arwari and sums it up with nostalgia, “We Maharashtrians are home sick people, on first opportunity we want to go back.” This time of course the return is not in boats braving the oceans that brought them here.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 3, 2021 11:13:52 PM |

Next Story