I was roaming yesterday with a group of friends tagging along, indulging in my favourite pastime of this festival season – visiting the ‘Ganesh Mandals’ across the city, and watching the tableaux put up by them. Ganesh, the deity of wisdom arrived on the first of September this year, and Pune city, the origin of the communal celebrations of Ganesh Utsav, celebrated his advent in full swing .
A festival having its roots in tradition can influence the winds of change in the society.
Ganesh Utsav, the celebration of the birth anniversary of Lord Ganesh has unknown origin, but it can be traced back to the Rashtrakuta and Chalukya reign between sixth to twelfth century. It is a ten day festival in the month of Bhadrapada, on Ganesh Chaturthi concluding on Anant Chaturdashi. It was celebrated in the society during the reign of Shivaji Maharaj in the sixteenth century. The Peshwas, who came to power in the seventeenth century, honed and nurtured the festival, making it a large scale celebration in their palace, the Shaniwarwada in Pune. With the decline of the Maratha Empire, which finally became powerless in 1818, the event became restricted to the household and the family. The dakshina fund, started by the Peshwas to support poor Brahmins financially was nullified by the new British Government, contributing to the end of the communal celebrations.
In 1894, Lokmanya Tilak, a prominent social reformer and revolutionary, revived the original tradition of Ganesh Utsav as a public event to promote the growth of emerging nationalism. He installed the deity in Vinchurkar wada, Sadashiv peth in 1894. Prior to this, Sardar Khajgiwale, Ghotawadekar and Bhau Rangari were the first three to start public celebrations of Ganesh Festival. The festival was used to overcome the diversity of caste and class to promote social fraternity in order to raise awareness against the colonial rule.
The social celebration automatically encouraged discourses, recitals, plays, songs and dances, and invariably intellectual debate and discussions. All these had strong national and anti-colonial overtones and glorified pre-colonial days of Marathas. This was a huge step at the time, as the British Government had barred any form of social gathering or activity. The Gansh Utsav caught up in other cities and towns across Maharashtra, inventing a novel way of protestation, infusing devotion with nationalism. The large socio-economic barriers were considerably weakened by the festival. By 1910, due to the rising concern in the Government, the festival was largely curtailed.
Today, hundreds of mandals, which include residents of the area nearby, are present in Pune city. They organize a tableaux during the festival which generally depicts a live or still scene from history, mythological story or addresses a social issue. The different tableaux put up by the mandals attract hordes of people across the social strata, economic and religious barriers. These pandals serve as a reminder of the rich Indian history and mythology as well as make people aware of the social problems plaguing the society. Some pandals organize blood donation camps and participate in awareness drives. Many notable mandals have active volunteers who belong to another religion or community – Ganeshotsav erases the difference between them.
There are five most important mandals in the city which receive the honour to immerse their idol first in the Mula River at then end of the ten day long celebrations. These are Kasba Ganpati (1893), Tambdi Jogeshwari (1894), Guruji Talim (1887), Tulsibaug (1901), Kesri wada (1893).
The processions are accompanied by devotees, bands and dhol-tasha groups. The dhol-tasha groups have male as well as female members and have revived the traditional instruments – the dhol and the tasha.
The legacy of 117 years has ensued that Pune’s Ganeshotsav still addresses the issue it was introduced for – to bridge the gap between castes and the divide of religions and gender.