“We have not invaded anyone. We have not conquered anyone. We have not grabbed their land, their culture, their history and tried to enforce our way of life on them,” said Dr. Abul Kalam. Coming from a former president of India, this is very apt for our country. India has shown national integration at least from the time of organized fight for independence, with the initiative of leaders like Lokamanya Tilak, who brought Ganeshotsav out of the four walls of the house into the society for uniting the people against the British rulers. Though glitches like communal riots during partition, in Bhiwandi and Mumbai have marred this unity a few times, Indians have sprung back with renewed vigor realizing that divided they would fall into smithereens.
Shivaji Maharaj, the founder of the Maratha Empire, started celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi as a social event in Pune (1630-1680). Before he died, he transferred the kingdom to the Peshwas and they continued the tradition in Pune, since Ganesha was their family deity. In 1818, after the fall of the Peshwas, the festival went back into the homes and again became a private family affair, since it lost the state patronage. It was up to the freedom fighter and social reformer Lokmanya Tilak to revive this social tradition.
Come 1893, Tilak converted the domestic festival that happened every year into a well-organized public event, which began to be celebrated on a large scale. He had realized that Lord Ganesha appealed to all and took up the mission to popularize it as a national festival mainly to bridge the gap between Brahmins and ‘non-Brahmins’ (in which were included the supposedly lower caste Hindus and other religious communities) and find a milieu to build a foundation for unity between the two. He also had the intention of generating a nationalistic fervor among the people in Maharashtra against the British colonial rule. This national extremist (radical) leader was the first to install large public images of Ganesha in pavilions. The practice of submerging the public images of Ganesha in water bodies on the day of Anant Chaturdashi, was also established by him.
It was a time when the British discouraged social and political gatherings. Under the able guidance and encouragement of Tilak, the festival aided the participation and involvement of different communities. It became a meeting place for people of different castes and communities, who came together for scholarly discourses, poetry readings, dramas, musical concerts and folk dances as part of the celebrations. Leaders also started using this as a platform for giving political speeches to throw out the British.
Such an interesting tradition is still being continued even after 65 years of independence. Cut to September 2012. Mira Road is considered to be a typically Muslim-dominated residential area. Many housing societies and groups here celebrate a social Ganeshotsav in style. Saidham Mitra Mandal, belonging to Govind Nagar Housing Society, is one such friends club in Mira Road, where the tradition is being followed for the last 10-15 years. Maruti Ganpath Dhanawade, General Secretary of the Mandal, reminisced, “The idea originated when our old members Manish Jadav and Karmare decided to organize the festival in our society for the first time. Our society has people from Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain and Buddhist communities. Everybody comes to pray to the Lord.”
The organizers, as a matter of practice, ask for contribution from everybody and get the donations from 90 % of the people. People come up with contributions to the tune of Rs. 200 to 1000. An interesting fact here is that Muslims might come out with more amount as donation. Dhanawade emphasizes, “Till last year we went to every house to collect the donation. But this year we put up the request on our notice board and members came back to us with their contributions. Besides, this is a big society, so we have to manage the whole event with the contributions from society members.”
Since the festival is celebrated on such a large scale a great deal of planning goes into it. Dhanawade explains, “Bappa (Maharashtrians call Lord Ganesh as Ganapathy Bappa) comes every year but the main thought is how we would be presenting Him. The maximum discussion is about the decoration only. Every year the decoration should be different and there should be a good theme to justify it. We buy thermocol and other materials and make the entire décor, right here. We don’t even hire it from outside.”
Though the other communities participate in the festivities when the idol of Ganapathy is brought here or taken away for Visarjan, but for obvious reasons Hindus are more in number during these occasions. Other community people may attend the aarti rituals, if it is performed during holidays. The puja is done by a pundit they call from outside.
The Mandal also conducts Satyanarayan puja during the Ganeshotsav. There is not much contribution from the other communities in this ritual but they may come and peep in once in a while. Children have the maximum fun during this entire festival. Women participate in the aartis. All community people from far and wide within Mira Road may come to see the Lord Ganesh idol placed in Saidhan Mitra Mandal’s pandal. The Mandal also conducts cultural programmes like the game of musical chairs and drawing competitions for children, during the celebrations.
Dhanawade says that the entire society waits patiently and enthusiastically for Ganesh Chaturthi to come every year, so that they can bring the Ganapathy idol for Ganeshotsav. Everybody, including children and the volunteers, are happy during the occasion. He asserts, “We cannot explain the feeling in words. We are all excited. The children exhibit high energy levels. At the end of the festival, when we have to take Him away we feel sad. The members of all the communities get so involved that they find it difficult to comprehend that a member of their family is leaving them and going away. They also feel that this member of their family would only be meeting them after a whole year. There is much merriment and noise, during the 7 days, Bappa is here. The blaring loud speakers keep broadcasting the mantras recited by the pundit and songs and bhajans. But for the next few days after the visarjan, we feel so sad that the whole society falls silent. We can’t handle it so we go out somewhere so that our mind becomes fresh enough to return to our daily routine.”
Dhanawade wants to repeat the message of national unity given by Lokamanya Tilak, “I would like to say to our fellow Indians that God is one; it may be Ganapathy Bappa or anybody else. We should all come together with dedication to celebrate these festivals for the integrity of our country. This would then become a meeting of like-minded people.”
This article was previously published in Eve’s Times magazine and has been reproduced here with the permission of the editor, Swati Amar.