Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ganesh Chaturthi, female Feticide and "Lokmanya's vision"

I was in Mumbai on 9th & 10th September and at a time when Ganesh chaturthi festival was at its peak. I have always wanted to be in Maharashtra during Ganesh Chaturthi and in West Bengal during Durga Puja time. It was also a coincidence that a school time friend Naveen B Sharma was just back in Mumbai from one of his African trips. We happened to be in Dubai airport in the first week of May 2011 and despite having pre planned, we just couldn’t meet there.
Naveen came over by the evening and we set out around 9 pm to see a Ganesh pandal. Since we didn’t want to waste time travelling, we decided to go in for the one nearby and went to see a Ganesh pandal in Santa Cruz area (alongside the flyover). There was a queue outside the pandal and crowd was being sent in batches every 15 minutes. I was getting intrigued on this but was impressed by the manner local youths were managing the crowd. The crowd in general consisted of families, perhaps, from the nearby localities, all well dressed up for the occasion. Most of these families seem to be from middle & low middle income background. We also stood in the queue and waited for our turn. By the time our turn came, I realised I was the only one perhaps wearing formal shoes. We had to take off our shoes out side the pandal and I must confess I was mentally ready that shoes won’t be there by the time we come back!
The pandal was such that we had to climb up about 30 stairs and walk through a small makeshift cave before finally climbing down in the pandal. It was a typical Ganesh pandal one would expect at every nukkad/ street corner and without much of the expensive get ups. The Ganesh idol was kept in the right side as one faced the pandal and it was a small sized idol, the size one would keep at home. I was a bit perplexed as to why such a small sized idol is kept and that too not in the middle but on one side. Moreover, there were cut outs of a tree, a hospital wall , a well and life size man and a woman made of card board. I thought that these are made by children during the daytime competitions being conducted by the organisers. We would there for about 2-3 minutes when it became dark and a puppet show began. We also stood there bemused and watched as it progressed. And within two minutes of its start, it was clear that the theme was concerning ‘female feticide/infanticide’ – a father wanting to kill his new born because the fetus was that of a girl. The mother of the new born kept crying and begging for her daughter’s life but the father was hell bent and took the new born to the well in the night to drown her. And that’s when a boy emerged from the well and made the father realise that he wouldn’t have been around if his mother had been killed the same way. This little boy also made him realise the importance of a girl and that there are no longer any differences between a son and a daughter. The father, after listening to this boy felt ashamed of his behaviour and promised to bring up his daughter in the best possible manner. It was only then once the skit was over that the actual screen opened up in the center of the pandal and a very beautiful, large sized Ganesh came into the light. It was a divine experience.
I have been involved in various attempts aimed at arresting female feticide since 2003 and this play came as a completely pleasant surprise. It was kept very simple and in a language that most of the visitors can easily understand. The pandal was located in a upcoming slum area and I am sure this skit would leave a huge impact in the minds of all those watching. This was, I thought, one of the most effective ways of communicating a very strong message.
And this is when I also realised the importance of Lokmanya’s vision in organising Ganesh utsav as a social festival wherein people were mobilized to take up common causes. It was Tilak, who brought back the tradition of Ganesh Chaturthi and reshaped the annual Ganesh festival from private family celebrations into a grand public event.
Lokamanya saw how Lord Ganesha was worshipped by the upper stratum as well as the rank and file of India. The visionary that he was, Tilak realized the cultural importance of this deity and popularised Ganesha Chaturthi as a National Festival "to bridge the gap between the brahmins and the non-Brahmins and find an appropriate context in which to build a new grassroots unity between them" in his nationalistic strivings against the British in Maharashtra. He knew that India couldn't fight her rulers until she solved the differences within her own. Hence, to unite all social classes Tilak chose Ganesha as a rallying point for Indian protest against British rule because of his wide appeal as "the god for Everyman".
It was around 1893, during the nascent stages of Indian nationalism, that Tilak began to organize the Ganesh Utsav as a social and religious function. He was the first to put in large public images of Ganesha in pavilions and establish the tradition of their immersion on the tenth day. The festival facilitated community participation and involvement in the form of learned discourses, dance dramas, poetry recital, musical concerts, debates, etc. It served as a meeting place for common people of all castes and communities, at a time when all social and political gatherings were forbidden by the British Empire for fear of conspiracies to be hatched against them. An important festival during the Peshwa era, Ganesha Chaturthi acquired at this time a more organized form all over India largely due to Lokmanya's efforts. Under Tilak's encouragement, the festival facilitated community participation and involvement in the form of intellectual discourses, poetry recitals, performances of plays, musical concerts, and folk dances. It served as a meeting ground for people of all castes and communities in times when, in order to exercise control over the population, the British discouraged social and political gatherings.

Lokmanya would have very proud today that his legacy is still very much alive today. And to complete the story, my shoes were very much there where I had left them. I felt humbled and very light visiting this Ganesh Utsav and felt greatly soothed & elevated. In fact, we talked inane for a while and later went to 'va' for our dinner. It turned out to a great evening and an unforgettable experience of witnessing a Ganesh utsav.

1 comment:

  1. I must thank Arvind for this experience! I had seen a few Ganesh Pandals earlier but had not been to one in recent years. Generally, it becomes a show of strength for the local politician, and money collected often gets diverted by unscrupulous elements. Often, lots of money is spent on garish tableaux, mannequins and grand stages. The concerned political party projects its own agenda- whether it is criticizing or supporting government on issues like terrorism, corruption. But this one was unique- simple, arranged by people themselves, on a social theme with no political payoffs, without a government directive, without government funds, without the patronage of a big leader, without a single policeman. Poor, simple, honest people, so much different from the elites in Delhi and Bombay who undergo umpteen foeticides to have a male heir. I wished I could tell the people present that the real champion of this cause was in their midst- unannounced, uninvited, unnoticed, but almost pre-destined! But thank us all very much, they are doing fine by themselves! India has hope!