Revived in the 19th century by freedom fighter Lokmanya Tilak, Ganesh Chaturthi is a part of the Hindu revival and reforms’ movement that gained currency during the British Era. Ganesh Chaturthi has over the years grown to become a grandiose affair in the western belt of India, and particularly in Mumbai, Pune and other parts of Maharashtra. Ostensibly, one of the Maharashtra’s most-awaited festivals, Ganesh Chaturthi is as much about culture and art as it is about heaps and heaps of modak and festive fervour. The 10-day festival that begins on 'Ganesh Chaturthi' falls on Saturday, August 22, this year.
However, this year, the COVID-19 induced lull is expected to spill over to Ganpati celebrations, which are set to be a low-key affair sans large public gatherings, huge processions and lofty idols.
Due to the risk of spreading the disease, the government has put in place several measures to avoid crowding up people that could lead to violation of the social distancing norms. On a video conference with the committee members of ganesh mandals from Mumbai, Maharashtra's Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray urged pandals to consider shrinking the size of their idols to a manageable average height of 3 to 4 feet. Requesting organisers to reduce the size of their pandals, he urged them to follow all social distancing and health measures while planning the festival. He also made it clear that there will be no public immersion ceremonies permitted this year at the famed Girgaum Chowpatty, Juhu and other beaches in Mumbai.
Ganesh festivities this year will be missing out on its carnivalesque feel with many mandals opting for simpler celebrations in line with chief minister Uddhav Thackeray’s appeal to Ganpati mandals to scale down the festivities.
Keeping these regulations in mind, the Kasba Ganpati Mandal in Mumbai has gone a step further and cancelled all its public events and cultural programmes, which typically pan out through the 11 days of the festival. For the first time Mumbai’s famed, Mumbai Cha Raja idol will be just 4 feet tall, and will be immersed in an artificial pond.
The Goud Saraswat Brahmin Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Samiti at Wadala, and a few mandals in Khetwadi have postponed this year’s festivities to Magh Shudh Chaturthi in February 2021. Meanwhile, Ganpati mandals of Pune, such as Tambdi Jogeshwari, Tulsi Baug, Guruji Talim, Bhau Rangari and Akhil Mandai Mandal have opted for low-key celebrations, where the emphasis will be on physical distancing and hand sanitisers, rather than merry making.
Till last year, pandal-hopping meant being greeted by giant Ganpatis looming large over us, but this year, cutbacks on idol sizes are in order. Khairatabad Ganesh Utsav Committee, for example, has decided to reduce the size of the idol to one foot from the usual 66 feet murtis, alongside Khetwadi Ganpati organisers, who’re opting for a two-to-five-feet tall idol. Whereas, Pune’s star-studded Dagdusheth Ganpati will be avoiding decorations this year.
Size doesn’t matter
For decades, mandals competed with one another to make idols taller and grander. Vrinda Parkar, a third-generation murtikar (sculptor) from Pen, the hub of Ganpati-idols, recalls that most would demand Ganeshas as tall as 20 feet. At their small factory around Shivaji Chowk, with four to five karigaars, the Parkars would craft around 2,000 big idols, to be sent to Mumbai and to towns all over Maharashtra. This year, the trend has reversed, with most pandals pressing for small and no-frills idols.
“We have been receiving orders only for small and light idols, preferably made of PoP,” says Parkar whose in-laws have been in the idol-making business for decades. This year, with only two kaarigars, the Parkars are busy adding decorations and final touches to smaller murtis, while the bigger ones made of clay (the ideal and ecological choice over PoP) gather dust.
At 67-year-old Pandurang Rajaram Kadam’s workshop in Mumbai, you won’t see him working on idols bigger than 5 feet. His son Sanil Kadam, who has improvised and started taking orders on WhatsApp this year, expresses the same concern. What has forced the Elephant God to shrink in height and weight are the current rules of social distancing and regulations on mass gathering -- idols above 10 feet usually require lorries, forklift trucks for transportation and a huge taskforce. The good news being that many idols will now be immersed into smaller lakes, artificial ponds or at pandals itself, reducing the burden on our beaches and the planet.
Bappa on your screen
Like many other places of worship, Lalbaugcha Raja Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Mandal, Lalbaug, and other pandals have been forced to figure out how to bring services, rituals, and other religious practices online in an engaging manner. Thanks to the internet, this year you can skip the long queues, and seek Bappa’s blessings at home via free online darshan and aarti services. If you book prayers at the Goud Saraswat Brahmin Seva Mandal, one of the richest Ganpati mandals in Mumbai, you will receive offerings by courier. Organisers agree that these measures are no substitute for in-person worship, but that they still allow people of faith to find support in religion, at a time of grave else remains uncertainties.
With a little over two months to go before festivities begin, dhol tasha groups from Mumbai and Pune - symbolic of the state’s vibrant energy - which would pan out across venues on the final day of Anant Chathurthi, are reporting a mixed response in bookings from mandals. Without the dhol (a double-sided barrel drum) and tasha (a kettledrum) Ganpati celebrations won’t be the same. For Morya Dhol Pathak, a collective that has played at Ganesh Galli and Sahyadri Krida mandals, practice sessions are on hold. With bookings at an all-time low, this year’s celebrations might have to do without dhol-tasha, fears Prasad S Parkar, a member of the group.
Notwithstanding the missing tell-tale signs of the vibrant festival, Suryavanshi plans on celebrating Ganesh Utsav 2020 with a newfound spirit. “This year, we will be praying to Ganpati to take away our worries, and especially the novel coronavirus. Humko jeene ki prerna bhi ganesh ji dete hai. Vighnakarta jaise hai, waise hi vighnaharta bhi hai,” he says. Ironically, Lord Ganesha is also called Vighnahara and Vignaharta, which in Sanskrit means remover of obstacles.
In that sense, perhaps not much will be different this year. After all, the essence of any festival lies in the collective gratitude of the people, who come together to celebrate life, despite the odds thrown at them in their daily routines. It is that sentiment and devotion, which is far more crucial than any celebration or larger-than-life idol. And there’s genuinely, no better time to nurture a little faith and hope than this.
Image: Unsplash.com/Ajeet Mestry