Ganesh Chaturthi, celebrated over ten days between August and September, marks the beginning of a long festive season in India. The following months bring in festivals like Muharram, Durga Puja, Diwali, Gurupurab and Christmas, to name a few. In 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ganesh Chaturthi also marks a change in the very texture of how we celebrate festivals.
In the face of government restrictions on organising public events, idol-makers in localities like Dhoolpet and Dasara are facing immense crunches. While these communities produced 61-foot-tall idols in 2019, unemployment and a lack of funds has been a major threat this year due to scant sales of idols. The fact that Ganesh Chaturthi is known for the energy of its physical presence makes this all the more agonising. Public gatherings across states including Maharashtra, Goa, Odisha, and Karnataka, the singing of religious songs, beating of drums, and dancing processions typically announce the problem-dispelling deity’s much awaited arrival. The most enduring symbol of Ganesh Chaturthi, however, are the clay idols and statues of Ganesha, the preparation of which begin months before the festival itself. Artisans decorate these statues with flowers and lights, which are then installed at pandals.
The public nature of Ganesh Chaturthi is unsurprising given its historic origin in India. The festival was revived in Maharashtra by the nationalist freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who promoted it as a way to carry out mass mobilisation and resist British legislative bans on large-scale Indian gatherings. Although it is claimed that Tilak chose Ganesha as an important symbol to bridge gaps between Hindu castes, anti-caste writing drawing on the works of Ambedkar, Phule, and Periyar has often been critical of the festival. Interestingly, a story around the origins of Ganpati visarjan states that this practice was introduced by Tilak to mollify Brahmin priests and purify idols that were touched by people across castes in the public, free-access pandals. Ganesh Chaturthi is also celebrated in the private sphere, through smaller idols and personal pujas involving flowers, aarti, modak, and karanji. In Goa, for instance, families often worship Ganesha through pictures drawn on leaves, or patri, and idols are hidden in houses. This unique ritual came about due to the Goa Inquisition by Portuguese colonisers when Hindu religious practices were strictly banned.
Clearly, this is a festival that has always found ways to adapt. Tutorials on modaks have popped up on Youtube. Pandals will follow social distancing measures and live-stream prayers. Young people in Sholapur have carved Ganesha’s image into the ground of a farm. And perhaps, as histories, beliefs, and celebrations continue to adapt, those who celebrate will think of Ganesha’s age-old feud with the moon and remember to look away when it rises.
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