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Making way for the god of all things, Mumbai style

September 04, 2013 16:28 IST

Mahesh Vijapurkar on how the celebrations for Mumbai's favourite deity are now a combination of crass commerce and politics.

When Lokmanya Tilak visited a Sarvajanik Ganpati festivity in a chawl in Mumbai’s Girgaum in 1894, he had seen an idol of about two feet height installed there. It was an event which was the same pattern as what he had started a year earlier in Pune as an event and an occasion for people of all classes and castes to gather.

Except, in that Keshavji Naik Chawl, the Ganpati celebrations in Mumbai have changed. Then, the public place was the courtyard of the chawl. It did not spill over onto the streets. Nor does it today, and there is a sense of sobriety amid the festivities. Tilak had started it as a link between the celebrations and national awakening

If he were to return to see what lows these celebrations have reached, not just in Mumbai and its vicinity but across Maharashtra, and in the past two decades mimicked in other states too, the freedom-fighter would be shocked out of his wits. Grandeur is not the yardstick. It being raucous is just one thing, with activists and government battling to make them quieter.

It is now a blend of commerce, politics, and much worse, vulgarisation. The politics is not of a nationalistic genre Tilak used it for, to gather people on platforms which the British otherwise discouraged. It is of a vile kind, not for purported public but personal good, like the corporator’s or the local thug’s, sometimes a combo of the two, to retain a hold on the area.

No doubt people participate in the festivities with gusto with nothing but the arrival of the idols to its submersion in water bodies their preoccupation. They know what goes on behind the scenes in most Ganpati mandals for the fund collections. They know of the competitive efforts to have larger idols, grander pavilions, but hardly, in most cases, the quantum realised and how much spent and how.

The opacity and the lavishness, and the blaring loudspeakers, and some elements considered ‘cultural’ -- like singers and orchestras that belt out Bollywood numbers, including bawdy ones -- is one part. The fund-raising, except with the small ones organised on an absolutely voluntary level, each with his mite in housing societies, is the thing. An estimate of the fund size is hard to arrive at but can be mind-boggling.

The organisation of such festivities is by no means cheap. The decorators, often imported from as far a place as West Bengal, visit by organisers to places they want to model them on -- say, the Mysore palace in one place this year -- costs a wallop. The daily expense of the running of the event is another item on the account books we never get to see. The advertisements used to come from gutka makers and now mostly builders.

There of course are exceptions. Like the public counting of the donations to the Lalbaug Ganpati. Some, as also this particular mandal does, provide succour to the needy as well but in most cases, the cash flow is one-way, from the donor to the extortionist. This year, even door-to-door collections in many an area has a minimum which is a three figure number. Ingenious means have been adopted too.

The other day, Marathi newspaper Loksatta had front-paged how ‘just anything’ is being done to raise the collection which is a far cry from just passing the hat around, each shelling out according to ability or willingness. In some places, apart from the usual per flat and per shop, sometimes per shopkeepers associations, people are being extorted per car in the vicinity. Without, however, considering how the celebrations set off are traffic woes.

Mandals even steal power from the nearest lamp post for the lavish illumination, which from an affidavit filed with the high court reveals the extent of the mischief. In 2003-04, 341 offences were registered by Mumbai’s power utility and in 2011-12, it spiralled to 2,186, indicating how widespread this practice is. It is easy to guess that this is not an exclusive Mumbai phenomenon.

In one instance in Navi Mumbai, an informal gambling den has been set up where the ‘per table’ yield is being ploughed into the kitty. Last year, one such den was run just behind the idol in Navi Mumbai, the newspaper reported. In some areas, there are ‘fifty-fifty agreements' between the dens and the organisers. All, it seems, is being done to honour and placate the deity who removes obstacles. But in the organisers’ path, there are no obstacles.

But these influentials, with their political clout in the establishment pyramid which certainly runs in the city’s government, are unable to ensure that the path of the deity is devoid of potholes when brought in for installation and taken out for the submersion. Every year, the deadline to make them pothole-free is a barely kept promise. There are anxieties, of course, but no remedies. But why?

Because, those who provide patronage to the mandals -- police permissions, immunity despite a law curbing high decibel noise and backed by the high court for rigorous enforcement, blocking the roads and even digging them up to set up the huge awnings and shamianas -- are the same who may be in the matrix of contractors and politicians which ensures poor roads? This patronage has a high rate of return. That explains the opacity in financing the celebrations.

Mahesh Vijapurkar