Like most festivals during the Covid-19 pandemic, Navratri festivities are a low-key affair this year. However, few know that the public celebrations of Navratri in Maharashtra were launched by anti-caste activist and social reformer ‘Prabodhankar’ Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, the father of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, as a form of counter-culture against the ‘Brahmin-dominated’ Ganesh utsav that preceded it.
The Ganesh utsav in Mumbai’s Dadar area, saw donations being collected from people across caste lines. However, the organising committee was dominated by Brahmins, who kept other social groups away from it. The speakers, singers and kirtankars (those who give religious discourses) who performed during the festival were also Brahmins.
An example of this toxic upper-caste authoritarianism and Babasaheb Ambedkar’s personal conviction and courage in standing up to it has been cited in Changdeo Khairmode’s biography of the icon of the oppressed classes (Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar-Volume II, Sugava Prakashan, Pune).
Obstacles to an inclusive Navratri
According to Khairmode’s book, Ambedkar had been invited by the organising committee of the Ganesh utsav to speak during the festival. However, this raised the hackles of Savarna Hindus, who felt that a Dalit’s presence would ‘defile’ the idol and ‘condemn them and their successive and preceding generations to damnation in hellfire’. These upper castes of Dadar began ‘conspiring in secret’ to prevent Ambedkar from speaking at the venue, writes Khairmode.
There were also death threats made to Ambedkar. But, despite the advice of his associates, he decided to go keep his appointment. Khairmode writes: “Saheb (Ambedkar) said, one has to die someday or the other. Then, why shouldn’t one die fighting?”
An undeterred Ambedkar left for the function with a loaded revolver in his coat pocket. His bodyguard Balaram Mane also summoned some Mahar (a Dalit caste that converted to Buddhism with Ambedkar in 1956) wrestlers, who protected Ambedkar at the venue. Though there were some unsuccessful attempts to disrupt his speech, in his oration Ambedkar stressed that the Hindu community could never be strengthened unless it discarded its obscurantist notions. Ambedkar, who would renounce Hinduism for Buddhism after his attempts to seek humane treatment for Dalits came to naught, also called for upper castes and untouchables to be treated at par.
In his autobiography Majhi Jeevan Gatha (The story of my life) (Collected Works of Prabodhankar Thackeray, Vol-I, Maharashtra Rajya Sahitya Aani Sanskruti Mandal, Mumbai), Prabodhankar says that in 1926, progressive and non-Brahmin youth sought permission for other castes and erstwhile ‘untouchables’ to worship the deity during the Ganesh utsav in Dadar. Ambedkar and his associates tried to negotiate with the organising committee to let Dalits worship and participate in the festival’s cultural programmes. However, the committee members refused, according to Khairmode.
While Prabodhankar cites the year all these negotiations took place as 1926, Khairmode wrote that it was 1928.
On Ganesh Chaturthi (which marks the beginning of Ganesh utsav), a group of hundred-plus people led by Ambedkar, social reformer Rao Bahadur S.K. Bole, and Prabodhankar pressed for this demand outside the venue near Tilak Bridge in Dadar. Prabodhankar threatened that if the ‘untouchables’ were not allowed to worship the deity by 3 pm that afternoon, he would smash the idol.
Eventually, a middle ground was arrived at. It was decided that a Brahmin priest would consecrate the idol, after which Ambedkar’s associate Ganpat Mahadev Jadhav ‘Madkebua’ would have a bath and hand over a bunch of flowers to him to be offered to the Lord.
Prabodhankar says that many were rattled by this protest. Some Brahmins who were due to chant mantras became upset over the idol being ‘defiled’, and decided to stay away at the last minute. To prevent a repeat of such incidents, the organising committee announced that the Ganesh festival would not be celebrated in Dadar again.
This led to a whisper campaign being launched, blaming Prabodhankar for the turn of events. Prabodhankar writes that the Bahujan samaj wanted to be part of a festival that encompassed members of all castes and creed. Hence, Prabodhankar and Bole decided to launch the public celebrations of Navratri that were more inclusive.
A new vision
“The presiding deity of Maharashtra is Shri Maybhawani (the Mother Goddess), who allows access to everyone (regardless of caste). Her Navratri is like a national festival in Maharashtra… (The) Navratri utsav was celebrated in every house and on every fort during the reign of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. It was during the rule of the (Brahmin) Peshwas and because of their emphasis on Ganesh worship that these celebrations took a back-seat,” writes the Thackeray family patriarch. He adds that Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak launched the public celebrations of the Ganesh festival (in 1893) and rejuvenated the Peshwa-era tradition.
Prabodhankar, Bole, and their associates started the Lokahitavadi Sangh, which hosted the first such public celebration of Navratri at Dadar through the Shri Shiv Bhawani Navratri Mahotsav in 1926. The concept of a festival encompassing all Hindus, including the erstwhile ‘untouchables’, saw the participation of huge crowds, with people across castes from places as far as Palghar and Kalyan in Maharashtra joining in.
In a break from the upper-caste dominated Ganesh festival celebrations, a Mahar was given the opportunity of unfurling the saffron flag at the venue. During Ghatasthapana, the first day of Navratri, a couple from the community also performed religious rites, which was a revolutionary act in those days. The cultural events saw participation from thousands as non-Brahmin orators, poets and shahirs (balladeers) performed, thus running counter to the traditional practice of members of the priestly class dominating this sphere.
On Dussehra, a massive procession was organised. Ambedkar also spoke on the occasion. Prabodhankar says that after the Navratri festival at Dadar, this led to similar mass celebrations being organised across Maharashtra.
Shiv Sena’s complicated legacy
Prabodhankar was involved with the Navratri utsav in Dadar till 1929. Later, he moved to Karjat. However, the tradition still continues at the Khandke buildings in Dadar.
Incidentally, Navratri occupies an important place in the Shiv Sena’s history and iconography. In 1966, the party, which was launched earlier that year in June, held its first public rally on Dussehra, which marks the culmination of the festival. The tradition of an annual Dussehra rally, where party supremo Bal Thackeray, and later, his son and party president Uddhav, have addressed the party, continues to this day at Shivaji Park in Mumbai, close to the Khandke building.
Uddhav Thackeray is the first person from his political family to hold a position in the government, and will be the first to address the Dussehra rally as both the Shiv Sena president and Chief Minister of Maharashtra. But this year, the pandemic and physical distancing regulations may lead to the rally taking place online.
However, despite Prabodhankar’s roots in the non-Brahmin and social reform movements, the Shiv Sena has often taken contrarian positions. This included opposing the anti-black magic bill (which was finally approved after rationalist Narendra Dabholkar’s still unresolved murder in 2013).
Prabodhankar was a close associate of Ambedkar. According to Ambedkarite-intellectual J.V. Pawar, it was at Prabodhankar’s urging that Ambedkar supported the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti in 1956, which was crusading for the cause of Maharashtra’s statehood.
However, the Shiv Sena later took up cudgels against the renaming of the Marathwada University after Ambedkar. The party has also fought bloody street battles with the Dalit Panthers in 1974, during Mumbai’s infamous Worli riots, and objected to the Maharashtra government printing Ambedkar’s ‘Riddles in Hinduism’, objecting to references about Hindu deities.
The author is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas’. Views are personal.