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British then, Covid now — Mumbai plans muted Ganesh festival with message for new ‘enemy’

The 10-day Ganesh festival, a Hindu tradition celebrated with special fervour in Maharashtra, will begin 22 August. 

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Mumbai: Since his childhood, Nikhil Morye, 29, a resident of Mumbai suburb Goregaon, has always been busy this time of the year, running around and doing odd jobs for the ‘Mangal Murti Ganesh Mandal’, a local Ganesh pandal.

“Whether it is cleaning the pandal or rushing to nearby shops for some last-minute aarti requirements, or even coordinating with police and civic ward offices for permissions, I’ve been doing it all for years,” Morye told ThePrint. 

This year, too, Morye has his hands full with Ganesh festival preparations, but of a different kind. His list of tasks includes helping mandals in his area set up online darshans and enforce social distancing, and coordinating with hospitals and ambulance services in case anyone involved in Ganesh festival preparations contracts Covid-19. 

The 10-day Ganesh festival, a Hindu tradition celebrated with special fervour in Maharashtra, will begin 22 August. 

With the coronavirus pandemic yet to recede, and Mumbai still struggling against a high caseload and fatalities, the preparations for Lord Ganesh’s arrival this year have got a Covid filter.

Mumbai has been one of India’s Covid hotspots with a total caseload of 1,26,371 — 19,064 active cases — as of Wednesday evening, according to data from the Mumbai civic agency. Every day, Mumbai has been adding about 1,000 cases to its tally, with Wednesday registering 1,132 fresh infections. 

Muted alright, but organisers of Ganesh pandals say they are making it a point to celebrate the festival this year. 

Naresh Dahibhavkar, president of the Brihanmumbai Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsav Samanvay Samiti, a government-recognised committee that coordinates between Ganesh mandals, civic authorities and the local police, said, “Yes, there are rules for social distancing that won’t make the festival feel the same as every year, but, more importantly, in the past few months, the pessimism among people has increased. There’s no will to do anything celebratory. That’s the main difference this year.”

Many of the Ganpati mandal volunteers, Dahibhavkar added, “are young professionals who have lost their jobs and suffered pay cuts due to the pandemic”. 

“There’s a certain depression that we can see in society, and there’s no will to do anything celebratory. That’s one of the main reasons why we have been insisting on celebrating the festival this year,” he added.

Also Read: How Maharashtra and southern states are celebrating Gudi Padwa, Ugadi in lockdown

Fewer mandals, smaller idols

Usually, the Ganesh festival is marked by the emergence of pandals — makeshift structures with elaborate dais for the idol — at every nook in Mumbai. However, this year, the authorities have received fewer permission requests to put up pandals

According to the Brihanmumbai Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsav Samanvay Samiti, there are usually about 12,000 mandals in the city — 2,470 on public roads, and the rest within housing societies and private buildings. This number does not include household Ganesh idols. 

This year, less than 60 per cent — just about 7,200 — have applied with less than a week to go until the 19 August deadline, a functionary of the committee said. 

Meanwhile, mandal volunteers, instead of running around for logistics and planning live cultural programmes, have organised themselves into a central Covid taskforce of 500 members. 

Morye, an HR professional and a key member of the Covid taskforce, said, “We are helping mandals enforce social-distancing norms, set up facilities for online worship to limit the number of visitors, as well as helping the police force, exhausted from Covid duties, maintain law and order around pandals. 

“If there’s a situation where a Covid case comes up near a Ganesh pandal, the taskforce will help arrange a hospital bed and the necessary medical aid.”

Morye said they are also “trying to generate some enthusiasm among people by helping pandals organise online yoga classes, music, dance and art sessions”. 

Also Read: YouTube kirtans, Facebook puja, helicopters — Maharashtra pilgrimage gets Covid twist

A different kind of celebration

One of Mumbai’s most defining images, that of towering Ganesh idols being immersed in the high seas, will also be missing this year, with the Maharashtra government capping the height of idols at four feet and encouraging people to conduct immersions in artificial ponds instead of the sea. 

Mumbai’s civic body is setting up 167 artificial ponds this year as compared to 32 last year. The civic body has also appealed to organisers to avoid immersion processions, which generally involve large crowds coming together amid the beats of the dhol tasha, dancing and cheering as they send the deity off. 

For the first time in 86 years, Mumbai’s iconic Lalbaugcha Raja mandal will not have an idol at all. The organisers have instead erected a pandal for plasma donation and blood donation. 

“The festivities will naturally be muted this year with Mumbai still recording 1,000+ cases every day, patients still struggling to get beds, and our youth facing economic problems. But, whenever the city has been in danger, Ganesh mandals have stepped up to help. This is what we want to do now,” Sudhir Salvi, a key functionary of the Lalbaugcha Raja committee, said. About 20 Covid-recovered people, he added, have already pledged plasma for their donation drive. 

The Ganpati mandal also plans to felicitate the families of the 20 soldiers who lost their lives in the 15 June India-China face-off at the Galwan Valley, as well as those of Mumbai police personnel who have died of Covid. 

Like Lalbaugcha Raja, several mandals have organised blood-donation camps, while a few others are collecting rations for distribution among the poor.

Also Read: This Eid al-Adha, fewer devotees crowd Jama Masjid to offer morning prayers

Trying to do now what Tilak did in 1892’

The 10-day Ganesh festival has evolved as a social, cultural and political hallmark of Mumbai. 

While Ganesh Chaturthi has been observed since the 16th century, it was then confined to individual households. It was an important celebration among the Peshwas, the prime ministers of the Maratha empire. 

In 1892, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a key leader in India’s freedom movement, brought Lord Ganesh out of homes and onto the streets, to channelise the nationalist sentiment against the British rule and bring about a sense of unity among the masses. Also, it was easier to bring a large number of people together for a festival rather than a political gathering under the British rule. 

Mumbai’s first Ganesh mandal, the Keshavji Naik Chawl Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Mandal at Girgaum, was formed in 1893 and has been celebrating the festival in almost the same traditional form each year — a small idol, and no loudspeakers or expensive lights, decor, dhol-tashas or DJs. 

Over the years, the Ganesh festival also became a part of the city’s political culture, with parties and leaders tapping the community Ganesh mandals, their pool of volunteers and visitors to enlist foot-soldiers and boost their strength on the ground. 

The Shiv Sena, especially, heavily relied on the Ganpati festival in the 1970s to expand its membership. Currently, all political parties donate generously to Ganesh mandals

Dahibhavkar said, “By insisting that we celebrate the Ganesh festival this year despite the pandemic, we are trying to do exactly what Tilak did over a hundred years ago.”

“He started the public celebration of the festival to imbibe a sense of patriotism and unity among people. This year we want to help people fight the negativity and hopelessness of the situation, unite them and give them something to be enthusiastic about,” he added.

Also Read: Banarasi silk industry has a Covid fear: Indian festivals may never be the same again


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