Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
SIGNS : January 14, 2001
Scenes from a festival
The annual Ganeshotsava or Ganesh Chaturthi festival held during the monsoon months in Maharashtra, especially in Mumbai and Pune, is strongly endowed with the aura of public theatre. Its actors pass easily between sacred and profane, renouncing their usual identities and assuming new ones in the flux of performance. Integral to this public theatre are the gestures through which the individual ego magnifies itself, identifies itself with a collective entity like Religion or Nation. After all, the Ganeshotsava in its present form was re-invented in the late 19th century by Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, as a symbol of resistance to the British colonial regime.
Detail, 17th century scroll, Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum, Hyderabad.
Tilak took a domestic and private idiom of worship and translated it into a collective and public rite of self-assertion: the sarvajanik Ganesha puja in Mumbai and Pune. Above all, perhaps, the Ganeshotsava is a symbolic economy of desire through which the fantasies of the subaltern are articulated, even oriented into a political mobilisation. A politics of masculinity, its currency that of resentment transmuted into exaggerated self-assertion, is conveyed by the pride that Ganesha's warriors take in their physique: manpower for the Ganeshotsava is often provided by neighbourhood body-building associations who place an account of their activities, complete with posters of men with muscles that bulge and ripple, within the force-field of Ganesha.
Perennially an infant yet perennially wise, the beloved elephant-headed god occupies a special place in the popular imagination of south-western India. The son of Parvati and Siva is invoked at the beginning of every enterprise: writers, especially, venerate him as the greatest of scribes, who tirelessly wrote out the epic Mahabharata to the sage Vyasa's dictation. But Ganesha does not remain confined to the meditations of the literati. The icon of Ganesha never remains marooned in antiquity, because, in India, antiquity has never been cut off from the contemporary and formalised as a monumental, remote, aloof past. The past is ever-present, its meanings ever-renewed. The eternal and the ephemeral, the iconic and the ludic are woven together in Ganesha's festivity. The dance is never still, the colour floats in the air, and the dreams of the revellers lift into the sky: the giddy lightness of the festival helps ease up, however momentarily, the oppressive heaviness of ordinary life in a post-colonial metropolis like Mumbai.
Ganesha is popularly thought of as a vighnaharta, a tutelary figure who wards off ill omens and removes obstacles from the path of his devotees. But he was not always so; and far beyond the Ganesha we see today is a Ganesha we do not know, a figure who springs from a deep, prehistoric stratum of the subcontinent's cultural experience. Once upon a time, Ganesha was a fierce tribal god, a yaksha guardian of the forests and their people. He was propitiated as a vighnakarta, a potential creator of obstacles by whose grace alone could one hope to survive in the labyrinthine tropical jungle. Ganesha found a prominent place in Shaivite worship when, at some stage, the tribal cult of the elephant-headed god was assimilated into the religion of farmers and so into that of city-dwellers. Over time, as the monopoly of power became concentrated in the metropolitan centres, the forest-dwellers lost Ganesha to the city-dwellers. In the forests of central India, though, he is still venerated in the ancient, elemental form of a large black stone sanctified with vermilion and a pair of silver-and-enamel eyes. The deity's chosen vehicle, the mushaka or mouse, is a memoir of that time of myth; but the orange reiterated in the headbands or T-shirts that many of the worshippers sport, reveals a more updated myth, that of revanchist Hinduism as an exclusive franchise on the Hindu religion. Popular Indian iconography re-constructs itself ceaselessly, running fresh variations on the archetypes inherited from cultural tradition, and produces new folk heroes drawn from the theatre, cinema and politics. The cinema has, in particular, played a crucial role in this process, from the 1930s mythological films (especially the Prabhat Film Company's "Sant Tukaram," 1936) through the action-mythologicals of the 1950s, with their emphasis on the gods as warlike heroes, to such 1990s crime-thriller/social comment films as "Godmother," in which humans overcome their frailty to act, briefly though it be, with the all-consuming energy of the gods.
The festival can be seen as a time of release, as a space in which the normal inhibitions are relaxed. I am put in mind of an image recorded during the Ganeshotsava of 1999 by the German photographer Thomas Dorn: the image of a man thrusting himself out of a taxi window and shouting, defying the gravity of social order. The festival recedes into the backdrop in this charged instant, as the individual body becomes its own gesture. To an imagination schooled in the classical, the frenzied celebrant resembles the famous image of the Naga king at Badami, his splendid torso and head emerging from a spiral formed by his own snake-coils. A sudden udbhava, an eruption of energy into presence. Elsewhere in Dorn's album of Ganeshotsava images, a man and a woman stand spent and relaxed after the rites of farewell to Ganesha at Dadar beach. Behind them, the revelry dips into a slow quietus. The clouds of gulal still hang in the air, both literally and metaphorically. The immersion of the Ganesha idol marks the terminus of a cycle of energy that has run the course from arousal to aftermath.
An arati is in progress at Bombay's celebrated Siddhi Vinayak temple, dedicated to the Elephant-headed One, and the deity becomes a focus for the wishes of the multitude. Ganesha is both an active participant in, as well as an impassive witness to, the transactions and negotiations that the devout propose. For the ten days that Ganesha rules in his own sovereign name, rather than through priests and ministers, many social taboos and proscriptions are temporarily dissolved. In the presence of Ganesha, the distinctions between elite and subaltern, mandarin and artisan, urban and rural, stand abrogated by a common need for grace and reassurance, a desire to be absolved of guilt and granted a reprieve from misfortune by the friendly neighbourhood god. He intervenes in the daily lives of his worshippers: examinations and deals, marriages and inheritances, none is secure without the benison of the Remover of Obstacles.
The mandap - the tent, awning or marquee in which the Ganesha idol is installed - is situated in an intermediate realm between temple and street, where the rules of neither space apply fully or firmly - a space of play in which classical and demotic forms of expression coexist. So the chant and the slogan mingle in the frenzy of participation, as worshippers mill around the icon, eager to assert their stake in the investment of bliss that is Ganesha. Even within this torrential river of sound and light, though, you might occasionally find a rare moment of stillness, held within a shell of quiescence even while the carnival whirls and eddies around the city.
The private, domestic Ganeshotsava still continues to be celebrated: in Mumbai and Pune, many families bring Ganesha home in a hand-cart, to be duly installed for his ten days of glory; they take him to the immersion reluctantly, wading into the waters of the Arabian Sea or oaring a boat into the Mula-mutha river in Pune. At each threshold, he is gently cradled by children and hymned by their elders. This is what the celebration would have looked like before the era of gigantism heralded by Tilak's sarvajanik puja which has now been exponentiated, with mammoth idols carried to the water in convoys of trucks. In these family scenes, we recall a lost intimacy of scale: Ganesha ceases to be the vast receptacle of popular desire and goes back to being a conversational god.
Many permutations of the Ganesha image take place during the festival. In one corner of the Lord's temporary domain on earth, we find a Ganesha equipped with the wings of Garuda, the god Vishnu's solar eagle: Disney meets Bhakti at the inventive level of popular culture. Neither formal scripture nor the mandates of the shilpa-shastras are respected here. Instead, human ingenuity breaches the boundaries between the local and the global, the hereditary and the contemporary. It conveys the hybrid urgencies of metropolitan India, weaves together all the complex sources of the present.
Again, a dynamic interplay takes place between the eternal and the ephemeral in the pageant, which is the lila, the play of forms and names, objects and events. In the flux of lila, every narrative is a version, a provisional account; there are no absolute and immutable original stories. And when technology arrives, announcing itself as the new and dominant instrumentality, it is immediately gathered into the religious consciousness as yet another source of the miraculous. A vital element of the Ganesha tableaux is the mechanical sublime, as we may describe it: the rudimentary robots, the trick gadgetry, all presided over by the Garuda from "Sant Tukaram", who still exerts his mythic charge on the devout in the epoch of video games and satellite television.
In a particularly striking tableau from the 1999 Ganeshotsava, Ganapati plays the Lord of Hosts, gana-pati, dancing on a verdigris Kaliya Nag. Taking its cue from the music video, that distinctive genre of the age, popular Indian culture generates a remix iconography: we see here a conflation of the myths associated with Ganesha and Krishna, for it is Krishna who subjugates the great snake Kaliya, and liberates the river Yamuna. There is an entertaining political twist to this phenomenon, for the many-hooded snake bears the title of Ghuskhor (infiltrator, in Marathi) - the Ganeshotsava of 1999 was mounted and staged in the shadow (or perhaps this should read as the aura) of the Kargil military operations. The archetypal identification of the enemy, and the ascription of his defeat to the Lord of Hosts, forms part of the triumphal narratives of a resurgent nationalism. Sotto voce, we note the pathos implicit in this allegory: it records the somewhat nervous chest-thumping of a nation-state that is rapidly losing its sovereignty to the machine of globalisation, an economy that has been forced open by transnational corporations.
Last year, as it does every year, the Ganeshotsava reflected the graph of collective aspirations: it registered the changing nuances of popular taste and style, of belonging, selfhood and identity in Indian (or certainly Western Indian) society. I recall walking through the Tardeo area of Central Bombay last year, and being caught off-guard by the staccato bursts of gunfire resounding in a mandap: the rat-a-tat of submachine guns was punctuated by the flicker and burst of multi-coloured strobe lights.
The faraway events of warfare between India and Pakistan in the high north, brought into sharp close-up by television reportage, served as backdrop to the Ganeshotsava celebration in Bombay's back-alleys in 1999. Ganesha, naturally, acted as gana-raya, the King of Warriors. This is heroism by proxy, with the soldier playing the role of guarantor of national masculine pride: the mystique of the nation lives on, takes ever more militaristic forms. The inventive Ganesha tableaux, and the fabliaux that attend them, offer evidence of a national identity that is shored up by spectacle and threatened by catastrophe. In 1999, most Indians were busy emphasising the Indian army's victory in Kargil, while downplaying the havoc of the floods in Orissa: adroitly as ever, the circus of images that is Ganeshotsava interpreted the public consciousness correctly, and gave it magical if deceptive embodiment.
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