From pedestal to pavement
Beginning as a domestic festivity, Ganesha Chaturthi has long since been raised to the status of a public festival. More troublingly, it has acquired political overtones. RANJIT HOSKOTE follows the `Remover of Obstacles' on his passage from a genial household deity to a hard-edged mass icon.
ONCE upon a time, Ganesha was a deity of the forests: a pair of eyes that watched the traveller, whether pilgrim or merchant, from the trunk of a gnarled tree. If propitiated, the great yaksha would promise his worshipper protection; those who carried their wares through the jungles, or sought wisdom there, were unwise to antagonise him by neglect. For then he would place obstacles in their path, conjuring up dragons of the mind or unleashing the bandits who haunted the unpatrolled shadowlands through which ran the trade route linking the Ganga to the peninsula's capitals. We invoke Ganesha by many names today: Vinayaka, Sumukha, Gajanana, each name bodying him forth in splendour, clothed in regalia and auspicious in gesture. But behind these familiar figures is an unknown Ganesha, whose origins lie deep in the subcontinent's prehistory. Once upon a time, Ganesha was a fierce guardian of the tangled tropical forests and their inhabitants; those who wandered into his domain could survive only by his grace. Ganesha, today popularly celebrated as Vighna-harta, Remover of Obstacles, was once feared as Vighna-karta, Creator of Hurdles.
This complex deity is now rarely met in his awesome archaic form: as a pair of silver eyes on a vermilion-daubed stone or tree-trunk. For many centuries, he has been a comfortably rotund elephant-headed god, invoked in private worship and domestic ritual, hymned at the beginning of enterprises. Cherubic yet astute, this son of Parvati and Shiva occupies a special place in India's religious imagination, especially south of the Vindhyas. And perhaps more than any other divinity in the pantheon of popular Hinduism, Ganesha continues to assume new forms in the minds of his worshippers, as they read their anxieties and desires onto him, treating him like a wish-fulfilling hypermachine. In the street-corner tableaux that form an integral feature of the Ganesha Chaturthi festival that is held annually during the monsoon months in Maharashtra, for instance, the deity projects himself into the contemporary in diverse avatars.
Walking through the alleys of Central Mumbai, the city's old working-class district, the visitor is amazed by the marriage of Bhakti and Disney that defines these Ganesha tableaux. Popular iconography is unceasingly re-constructed in these scenes of battle and triumph, as inherited cultural archetypes are melded with images drawn from cinema, national politics and international events; as Ganesha dances across these changing landscapes of the present, the power of goodness morphs by imperceptible degrees into the goodness of power. Formal scripture has little role to play in the flux of this lila; their narratives supplied by the situations of the moment, the tableaux offer an unerring guide to the themes that have captured the public imagination in any given phase. In the early 1980s, Ganesha would point his trident at a turbanned figure symbolising militancy in Punjab; in the late 1980s, he would take on rebels in combat fatigues representing Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka. In 1999, he was gana-raya, the Lord of Hosts, leading Indian soldiers against the enemy on the icy heights of Kargil; or dancing on the head of a many-headed monster labelled `Infiltration'. Given the exigencies of local politics in Mumbai, this might just as easily have meant Bangladeshi migrant workers as Pakistani spies. In 2002, Ganesha rode out to do battle with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda; this year, he will doubtless preside over the Savarkar controversy.
Resonating with the upheavals that have afflicted India's public sphere, the Ganesha tableaux of the last decade, in particular, have represented the god as a hard-edged mass icon: the centrepiece of a mass upsurge that testifies to the power of politicised religiosity.
The political overtones
Originally a domestic festivity, Ganesha Chaturthi acquired its current political overtones during the late 19th Century, when it was re-invented by `Lokamanya' Tilak, as a site where mass resistance to the British regime could be mobilised. Today, the sarvajanik Ganesha poojas in Maharashtra are run by local mandals, groups typically sponsored by majoritarian political groupings such as the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena; similarly, it appears that the Vinayaka Chaturthi celebrations in Tamil Nadu have been commandeered by the Hindu Munnani.
In Mumbai, especially, the Ganesha pageants are a form of public theatre, a symbolic economy of desire in which the fantasies of the urban underclass are articulated, even oriented into a political mobilisation. We see, here, a politics of masculinity, its currency that of resentment transmuted into exaggerated self-assertion. Ganesha's warriors take pride in their physique: in many areas, manpower for the Ganesha festival is provided by neighbourhood body-building associations; accounts of their activities, replete with posters of men with muscles that bulge and ripple, are strategically positioned within Ganesha's aura. Organisers and devotees pass between the sacred and the mundane, even as the deity comes down from the pedestal and settles on the pavement. The icons themselves have grown more and more gigantic through the years, the bright opulence of their strobe-lit kiosks in sharp contrast to the backdrop of grey tenement houses and decaying mansions against which they are sited.
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Integral to this public theatre, this symbolic economy of desire, are the gestures through which the individual ego magnifies itself, identifying itself with a collective entity such as Religion or Nation; these two entities have become virtually interchangeable at street level, as the Hindu elements latent within Indian nationalism have become manifest. Ganesha is treated, in this process, as sanctifying conduit or catalyst of magical change. The saffron of political affiliation often overwhelms the vermilion of votive performance in the pageants, reiterated in the headbands, T-shirts and pennants that many of the worshippers sport. Slogans can sometimes drown out chants, as they will undoubtedly do this year, with the Ganesha celebrations forming a prelude to the assembly elections in Maharashtra.
The frenzy of participation reaches its acme during the immersion that concludes the festival, when thousands of worshippers thresh around the icons as they are taken in convoy to the Arabian Sea.
As a site of politicisation, Ganesha's feast may well have made its contribution to the cycle of communitarian violence that has become one of the key mechanisms of Indian public life. This is where affirmative cultural values may be reinforced, but it is also where collective prejudices are passed on.
As the convoys go down to the water's edge, we wait for a glimpse of the Auspicious One: no longer the baleful forest guardian, no longer even just the scaled-up version of a genial family deity, Ganesha has become the receptacle of unruly popular feeling in a dangerously combustible society.
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