s masses in Maharashtra perceive the largest festival of Ganesh Chaturthi in the state, it is difficult to believe that the celebrations, at least in its current form, are just over a century old. In 1892, it was one of the stalwarts of the freedom movement, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who decided to bring the festival to then Bombay, where the first and oldest mandal — Keshavi Naik Chawl Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav mandal — was set up at Girgaum in 1893. 1890-1920 – Cultural events like dance dramas, musical nights, and religious gatherings were organised with the central themes such as independence and nationalism. 1940-50 – While the festival rituals continued to be simple, themes related to the First and Second World War was depicted during the festival. 1960s – The festival took a political turn post-independence, with an increased focus on the Hindu culture — Mahabharata and Ramayana were enacted in plays and reflected in essay writing and drawing competitions, in addition to dance programmes over the 11 days of the festival. 1970-80 – Black-and-white war films were the highlight of the festivals. Themes revolved around the China and Pakistan wars, and nationalism. 1982 – An umbrella body for mandals was formed after pressure from the state government regarding increased conflicts between different groups. The first count of total Sarvajanik mandals in the Bombay was 1,340 up to Mahim (suburbs did not exist). 1995 – Count goes up to 3,000 Sarvajanik mandals. 2008 – Number increases to 5,000. By 2012, there were 6,500 mandals and 11,756 by 2016. Political parties have also invested in the local mandals in the form of huge donations and sponsorships for various programmes like orchestra or prizes for local programmes, the reason being youths of these mandals wield a lot of influence in their areas and also played the crucial role during the election campaigning.
The Shiv Sena used the festival to expand its reach. From 1970 onwards, the party dominated the festival. Ganesha mandals were formed in every area and Sena office bearers led by Shakha Prabhu (unit chief) occupied important posts in these mandals. Donations were collected mostly by threatening the local business communities. The Sena used this festival to assemble the people and it really helped them to gain a foothold among the Maharashtrians. The situation can be gauged from the fact that every top leader in the Sena had in his formative years headed a local Ganesh mandals. However, this began to change when the Nationalist Congress Party leaders started getting assertive during that time. The real change happened in 2005-06 when the Sena saw the defection of two top leaders – Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray. Supporters of both the leaders started making inroads into these mandals. The BJP, which had hardly any significant presence in the Ganesh festivals, is now making itself highly visible with an eye on the 2019 polls. The city unit headed by Ashish Shelar is currently being seen in all major mandals with banners and posters of the party. Shelar has instructed his cadres to make their presence felt in all major events taking place in the city in the run-up to the polls. As political parties competed to claim the festival, the celebrations became bigger. In 1982, the first survey of all Sarvajanik mandals revealed a total of 1,340 in the city alone. By 1995, the numbers increased to 3,000 and crossed 5,000 in 2008. In 2012, the numbers went up to 6,500 but the major jump was seen in the last four years with 11,756 mandals currently in Mumbai. The Hindu festival in the honour of the Elephant-headed God is primarily celebrated in the homes and in public by the local community groups or mandals who install images of Ganesha in their homes and pandals. There was a time when the Ganesh festival meant everything to the people because their freedom depended on it. Bombay had little more than 10 lakh people during the inauguration of the mandals. Idols were made only from mud, collected from rivers, lakes and the main idea was to spread awareness about a free India. These days, Ganesha becomes pure commercial, there are politics, commercial angle, and also advertisement involved, many of the business tycoons make their black money white through such Ganesh festivals. The Lalbaugcha Raja in central Mumbai is the biggest draw. Although the idol in the cramped fish market remains the same each year, crores of devotees flock to this much-hyped pandal to seek boons from the wish-fulfilling deity. Over the years, offerings in gold and silver have increased in direct proportion to high-profile celebrity visits and constant media coverage.
While Mumbaikars devotedly celebrated Ganesh Chaturthi, the politicians too, this time, seem to be keen on making most out of this to their political advantage. This year onwards, the developers have backed out from giving donations to the Ganesh pandals as many redevelopment projects have been stuck in the city for over a year. Demonetisation is one of the biggest reasons many shopkeepers or business groups refrained from supporting Ganesh donations. The pandals across Mumbai are now dependent solely on the politicians for the funds for the festival. According to the Brihanmumbai Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Samanvay Samiti (BSGSS), an umbrella body of Ganesh mandals in the city, there are a total of 11,400 Ganesh pandals across the city. Each pandal on an average spends around Rs 7 lakh on organising the 10-day festival and the total turnover estimate of all pandals is over 800 crore in Mumbai during this time. The donations have been reduced by almost 50 per cent given the fact that redevelopment projects in the city have been stuck for more than a year and many developers have backed out from giving huge donations. Many businesses and corporate companies got shut down and many small-scale industries suffered due to GST and demonetisation, so the collection from all these sources has reduced to 50 per cent. Also, the political leaders have avoided putting up the banners and posters which have affected the revenue of the pandals. They can now get funds only through the events organised by the pandals and sponsored by a few entities. Moreover, in the recent few years, the festival has been much politicised. So, all the politicians make sure that they use the platform to reach out to the public. The NGOs or other organisations controlled by the politicians are also advertised.
Politicians sponsor events such as dance, rangoli, drawing, and cooking competitions to provide funding to the pandals. The commercialisation of the festival in the last few years is also helping the NGOs in getting huge money. The festival is now being used to flaunt money power and muscle power which can be used for politics. The mandals, or at least most of them, have political patronage, visible or invisible. The festivities are actually fund generators for individuals, groups, politicians. Meanwhile, the road widths are guzzled up, civic bodies and police make it a point to talk of restrictions on such pandals but it often remains mere talk. They are gaudy and loud, gauche, and they are expensive and the focus, fortunately, remains on the idol; the bigger they are, the better they get acknowledged. The self-imposed rule of keeping them less than 15 feet is not being universally followed. Electricity is not always secured in a kosher way. It may even be stolen from the nearest lamppost. It lacks the critical core of piety. The worship is limited to a bow, an aarti, and the rest is gaiety. Not obviously, the change is so much that some screen ordinary Bollywood films, some even have fashion shows, some organise an evening dedicated to film music all under the presumption that ‘public wohi mangta hai’. A film star visiting a mandal is a photo-op and sure to catch the media attention. But then, once you are hooked onto a tradition, never mind its other features, then you remain hooked.
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