Communalism Combat published this two part cover story on the Ganesh festival in October 1996. We bring this to our readers during the ten day Ganesh festivities in Maharashtra, two decades later
In Kafka’s frightening masterpiece, Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and finds himself transformed into a gigantic insect. What was otherwise normal suddenly turns malevolent.
In a somewhat similar and dramatic vein, though over the last twenty years, the beloved, benign Ganapatibappa too seems to have transformed before our eyes – from a symbol of all that is auspicious to a symbol that is potentially threatening. The alchemy is alarming. It is like the loss of childhood innocence. Ganapatibappa hardly inspires any more the certain laughter and ambience of playfulness of old, with a promise of modakam or laddoo or mewa. He comes now increasingly accompanied with a faint whiff of teargas and the heavy body-stench of the policemen guarding him.
I still remember with genuine nostalgia my teenage years spent in the refugee rehabilitation mohalla of Lajpat Nagar’s double storey flats in Delhi.
It was cosmopolitan middle class community. Our Maharashtrian neighbour was a sculptor, working at the newly instituted Lalit Kala Akademi. Every year, come Ganesh Utsav, he and his family would invest in a shamiana in our mohalla, put up a modest platform of low-slung tables and treat the entire community to seven days of classical music from an impressive list of artists who he specially invited.
Those were the ‘pre-market’ days for the arts. Artists were yet human beings; not celebrities. From Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to pandit Ravi Shankar; from Vilayat Khan to Ali Akbar; from Bismillah Khan to Siddheshwari Devi; from Ram Narain to Pandit Kishen Maharaj to Ustad Ahmed Jaan Thirakwa: it was evening after evening of unadulterated adoration.
There were no 30 or 40 or 50 feet tall Ganesha icons; there were no mangal artis through the night; there were no tilak marks resembling blood ritual; this was devotion and worship at its purest, where one own moment of beatitude simultaneously became a moment of social participation and collective joy; where the cultural expression of a community manifested as a complex mesh of diverse strands reconciling the many conflicting ‘selves’ within us, thus disabling narrow sectarianism to worm in.
It still amazes me how that locality, notorious these days for its incipient violence and organized gangs inherited from the devastations of the Punjabi diaspora, would subside into a week of conviviality, and it would not surprise you at all if you found yourself rubbing shoulders under the shamiana with the local don, swaying in appreciation of an Amir Khan alaap. Ganesh Utsavs sure were different those days.
It couldn’t last. Like everything else, both Ganesh and the Utsav changed. Ironically, I returned to that very mohalla after a gap of 22 years, in November 1984. It was the scene of some of the worst anti-Sikh pogroms and the mobs here were at their frothing worst. I was hidden this time behind Swami Agnivesh, but for whose saffron robes possibly all of us ‘secularists’ of the Nagrik Ekta Manch would have been lynched right there.
And as I stood there and stared into the ‘eye of hatred’, I knew there must have been many in that mob who would have sat with me under the shamiana two decades ago, allowing our collective consciousness to be transformed by those extraordinary musical evenings. And I thought of my truly visionary Maharashtrian neighbour and how all his efforts at promoting Ganesh Utsavs as a ‘cultural-been wasted at the altar of fundamentalism.
These are not idle reflections. Ganesha is relentlessly acquiring the distinction of being the most contentious icon of this self-torturing sub-continent. This season, in Madras, the ruling DMK government rightly took a firm decision to restrict the route along which the Ganesh procession would be allowed. Despite protests, dharnas, fasts, stone-throwing and threats of self-immolation, the government stood firm and, to its credit, made it the most incident-free Ganesh festival in the city in the past ten years. It only exposes the real role of local civic and administrative bodies in these situations. They hold the key to organized peace or its opposite, organized violence. All it takes is a demonstration of political will to foil mischievous intent.
The Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi even went to the extent of stating that Ganesh “is not a tamil god”. This was, of course, treading on thin ground for it invited the retort that neither are Rama or Krishna or, for that matter, Allah and Christ, Tamil gods. It took the Madras High Court to diffuse the heat when chief justice K. A. Swami and justice A. R. Lakshmanan wanted to know “when Vinayaka had entered Tamil Nadu?” during the course of the Vinayaka idols procession case.
Though everyone knows that the “procession” with idols is just 13 years old, there is now a concerted plan to make it appear to be some ancient custom. More tellingly, the attempt is to foist a notion of antiquity and sanctity to the route the procession would take. With a sense of finality, the Madras High Court ruled on October 1 1996 that while there is a right to take out a procession per se as part of “religious belief, there is no absolute right as part of that belief on any fixed route, which is subject to prevailing conditions of convenience, traffic and logistics of the metropolis.”
The Vinayaka Chaturthi Central Committee, Madras, has decided to move the Supreme Court against this ruling and has resolved to continue performing poojas and not take idols for immersion till a ruling from the Apex Court. It only means more days of continuing attrition and the slow spread of communal poison in the name of religious practice.
Interestingly, contention is not new to Ganesha. The history of Ganesha is the history of a tribal totem becoming a mainstream go. However, the multiple names of this deity – Ganesha, Ganapati, Vinayaka, Ganadhipa, Gajanana, Lambodara, Ekadanta Vighneshwar, Vakratunda – also betoken the multiple stories of his origin, each one a saga of social conflict. For long centuries, this half-animal, half-persons deity who constitutes a socio-religious device through which primitive animism was absorbed by mainstream Vedic religion has been in the eye of a storm.
In fact scholar historians like D.D. Kosambi have much to say about the origin of this god of initiations and mysteries. A product of what seems like some ancient genetic cloning – the transplanting of lravata’s head on the body of Parvati’s child – is really the signal of a much larger social cloning, the integration of tribalism within brahminism. Kosambi even hints at Ganesha being a victim of Hindu syncretism, the deity as a mechanism created for the acculturation of newly absorbed deities and practices into the mainstream. It marks an epoch of replacement of group exclusivities with group unity.
Another interpretation (D e b I p r a s a d Chattopadhyaya) sees the Ganesh festival as essentially a female ritual appropriated by the male. Conventionally, Ganesh Chaturthi begins from the fourth day of the month of Bhadra. In many peasant communities, Ganesha simply stood for the New Moon of the sowing season. Once installed, he is quietly sidelined, leaving the ritual to take a feminine character – Gauri, a bundle of plants, with her representative, a virgin. Plants collected by women are placed on a diagram strewn with turmeric powder. Married women are served vermillion – ‘ mangala Gauri. It is a fertility rite, Gauri being the goddest of harvest, and the entire process of drawing and invoking images symbolizes the death and resurrection seasons.
At another level, Ganapati represents some of the early contradictions between Shaivites and Vaishnavites within the Hindu pantheon. For example Ganesha becomes Ekadanta (one toothed) because of the other being chopped off by Parashurama, an incarnation of Vishnu, and the most aggressive champion of Brahmin supremacy in our scriptures, whose parashu’ (axe) is constantly wreaking havoc on non-brahmins.
As per another story of his origin, Ganesha belongs to aboriginal (rakshasa) stock, being born of a rakshasa couple
Malini and Gajasura. As an off-spring of Parvati, he is said to have been constructed out of the scruff of her body. As an off-spring of Shiva, he is formed out of mud. Whichever way you look at Ganesha, his origin lies in a troubled social discourse which has yet to be resolved satisfactorily.
The Griha Sutras and Yagnavalkya Sutras of roughly around the 5th century profess much fear of Ganesha as a trouble-maker, as vighna (obstacle) personified. From there to his emergence as the custodian of goodwill and success is an anthropomorphic transformation which completely glosses over the myriad contradictions of this origin.
However, what is interesting for us today is how the same Ganesha figure is emerging as a controversial vehicle for a rather forced splinting together of the fractured shaivite and vaishnavite limbs of the pan-Hindu collective. In the past roughly 15 years, we have seen in Bombay, Pune, Nagpur, Hyderabad and Madras a curious pantheon of made-to-order Ganeshas: a 25’ Ganesha tearing open his chest, in the manner of Hanuman, to reveal Rama-Sita-Lakshmana; a 40’ Ganesha holding the earth in his bore’s tusks the manner of Vishnu’s Varaha-avatar; Ganesha like Vamana; Ganesha like Vamana; Ganesha like Krishana dancing on the serpent Kaliya; and just to round it up, even a Ganesha with ten arms like Devi, riding a lion and destroying Manisha.
While all this certainly represents cleverness, it also represents a certain desperation on the part of fundamentalist organizations spearheading this artificial grafting to unite a base that has no potential for such a unity. In fact, we may increasingly find in the coming years a reverting to a more mono-cultural image of the Vettri Vinayaka or Veer Vinayak which is bound to get more and more gigantic and domineering as it spreads the message of aggrandizement not auspiciousness.
In Madras, this year, a 30’ tall Vinayaka murthi has been constructed in a narrow lane; the poojas are over; only now they realize that they overshot their ambition, for there is no way they can move such a tall structure out of that street without snapping electricity, telephone and TV cables along the way, cutting down a few trees and even pruning a few balconies. Hopefully a few such goofs will return Ganapatibappa to his normal benign size and the festival in his name will stop being a synonym for resurgent fanaticism.
(The writer was, in 1996, the Arts Editor, The Economic Times)