The Rise of Sarvajanik Ganesh Chaturthi

What went behind making the first Ganesh Utsav – a festival that was by the people, for the people and came to the people.

By Madhulika Dash

Ganesh Chaturthi. Vighnaharta Utsav. Anyway you name it, this 10-day long festival that the world celebrates with Mahrastra reminds us of two things – an ardent love for the cutest lord of that is a worldwide phenomenon including Japan where the glorious Buddhist temple Matsuchiyama Shōten is dedicated to Lord Ganesh; and two, its ability to bring people together, caste, creed notwithstanding. And in the same breath of the famous freedom fighter, Keshav Gangadhar Tilak, who is credited for reviving a tradition started by Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in Pune around 1893.

And while the idea of refreshing an old tradition – history has it that the Ganesh Utsav was being performed since the reign of Satavahana, Rashtrakuta and Chalukya dynasties (between 271 BC and 1190 AD) and later by the royals of Baroda and Gwalior too – was to infuse a sense of belonging to a community (the idea of being Hindus), the backdrop was hugely different. For the Maratha king, it was the vision of Hindu Rastra, for the revolutionary Tilak, it was the backdrop of communal riots that were plaguing the city of Mumbai, Pune and Gujarat.

The last, large scale Mumbai riots left nearly 100 dead and 500 injured. In fact, it became the catalyst that helped the then revolutionary politicians to decide to move Ganesh Chaturthi, which till then was a private or patronaged affair into a Sarvajanik Utsav (a public festival). Those present at the meeting included the likes of Annasaheb Patwardhan, Balasaheb Natu, Ganapatrao Ghotawadekar, Bhau Rangari, Lakhusheth Dantale, Balwant Narayan Satav, Nana Narayan Bhor Vakil, Khandoba Tarawade, Nanasaheb Khasagiwale, Balawant Narayan Kokate, Mama Hasabnis among others. Duties were distributed and Tilak, in effect, wrote an article in Kesari.

Saradar Krishanaji Kashinath or Nanasaheb Khasagiwale as he was popularly called was given the charge of creating the blueprint. Interestingly Khasagiwale, who had earlier been to Gwalior, took cues from the Gwalior Ganesh Utsav and created the first set of Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsav. The first pandal for the community worship was set up at Keshavji Naik Chawl in South Mumbai’s Girgaon. Lokmanya Tilak himself put up images of Ganesha on the streets and also got the sponsorship required to hold a festival this large scale. It of course provided the perfect foil for a large gathering as well, given the Colonial laws then.

The process of building what today is Mumbai-Pune’s grandest festival however was not without its share of ifs, but’s and disputes. While at the root level, Tilak and his team had to solve issues like who are the deities that would proceed first during the visarjan yatra, they also had to face the displeasure of the orthodox class and clergy. While the Hindus complained about the possible corruption of the religious practices; Muslim clergy and politician saw it as a direct attack on Muharram, which too falls around the time.

A Pune riot in 1894, many believe was an outcome of such unrest. Others like historians like Stanley A Wolpert saw it as the party’s move to wean lower class Hindus from converting. Wolpert in fact made a note that at a time when little else made a dent, the call of religion could be the only way to awaken responsive chord of millions towards public affairs that no one was taking note of. Joining in was Tilak once close associate, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, who is said to have called it a “calculative move rather than a religious one.”

Tilak however remained tight lipped through it, focusing more on establishing a system of Utsav where the festival could be performed year on year without the moderators being around. One of the reasons that he would shift to Pune in 1894 to be a part of the festival. In fact, Tilak firmly believed that worshipping one common god would help establish one history legacy and that would help unite people for a common cause. In implementing his ideas, he went on to build a festival corporation that raised money to host the annual celebration that was grand in every manner possible. It gave a platform for people to connect, opinions to be formed, goals to be set and culture promoted.

The unprecedented success of the Utsav in its debut year not only took Tilak and his team by surprise but also the few who saw it as a political move. In the years that followed, it not only earned the moniker of Tilak sponsored event but also became a political, social viganharta as cities began adopting in full gusto. One such place was Talcher in Odisha. This mining town today plays host to a 12-day Ganesh Utsav that mirrors the culture grandness of its Mumbai cousin – and is attended by different community. Another example of Tilak’s far reaching manifesto is the celebration at the Siro Taluka village in Kolhapur where the idol of Lord Ganesha is placed inside all the mosque. A tradition that dates back at least six decades, where Hindus and Muslims come together to celebrate the festival through the week, including the immersion process.