The annual festival in honor of Ganesh or Ganapati, the elephant-headed deity who is known as the remover of obstacles and the god of auspiciousness, has been observed for at least 250 years, and perhaps at least since the twelfth century. It was at first an affair that lasted for two days or less, but by the middle part of the eighteenth century, in the reign of Madhavrao (1761-72), it began to be celebrated over six days. The modern history of the Ganapati festival dates back to 1894, when the Maratha politician and Indian nationalist, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, lionized as Lokamanya, or “Beloved of the People”, gave it a distinct political face. Though the festival had largely been a private affair, where each family purchased an idol of Ganesh and then took it out in procession on Ganesh Chaturthi before immersing it in the river, pond, or tank, it had not been without its public and community aspect, since often several families joined in the procession, or otherwise pooled together their resources to buy a larger-sized idol. But one of Tilak’s achievements was to make the Ganapati festival the vehicle, so to speak, for the aspirations of the Maratha people as well as those of other Indians who desired independence from British tutelage. Henceforth, the Ganapati festival was to become a largely public affair.
The precise innovations introduced by Tilak consisted in making the Ganapati festival into a community-based enterprise. Subscriptions were collected on behalf of a residential area, market, or organization for the purchase of large idols of Ganesh, which were then placed on pavilions (mandaps) and made the object of collective worship. Secondly, whereas previously immersions had taken place on various days of the festival, Tilak sought to have all the immersions take place on the tenth and final day. Thirdly, various song-and-dance parties were attached to each mandap, and more often than not, the songs had strong political overtones. Fourthly, some of the mandaps were themselves made the site of political plays, and groups of young boys and men, who dressed in military uniform and shouted political slogans, staged marches in the community that was hosting the mandap. In this manner, Tilak sought to link the Ganapati festival to his political agenda, and as his newspaper Kesari openly editorialized (8 September 1896): “This work [of political education] will not be as strenuous and expensive as the work of the Congress. The educated people can achieve results through these national festivals which it would be impossible for the Congress to achieve. Why shouldn’t we convert the large religious festivals into mass political rallies? Will it not be possible for political activities to enter the humblest cottages of the villages through such means?”
Within two years, the Ganapati festival in its new form had been widely accepted across the Marathi-speaking parts of the Bombay Presidency, and Bombay, Nasik, Sattara, and other cities were to follow Pune’s example. But the politicization of the festival was to invite the attention of the British government, which though at first inclined to view the developments as devoid of much political significance, was soon to take the position that many of the active participants in the festival had little interest in religious affairs, but were certainly interested in fomenting political unrest. As long as the festival had been intended, as the British believed, to turn the Hindus away from Muharram, in which Hindu participation had not been an insignificant factor, they were not disposed to interfere; but when the festival took on “the character of an annual anti-Government eruption”, to quote the words of the Bombay Police Commissioner in 1910, it was felt necessary to take some action. Moreover, the transformation of the festival was seen as an attempt by the Brahmins to regain their traditional leadership roles, and the British thought they also detected in this enterprise a glorification of the martial traditions associated with Shivaji and the Marathas. Consequently, by 1910, the Ganapati festival would be severely curtailed on the government’s orders.
In its present form, the Ganapati festival, which is best observed in Pune or Bombay (now Mumbai), retains to a very large degree the characteristics with which it was endowed by Tilak. The festival is observed for ten days, and immersions of the deity are carried out over the last twenty-four hours of the festival, and the honor of the last immersions, when immense crowds are gathered, falls to the most well-known or affluent communities. Pavilions are put up by various communities, residential blocks, streets, markets, wealthy merchants or industrialists, and organizations, and an image, usually quite lavish, of Ganesh is placed on each mandap. But political themes might predominate, as they did in 1999, when the sacrifice of the Indian soldier upon the heights of Kargil was repeatedly evoked. In one particular mandap in Pune by the name of “Vijay Maruti”, an elaborate set featuring an assault upon one of the mountain tops where Pakistani soldiers had taken a commanding position provided the spectators with a ‘live’ representation of the conflict and the eventual triumph of Indian forces. Thus, once again, in the Ganapati festival the interests of the nation-state are conjoined with patriotism as well as devotion to the deity. Notwithstanding its politicization, the Ganapati festival is an extraordinary testimony to the public place of religion in Indian life, the liveliness of Indian communities, the splendors of street life, the strength of popular artistic and artisan traditions, and the glorious malleability of one beloved Indian deity.