Mass Ganpati Festival began as a unifier of people
One of the most important occasions of Maharashtra, the Ganpati festival, did not always have the mass, nationwide appeal it has today.
One of the most important occasions of Maharashtra, the Ganpati festival, did not always have the mass, nationwide appeal it has today. In fact, before the 1890s, the Ganpati festival was quite an intimate affair before it took on a more symbolic meaning- arousing nationalist sentiments among the Indian masses.
The present-day form of the grand and public Ganpati Festival did not exist until the 1890s.
The 1890s were when extremist leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak became increasingly active in the pre-independent Indian political scene, challenging the existing resistance methods against the British used by Moderate leaders like Dadabhai Naraoji.
For those like Tilak, the nationalist movement and the struggle against colonial power was incomplete without the involvement of the masses. However, to awaken a feeling of collective consciousness among the masses, they could not rely on intellectual tactics alone as the majority of the people were still illiterate and could not relate to the written word so easily.
However, the idea of giving the highly private Ganpati occasion a distinctly public character was not something Tilak came up with by himself. Until 1892, the auspicious Ganesh Chaturthi was observed by families individually and was, thus, quite different from how it is celebrated today in all its pomp and glory. In 1892, a Pune-based gentleman, Krishnajipant Khasgiwale, witnessed a public celebration in Gwalior on the occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi and shared this idea with his friends back home, one of whom was Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari. Rangari was a royal physician, but he was also a freedom fighter. When he heard of this idea, he immediately saw the potential of such grand public celebrations and their contribution to the freedom movement. He installed the first public or 'sarvajanik' idol of Ganesha in his home near a locality called Shalukar Bol.
The idol of Ganesha that Rangari installed was made of wood and bran and depicted the Lord killing a demon. It was highly symbolic imagery, representing Ganesha as 'India', fighting for its independence against the demonic British.
In 1893, Tilak, in his newspaper, 'Kesari', applauded Rangari's efforts to make Ganesh Utsav a symbol of national pride and harmony. Tilak also saw scope for political consolidation through the Ganpati celebrations. In 1892, the colonial government, in the wake of growing opposition against their rule, imposed a ban on any gathering of more than 20 people. However, the government did not extend the prohibition to religious gatherings as they knew it might only lead to more resentment. This provided a loophole that leaders like Tilak were quick to notice. If nationalist leaders could not engage in social gatherings and mobilise the masses, the task would be carried out by Ganpati, now the leader of the groups. Hiding behind the apparent celebrations of the Ganpati festival, Tilak initiated jalsas (public performances) and speeches to arouse patriotic and nationalist sentiments among the people.
Ordinary people experienced a sense of freedom and belongingness with all those who joined the festivities. The poetry, essay and other competitions which took place during the 10-day celebrations of the Ganpati festival were all centered on themes of independence and swadeshi, which further ignited patriotism among the participants. During the Swadeshi Movement of 1905, the Ganpati festival became a platform for promoting Swadeshi goods and a boycott of foreign goods imported from Britain.
Tilak popularised the Ganpati festival in 1893 to arouse the spirit of nationalism among the masses.
Tilak knew that unity and collective identity of people came from their shared beliefs, culture and practices. So, to ignite the spirit of nationalism or a sense of belonging and unity, he decided to rely on a simple yet highly effective strategy. What better way to unite the people than by organising the masses through a popular celebration where people can express their thoughts and sentiments through poetry, music or any other way?
Some believe that the Ganpati festival was essentially a way of arousing Hindu Nationalism, an argument that continues even today. However, Ganpati festival had a limited appeal compared to other tactics used by the nationalists during the freedom struggle. This is because it had a regional character and remained mainly confined to Maharashtra. Moreover, it could not appeal to the Muslims, who also formed a vital part of the masses.
Ganpati festival, beginning in 1892, continues to be celebrated with pomp and grandeur even after independence; however, it has lost its former political appeal, retaining mostly its popular character.