Celebrating Ganpati In Old Bombay



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Khetwadi during Ganpati is a combination of chaos, colours, and a community in celebration.

Utsav means festival, or celebration thereof. We append it to the name of the elephant god, and the portmanteau rolls so smoothly off our tongues: Ganeshotsav. But it doesn’t even begin to describe the scale and ostentation and fervour and joy and madness and mayhem and hysteria of the celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi in the old Bombay settlement of Khetwadi.

Any attempt to describe the architecture of the buildings would be foolish; my eye is blinded by climbers and creepers of psychedelic lights floating above the stream of devotees entranced by the splendour of the main road. My senses are overwhelmed by a cornucopia of stimuli: the smell of street food and camphor, the acrid taste of exploded gunpowder, the sound of every genre of music playing simultaneously, and the sight of a massive pandal occupying each of Khetwadi’s fourteen narrowly spaced lanes. This is a party on the streets.

Cut to 1893: British rule, simpler times and an intelligent man named Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Circumventing a law that prevented natives from assembling for political purposes, he brought the festival out of the household and into a community: Keshavji Naik Chawl in nearby Girgaum. People met, shared news, spread views and came together as nationalists. Hindustani classical greats of all faiths felt honoured to sing before the idol. The idea of a communal celebration caught on, perhaps nowhere as avidly as at Khetwadi.

Each pavilion is sponsored by donors as diverse as a soap production house and a hair oil manufacturer; Shreyas Talpade and Juhi Chawla beam down upon me.

I see no vestige of that simplicity now, but each lane still feels like an extension of its homes. Locals man the pandals and radiate a sense of pride and ownership. The pandals themselves are over-the-top, conceived in the spirit of one-upmanship. Some are majestically enormous, some decorated in craven desperation. Carved temple pillars are offset by the simpering smiles of rival politicians printed on ubiquitous flexes. Each pavilion is sponsored by donors as diverse as a soap production house and a hair oil manufacturer; Shreyas Talpade and Juhi Chawla beam down upon me. One is mystifyingly plastered by screenshots of Rinku Rajguru, the new star on the Marathi film horizon. A notice announces that all donations will be used in the aid of “hit villages”. A man advises his friend about whom to bribe – and how much – to be bumped up to the front of the line. The ticket mafia at the entrance of most pandals puts me off, but I’m sure there are people who will patiently line up to worship at all of them in a single evening.

Not me, though. A pandal appears deserted, and I duck under the curtain hanging at its door to see why. I’m surprised to find the murti swathed in darkness, and a screen covering most of it. When a sloppily made film about the history of that particular pandal is played, I can’t help but smile at the earnest naivety of it all.

Most idols are several feet tall, surrounded by arbitrarily chosen cut-outs of gods and goddesses. One is half an inch high, perched on a Pikachu. A signboard informs me that past avatars of the Tulshi Building Ganpati have been crafted out of buttons, garam masala and tutti frutti. I wonder why.

Every car in Khetwadi is parked inside its compound and cannot venture out for ten days. Every lane is blocked by a pandal; there is room for walking only, and barely that. A flower-bedecked wheelbarrow inches forward, transporting idols of Gauri (Ganesh’s mother) for immersion at Chowpatty. The Bombay Native Band (Chiragbhai ne phone kar) lustily performs a song that is muted by EDM blasting from the idol-ferrying truck ahead, complete with hand-flapping DJ. Tiny children with volunteer ID cards scamper behind. Two women attempt a half-hearted phugdi in the middle of the road. A motorcyclist ducks and narrowly misses smashing his head on an iron bar being carried out of a metal workshop. People take videos of a drone camera taking videos of them. Through an open doorway, I see a lone lady performing the aarti of her own personal god.

This is Ganesh Chaturthi. This is Khetwadi. This is Mumbai.

Until next year. Every year.

Khetwadi, Girgaum, Mumbai 400 004.

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