Ganesh Chaturthi — Ritual as Cultural Performance

The recently initiated Ganesh Chaturthi festival has all the makings of a street party. Typically supposed to end on the 10th day from when the festival starts, the celebrations over the last few years have extended to the 11th day, which has no particular religious significance, and has the makings of an ‘after party’ with its ear drum shattering >120 DB Bollywood and Drum craze. Posing a fairly serious health threat to older citizens, animals, children and the sick.

The initial goals of having a Ganesh festival or the Sarvajanik Ganapati* as famously prescribed by the great freedom fighter Lok Manya Tilak were laudable from a sociological point of view. While he was in great distress and pondering about the country’s freedom during his walks at the Girgaum Chowpatty in Mumbai, he was also wondering how to get groups of people together under British rule (which prevented large gatherings). He is supposed to have hit upon the idea of the Sarvajanik Ganapati, a community Ganesha that would bring large groups of people together, which besides circumventing the law, promoted togetherness, sociability and a community feeling.

But the festival when it first started in Mumbai was environment friendly. The celebrations were quiet. Drinking and other revelry may have been frowned upon. Those were the days when the idols were made out of clay and the immersion process did not clog our seas and waterways with tons of Plaster of Paris and dangerous chemicals. Its transgression therefore from religious festival to parade and charade is an interesting one.

Ganesh Chaturthi as Street Party — Idol Worship or Idle Worship?

The roots of how this religious festival has grown and evolved to become a street party is interesting if nothing else from a socio-anthropological point of view.

Lord Ganesha is one of the most popular idols in the Hindu pantheon. He is the the Lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. Celebrations are typically held on the 4th day of the first fortnight of Bhadrapada* in the Hindu calendar, which roughly translates into the months of August and September in the Gregorian calendar. Historically it was always celebrated both privately and publicly until the fall of the Peshwas* when it lost the patronage of the State, until Lokmanya Tilak then ensured its revival. However with political and private parties funding the celebrations though often with a very selfish objective and motive of their own with almost the sole objective of buying votes for the next elections and keeping the electorate happy, the celebrations have come full circle from the early days.

All religious events and places of worship have historically been also places of social congregation and a key part of ‘building communities’ a phrase that gained much prominence and popularity during Internet 1.0. Historically the role of the Church in building communities in the Catholic faith for example has been nothing short of stellar.

While during Chaturthi, prayer in the morning and evening during the days when the Ganesha is brought home is normal, there is no real penance prescribed except on the first day of the festival until the customary puja is over. ( The traditional Hindu would of course abstain from meat and alcohol during this period )

So the social outpouring and release on the final day remains a bit of a mystery. Whilst alcohol drinking is only spoken of in hushed whispers, it undeniably fires the energies of the revelers. And what adds the fuel is the high decibel music, which has no real religious or cultural history associated with the festival.

Whatever it is, there is no doubt that Chaturthi has moved from being a purely religious festival to a giant street and beach party where every one is invited. It’s a place to let your hair down, dance and head-bang and in some cases with some of the best DJs. Not to speak about the special privileges dished out to VIPs for some of more famous and privileged Ganeshas in Mumbai, for an audience with the Lord. In a recent example the police were caught on video in the VIP enclosure accepting bribes to allow a special petition to Ganesha. This has an interesting corollary to the VIP tickets that sell for a premium at some of the large concerts.

Chaturthi and Noise Pollution

Unfortunately, religious festivals are also breaking the noise barrier in cities like Mumbai. According to Awaaz Foundation that tracks noise levels in the city, the decibel levels on the first day of the festival this year at 116.8 dB exceeded the decibel levels of the last day of the festival in 2016. The festival is usually off to a slow start in terms of noise. The new high decibels recorded were inspite of the fact that the State of Maharashtra is fighting a case in the Courts for relaxation of decibel levels, inspite of the fact that cities like Mumbai have several silence zones across the city basically near hospitals, schools etc. Noise pollution affects both health and behavior. Unwanted sound (noise) can damage psychological health. Noise pollution can cause hypertension, high stress levels, tinnitus, hearing loss, sleep disturbances, and other harmful effects. Normal conversation is about 60 dB, a lawn mower is about 90 dB, and a loud rock concert is about 120 dB. In general, sounds above 85 are harmful, depending on how long and how often you are exposed to them and whether you wear hearing protection, such as earplugs or earmuffs.

`In effect, Chaturthi has transformed from a religious ritual into a social institution, which offers an alternative to the seriousness of daily life. Because it brings different social classes together on one single day, it offers temporary social equality in a still caste-ridden nation.

Ganesh Chaturthi and the Sarvajanik Ganapati since it was originally conceived by Tilak has quickly transformed into a cultural performance that makes it rank amongst the greatest shows in the world.

*Peshwa is the titular equivalent of a modern Prime Minister in the Maratha Empire (1718–1818)

*Bhadrapada is the sixth month of the Hindu Calendar and lasts 31 days

*Sarvajanik means public and belonging to all

*Ganapati is another name for Ganesha

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