“Until a few years ago, most people didn’t even know about Jariphatka,” says Rohit Asrani, resident of the suburban region of Nagpur of the same name. “Our Ganeshotsav celebrations from 2014 changed that.”
Asrani is the President of Rudra Ganesh Ustav Mandal, a 25 year-old mandal from Nagpur. In 2014, Asrani and his team decided to reinvent their community Ganeshotsav celebrations by using a different idol designs every year. At first, they borrowed visual elements from the Hindu pantheon, blending in the forms of deities like Agnidev and Samudradev to the traditional look of the elephant-headed god. In 2019, they added an environmental theme to their celebration. Their idol last year showed Ganesh holding the female-form of the river Ganga in his arms, purportedly saving it from environmental pollution. Plastic wrappers, tetra packs and various disposables lined the decorations.
“It went viral on social media. Thousands of people from across Nagpur came to see it,” says Asrani. But the local unit of Bajrang Dal objected to the unorthodox depiction of Ganesh and forced them to go for an early immersion. A year on, Asrani stands by the depiction. “Ganeshostsav is the best platform to teach people about various social issues,” he says. “When people are waiting in the queue, we engage with them about such social issues. They listen, and some learn also.”
The Rudra Ganesh Mandal’s idol this year plays on the theme of covid-19. Its Ganesh idol has four hands: one holds a broom, second a sanitizer, third an injection and fourth a police baton. The idea, says Asrani, was to drive home the importance of hygiene and timely treatment. As for the baton, he adds, “we want to show that if you do wrong, god will not spare you.”
It’s not the only one. While the pandemic has reduced scale of the Ganeshotsav celebrations, artists and mandals across India have used to opportunity to creatively blend in the covid-19 theme in the depictions of Ganesh and its tableaux. In Mysuru, artist D. Revanna’s creation shows Ganesh using a weapon to destroy the covid-19 virus lying at his feet. In Bengaluru, many idols show Ganesha dressed as a doctor inspecting a patient. A mouse, Ganesha’s vaahan, stands next to him holding surgical instruments.
Ganesh idol in honour and in form of 'Corona Warriors' in Kolhapur, Maharashtra on the occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi— Dr Aman kashyap (@DrAmankashyap) August 22, 2020
Such tradition of blending in social, political and mythological themes in the idol and the tableaux has a long history in Ganeshotsav. When Lokmanya Tilak, a freedom fighter from Pune, started public celebrations of the festival in 1893, it was an attempt to use the festival to congregate large numbers of people and mobilize them for political purposes. The idols and the pandal decorations in the pre-independence era continued the tradition. At Mumbai’s Lalbaugcha Raja, for example, the 1942 pandal showed a clay idol of Mahatma Gandhi worshipping Ganesha, meant to portray solidarity with the ongoing Quit India movement. In 1946, its Ganesh idol was decked up in military uniform as a tribute to freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose.
“The idols started varying in depictions as Ganeshotsav spread beyond traditional Marathi households, becoming more of a community event than a religious festival,” says Shrikant Deodhar, a fifth-generation sculptor from Pen, a town in Raigad district of Maharashtra, and an alumni of JJ School of Arts, Mumbai. While the early years borrowed from various social and political issues of the day, the idols and pandals in the later years often played on nationalistic sentiments and popular movie tropes.
In 1999, Deodhar points out, the pandals borrowed elements from the ongoing Kargil war. In 2011-12, some idols showed Ganesh wearing a white cap like Anna Hazare, the social activist from Maharashtra who became face of the nationwide anti-corruption movement at the time. In 2015-16, some idols borrowed visual cues from popular movies like Baahubali and Bajirao Mastani.
“The covid-19 theme this year is no different,” says Deodhar. “Such ‘novelty’ idols, however, form a very small percentage of the celebrations overall. Most of the major Ganesh mandals today only have a traditional depiction of Ganesha.”
For those casting Ganesh idols in contemporary themes, the festival celebrations aren’t bound by orthodoxy. “In my neighbourhood, one of the Ganesh pandals plays on the theme of maternity care,” says Asrani. “Such initiatives are the need of the hour. We’re now in an age of social-media but many people are still not educated. If Ganeshotsav can help them learn something useful, it’s only for the good of us all.”