The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Politics of the Ganapati festival

Performative Politics and the Cultures of Hinduism: Public uses of Religion in Western India By Raminder Kaur, Permanent Black, Rs 695

Performance and politics have enjoyed a special intimacy in India’s recent history. From the histrionics of individual mavericks to the collective spectacle of festive processions, Indian politics in the era of colonial modernity and after has deployed festivals and religious sites to articulate and mobilize political consciousness. The Ganapati festival in western India enjoys pride of place in this interlinking of religion and politics. And yet this was not an easy or uncontested coupling for the festive space lay at the periphery of civil society and constituted, what Raminder Kaur calls, the interstitial space “predicated upon demarcated realms of religion (private) and realpolitik (public)”. Once tapped, the site became instrumental in unleashing a complex web of sensibilities and reactions that could not be encapsulated in convenient binaries of nationalism and communalism. It is here that Raminder Kaur makes an important departure from conventional understandings of religious events and performative practices that have been understood all too easily as catalysts for communal friction. Instead she sees the festival as an expressive avenue that could fork into multiple highways, the premise being that performative political strategies are legitimate and allow for a widening of the political base.

Kaur backs up her case by meticulously documenting the polyvalent nature and history of the Ganapati celebrations in western India. This is perhaps the chief merit of the book. We have an excellent history of the festival and its development in the later decades of the nineteenth century. From what was essentially a part of the court celebrations under the Peshwas in Poona, the festival, by the second decade of the twentieth century, became not just a vehicle of political articulation but an expressive site that captured a specific regional sensibility shaped by mood, song and spectacle. The role of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, whose imagination was captivated by the festival as it was discretely practised, in reviving the festival in a big way in the 1890s is well known; what is not so well known is the contribution of others who worked behind the scenes, men like the Maratha Ayurvedic doctor and cloth dyer, Bhau Lakshman Javale, who formed part of a group that drew inspiration from Hindu symbols and festive practices to advocate a militant sort of politics. The propaganda for extending the Ganapati celebrations (hitherto confined to Maratha princely regions) increased after the riots of 1892, producing an obvious correspondence between the martial representations of Ganapati and the politicizing of the festival by Tilak and his newspaper. The festival gained in popularity with the result that by 1900, there were more than 100 Ganapati mandals in Poona alone and by 1905, the festival was held in “72 towns outside of Poona”. In Bombay, the number of Ganapati mandals increased prodigiously but even more significant was the fact that the development mirrored the diversity of political experience in the city and the region. The challenge of the Non-Brahmin movement found expression in the appropriation of the festival in select neighbourhoods. Ganapati’s association as a plebeian deity made him more accessible to cross caste/class worship, a feature that distinguished the festival from the Durga puja in colonial Bengal. Kaur also devotes considerable attention to the performative practices and art works associated with the festival, all of which contributed to an expanded and invigorating dialogue with various political agendas. Innovations in the pandal, and with the deity’s form, the organizing of spectacles like magic, and caged tigers resulted in the construction of a new public space as a means of asserting identity and at the same time, provided an excellent mode of entertainment for the public.

The post-independence period saw a change of context. For one, the cause of nationalism was no longer relevant. At the same time, given the Nehruvian preoccupation with a secular nation, the space for vernacular culture shrank. The entertainment aspect remained important and it was only in the Seventies, with the rise of the Shiv Sena that the political potential of the festival was once more tapped. This went hand in hand with a process of criminalization as local toughs captured the festival, residents were subject to extortion and mandals became part of the underworld domain — each don patronizing his local Ganapati. The festival thus continued to mirror the social profile of Bombay city’s politics and social experience.

The mantra of the market has in recent times been a powerful determinant, bringing in an increasing commercialization of the festival, as a result of which the mandap has become a promotional site of sorts. At the same time, the articulation of post-colonial middleclass sensibilities, that shunned the more popular manifestations of festive practice, has accommodated a redefinition of the public field that the festival embodied. Thus, ironically, even as media attention and coverage tended to expand the public space for the festival, the signs of a middle-class withdrawal are apparent. The emergence of respectable building or compound pujas reflects the increasing anxiety of Bombay’s well-to-do to have anything to do with the larger community pujas. Thus Kaur argues, the festival and its trajectory represent an expanding public field, which was intrinsically a contested site for various constituencies, sometimes in conflict and at other times in coexistence.

Some nagging doubts remain nonetheless. The saffronization of the public space and its impact on the festival, the polarization of communities in the city are uncomfortable facts that need to be addressed more pointedly. The so-called expressive legacy of the performative practice is not treated in any detail — what is it about the festival that helps in imagining, visually and aurally, the Marathi identity' And is the identity, with all its complexities and layers, a composite one' There are cursory references to the presence and participation of Muslim groups in the festival but these read like post-scripts. Has a normative model in terms of aesthetics for the ideal festival, in terms of deity and decoration, emerged in the last two decades' These are some questions that Kaur may have considered given the rich documentation that she has at her disposal. The book also suffers from an excess of cultural theory that is often tedious to read.

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