As the monsoon recedes with a thunderous clap, Khetwadi, a neighbourhood in South Mumbai, bursts into a chaotic celebratory din signalling the start of the Ganesh Chaturthi festivities. The lanes become chock-full of pandals, with richly decorated Ganesh idols that scale heights of up to 45 feet. The entire neighbourhood is mobilised into activity. Children selling special passes—Rs.30-Rs.50 a person—to those who want to circumvent the long queues. They stand upright, with an unusual confidence, like charming gangsters who have been given control over select ilakas (turfs). Toddlers serve prasad. The women have congregated separately. Men keep an eye out. The youth float about energetically.
This is one edition of the idealised vision that Bal Gangadhar Tilak had in the late 19th century, to usher in a Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsav by using large statues of Ganesha that would, as Robert L. Brown writes, bridge “the gap between Brahmins and non-Brahmins” and present a unified Hindu front against the colonial powers who had banned large public assemblies because of political anxiety. The Muslims were allowed their Friday prayers since it was a religious gathering, and Tilak used a similar reasoning to cobble together a Hindu throng.
Each pandal in Khetwadi aims to resculpt Ganesha. In some, he is shown like Rama, with a bow. In others, like Indra with his thunderbolt, which, at 45 feet, was the tallest Ganesha this year. Last year, one of the pandals showcased Vinayaki, the female version of Ganesha. This year, videos of a pandal with ISRO launches being restaged in miniature are doing the WhatsApp circles.
Ganesha’s strongman imagery
In all of this celebratory zeal, pounding with the sounds of the dhol-tasha, when did Ganesha’s imagery become so violent? Most of the pandals I visited in Khetwadi had Ganesha armed with strange, spiky weapons. In one, even his crown was thorned. In another, a small plaque advertised the designer of the weapons made especially for that pandal, inviting more work, more strongman imagery.
There is an anxiety around the sudden arming of our gods, almost as if we are trying to project a more virile, intimidating masculinity onto the fantasies of our mythology, from which there is a constant, strange draw for identity and consciousness-building. The image of the muscular and armed Rama, for example, charged the years of the Rath Yatra before the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The images of Hanuman have baked abs, sculpted pecs, and triceps that flex a dizzying gym regimen. Is it a cultural anxiety expressed through muscle? Or is it a mimetic desire we have bestowed on the gods, having received it from our cinematic heroes?
In his book Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility & The New Middle Class, Michiel Baas writes about how, in the past decade (from 2008 onwards at least), “the lean, muscular, ideal body type has emerged among middle-class Indian men” thanks to Shah Rukh Khan’s ab-reveal in the song “Dard-e-Disco”, Aamir Khan’s sculpted look in Ghajini, and the launch of the Indian edition of Men’s Health magazine. What else can the middle class do but absorb trends and then express them in their art. That is how the argument goes.
“While the chakra (discus) and the gada (mace) were always associated with Ganesha, the axe became more prominent over time, especially in the 2000s.”
But what about the weapons? Where does the desire to militarise our gods come from?
Scouring through the archive of Lalbaugcha Raja, founded by Koli fishermen, that stretches all the way back to 1934, the year of its founding, a loose trend emerges. It is true that Ganesha did, in fact, reflect the ongoing tensions. For example, in 1948, the year Gandhi was assassinated, Ganesha took Gandhi’s form. In 1964, when Nehru passed away, there was an image of him seated below Ganesha. And while the chakra (discus) and the gada (mace) were always associated with Ganesha, the axe became more prominent over time, especially in the 2000s.
These are active choices—how many hands to give Ganesha and what goes in those hands. At some point, the decisions steered towards violence, until it became a natural, incontestable part of our vision of Ganesha. This is how imagery evolves as it meanders through the cultural anxieties and prerogatives of the various ages.
However, the Durga Puja offers another vision, a counterpoint, so to speak. Like Ganesh Chaturthi, the Durga Puja, too, has mobilised ever-thronging, ever-feeling crowds from the early 20th century onwards. According to Sudeshna Banerjee, author of Durga Puja: Celebrating the Goddess–Then and Now, 1910 was probably the year of the first Sarvajanin Durga Puja in Kolkata, where an event that was hitherto only celebrated in big aristocratic houses was brought into public view. And Durga’s idol, too, is immersed in the waters once the festivities end.
- There is an anxiety around the sudden arming of our gods, almost as if we are trying to project a more virile, intimidating masculinity onto the fantasies of our mythology.
- While Durga’s imagery has always been violent, there is also an insistence, in her sculptures, in her settings, on beauty.
- This year, videos of a pandal with ISRO launches being restaged in miniature are doing the WhatsApp circles.
Beauty, ferocity and the Durga Puja
However, there is a marked difference in the attitude of the two communities towards beauty. Durga’s imagery has always been violent; she is, after all, an angry goddess. But there is also an insistence, in her sculptures, in her settings, on beauty. Her eyes are sacred to her being; the statue is ritualised and accepted as a goddess after Chokkhu Daan, when her eyes are finally painted. Is this because Durga, despite her ferocity, is a woman, which puts beauty squarely in the domain of the feminine?
Every year, the Durga Puja pandals are photographed and archived, the images carted around the Internet, not just for their ingenuousness but also for their beauty. Take, for example, the Van Gogh Durga last year, the smudged swirls of Gogh’s painterly strokes recreated by pressing reams of rolled cloth next to each other. Would anyone want to archive the Ganesh pandals of Mumbai? For what? There is no beauty here. At best, there is extravagance, magnitude. A competition for the tallest, the grandest.
Beauty, it seems, is a virtue that goes counter to the public consciousness-led enthusiasm that permeates Ganesh Chaturthi, because beauty is more intimate, requiring what Chloe Cooper Jones describes in her book Easy Beauty asan “un-selfing”. To participate in the Ganesha pandals is an act of radical self-ing, to seek community with a desperation and a devotion that is both sweet and worrying.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.