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Mass Ganpati Festival started as a gathering of people

One of Maharashtra’s most important occasions, the Ganpati festival, did not always have the massive, national appeal it has today. In fact, before the 1890s, the Ganpati festival was quite an intimate affair before taking on a more symbolic significance, arousing nationalistic sentiments among the Indian masses.

The current form of the large public festival of Ganpati did not exist until the 1890s.

In the 1890s, extremist leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak became increasingly active in the pre-independence Indian political scene, challenging the existing methods of resistance against the British used by moderate leaders like Dadabhai Naraoji.

For those like Tilak, the nationalist movement and the struggle against colonial rule was incomplete without the involvement of the masses. However, to awaken a sense of collective consciousness among the masses, they could not rely solely on intellectual tactics because the majority of people were still illiterate and could not relate to the written word so easily.

However, the idea of ​​giving Ganpati’s highly private occasion a distinctly public character was not something Tilak had dreamed up on his own. Until 1892, the auspicious Ganesh Chaturthi was observed individually by families and was therefore quite different from the way it is celebrated today in all its splendor and glory. In 1892, a Pune-based gentleman, Krishnajipant Khasgiwale, attended a public celebration in Gwalior on the occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi and shared the idea with his friends back home, including Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari. Rangari was a royal physician, but he was also a freedom fighter. When he heard about this idea, he immediately saw the potential of these large public celebrations and their contribution to the freedom movement. He installed the first public idol or ‘sarvajanik’ of Ganesha in his house near a locality called Shalukar Bol.

The Ganesha idol that Rangari installed was made of wood and bran and depicted the Lord slaying a demon. It was highly symbolic imagery, depicting Ganesha as “India“, fighting for its independence against the demonic British.

In 1893, Tilak, in his journal “Kesari”, applauded Rangari’s efforts to make Ganesh Utsav a symbol of national pride and harmony. Tilak also saw the possibility of political consolidation through Ganpati celebrations. In 1892, the colonial government, following growing opposition to their rule, imposed a ban on all gatherings of more than 20 people. However, the government did not extend the ban to religious gatherings as they knew this would only deepen resentment. This provided a loophole that leaders like Tilak were quick to notice. If the nationalist leaders could not engage in social rallies and mobilize the masses, the task would be done by Ganpati, now the groups’ leader. Hiding behind the apparent Ganpati festival celebrations, Tilak launched jalsas (public performances) and speeches to stir up patriotic and nationalistic feelings among the people.

Ordinary people felt a sense of freedom and belonging with all who joined in the festivities. The poetry, essay and other competitions that took place during the 10-day Ganpati festival celebrations all centered on the themes of independence and swadeshi, which further ignited patriotism among the participants. During the Swadeshi movement of 1905, the Ganpati festival became a platform for the promotion of Swadeshi products and a boycott of foreign products imported from Britain.

Tilak popularized the Ganpati festival in 1893 to stir up the spirit of nationalism among the masses.

Tilak knew that the unity and collective identity of people came from their common beliefs, culture and practices. So, to ignite the spirit of nationalism or a sense of belonging and unity, he decided to rely on a simple but very effective strategy. What better way to unite the people than to organize the masses through a popular festival where people can express their thoughts and feelings through poetry, music or any other means?

Some believe that the Ganpati festival was essentially a way to reawaken Hindu nationalism, an argument that continues to this day. However, the Ganpati festival had limited appeal compared to other tactics used by nationalists during the freedom struggle. Indeed, it was regional in character and remained mostly confined to Maharashtra. Moreover, it could not please the Muslims, who were also a vital part of the masses.

The Ganpati festival, which began in 1892, continues to be celebrated with pomp and grandeur even after independence; however, it has lost its former political appeal, retaining mostly its popular character.

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