Ganpati Utsav: Mumbai’s Maha Kumbh

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY roam the streets of Lalbaug to meet idol makers, artisans and organizers to take stock of the preparations for Ganesh Utsav, Mumbai’s biggest street festival

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Months before Ganesh Chaturthi, with the onset of Mumbai’s rains, the familiar sight of blue tarpaulin stalls pop up by the roadside like mushrooms. Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsav Mandals are busy with the final preparations of elaborate pandals while karkhanas (factories) from Parel to Malad are abuzz with the manufacture of Ganpati idols to the whims of the season. If it was the Agneepath Ganpati last year inspired by Hrithik Roshan’s ‘Deva Shree Ganesha’ song, this year it was the turn of Lambkarn, the large-eared one.

Ganesh Chaturthi wasn’t always like this. Its evolution from a quiet festival at home to a sarvajanik utsav (public celebration) is credited to Bal Gangadhar Tilak. To dodge the British ban on political rallies in 1893, ‘Lokmanya’ Tilak used the festival as a vehicle to promote nationalistic fervor through cultural programs. With its epicenter in Pune, Ganpati mandals (associations) were formed across Maharashtra. Shree Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Sanstha, Mumbai’s oldest mandal began at Keshavji Naik Chawl in Girgaum and Lokmanya Tilak graced the dais in 1901.

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But we were headed for Mumbai’s most famous pandal, Lalbaug cha Raja, the King of Lalbaug. Echoing the turbulence of the sea, this area had seen many ups and downs – the freedom movement, the making of a city, the displacement of its original inhabitants, arrival of migrant Konkanis in late 19th century and the rise and fall of textile mills. For 80 years this Ganpati idol has fulfilled dreams and wishes of millions of devotees. Its very genesis took place under similar circumstances…

In 1933, the Kolis (fisherfolk) had a fish market at Peru Chawl, on the opposite side of the road and were displaced when the Government acquired the land and allotted it to Bombay Gas Company. The kolis who worshipped Lord Ganpati in the same market up until 1930, begged their god to help them get another patch of land to continue their livelihood. They promised to install his idol at Lalbaug if their wish were fulfilled. To their good fortune, the Government allotted a piece of land nearby the very next year… True to their word, the kolis installed a Ganpati idol at Lalbaug market, dressed as a fisherman in 1934. Around the time of India’s Independence, the idol resembled Subhas Chandra Bose in 1946. The following year saw Ganpati dressed as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on a bullock cart while in 1948, after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the idol was dressed as the Father of the Nation.

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We found ourselves below Lalbaug flyover being led by overwhelming odours of chicken coops, incense, spices, flowers and fresh paint towards a narrow galli (lane) that opened into a large covered enclosure. Two men carrying an unfinished peacock cutout crossed our path and disappeared into the maze of bylanes. A security man guarded a set of loudspeakers and poles while a tired worker rested in the shade. We climbed up the cast-iron spiral stairway to meet Mr. Ashok Pawar, President of the organizing committee.

Outlining the grand-scale of operations, Mr. Pawar explained that queues are organized into the fast-moving Mukhya Darshan line (for a quick peek) and the Mannat line (for offerings on stage), which starts two days in advance! Ritual offerings and prostrations take time and people wait patiently, sometimes 15-24 hours to see the Lord. Rows of people zig-zag across the ground with queues stretching 4 km from Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar Marg to Byculla.

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The mandal’s elaborate arrangements make the wait as comfortable as possible. “Unki nigrani aur suvidha, yahi hamara dharam hai!” smiled Pawar (It is our duty to take care of their security and comfort). Protection from rain, pandals spanning over 1lakh sq ft, free tea and snacks twice a day, toilets and plumbing, seating, lighting, fans, 10 water supply connections from BMC, 50,000 litres water in the pandals and 20 lakh glasses of packaged water on standby… the statistics are staggering. “Jitna hamara pandal ka kharcha hai, utna mein log 10 Ganpati baitha lenge.” (Ten Ganpatis can be installed for what we spend on the pandal.) “We spend Rs.75,000 on the idol, which is decorated with gold ornaments that have been donated earlier by anonymous devotees. The whole utsav costs Rs.7-8 crore and in the 10-day period we collect the same amount through our donation boxes.”

Preparations begin months in advance as per procedure through meetings and tenders. After muhurta pujan on 14 June, there’s a collection drive for funds, sponsors and advertisements and by July 1st week pandal preparations begin. Involved with the committee since 1983, the only change Pawar has seen is the increase in numbers in the last decade. “Earlier, darshan was easy in the first 5 days with queues only up to the road. Now, it’s increased tenfold, with crowds of 7 lakh from day 1, building up to 10 lakh a day. In the last 5 days, we can’t even sleep.” Over 3,000 volunteers help cops manage the flow. The line may seem never-ending, but at a time 200-500 people get darshan in a minute. Despite the scale of operations, due to Lord Ganesha’s blessings, nothing untoward has happened. It’s almost like the Maha Kumbh of Mumbai, we remarked. “Much bigger”, he quipped.

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Managing the Ganesh Utsav was just one aspect of the mandal. In a city often sliced along communal and regional lines, it was heartening to know that the Pandal contributed to the Bihar flood relief fund in 1959. It also donated to the defense fund for the wars in 1962, 1965 and the 1999 Kargil conflict. Over the years, their focus has shifted from crisis to daily battles of urban life. Pawar outlined, “The mandal runs a dialysis centre at nominal charges, with free blood tests and tie-ups with a dozen Municipal and government hospitals where we contribute 10% of the operation cost for the poor. We spend 4 crore rupees on it. We also run a library, computer-training institute and offer free textbooks on a rotational basis for poor children. Many students don’t have place to study in their 1-room homes, so the mandal runs study rooms and students come every morning from faraway Virar and Kalyan and return by evening! We also impart training for various competitive exams. Our faculty is not voluntary. We hire professional teachers to ensure there is no compromise in quality.”

Beyond the triviality of competitions and size wars, the mandal quietly goes about its year-round schedule. The height of the idol has remained relatively the same (around 12ft) and its most important aspect has been its gaze and grace. Devotees line up for a glimpse of their navsacha ganpati or wish-fulfilling Ganesha. We walked past the Lalbagh Housing Co-operative Society to an enclosure where the king was getting ready for his coronation. Stripped of his regal pomp, we respected the request not to photograph him in his unfinished state.

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The Ganesh Nagar avenue inside Lalbaug Market was lined with shops selling arecanut, tobacco, chilli, pickles and spices. During Ganeshotsav shops remove their regular wares and sell incense, flowers, coconut and puja items. The shop closest to the pandal, Chavhan Bandhu doesn’t mind shutting down for the entire 10-day period, because they do enough business in the days leading up to it. Past farsan stores and shops selling fibre Gauri idols dressed in finery, we stumbled onto the busy Dr Ambedkar Road towards Ganesh Talkies.

Entertainment was not new to the area. Landmarks like Hanuman Theatre and Bharat Mata Cinema once bustled with activity when Lalbaug was a hub of Marathi entertainment and cinema. Regular tamashas, folk dances and films provided recreation to the mill workers and there was even a shrine of a tamasha artist Mari aayi nearby. We were off to meet the sculptors who have been crafting Lalbaug’s famous idol for decades. Armed with just a password ‘Kambli ka karkhana’ that served as the address, we had no trouble in finding the shop.

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In between text messages on his white Android phone, Santosh Kambli, the tech-savvy third generation sculptor elaborated on his family’s association with Lalbaug cha raja. In 1920 his grandfather Madhusudan Dhonduji Kambli set up Kambli Chitrakala Pradarshan that made jhaankis (floats) and models for traveling exhibitions. In 1935 Kambli got a chance to decorate a car for a rally to commemorate the silver jubilee of King George V’s visit to India. He decked up the car like an elephant that was so beautiful and real, it didn’t appear as if there was a motorcar under its façade! Through a family friend Bhausaheb Shinde, he was introduced to the mandal and took over from Shankar Bisle, who had made the first idol of koli Ganpati. His idol was so good that 8000 prints were sold that year. Madhusudan Kambli never took money for making the idol till his demise in 1951.

However, it was Santosh’s uncle Venkatesh Madhusudan Kambli, a JJ School of Art alumni, who gave Lalbaug cha Raja his legendary serene appearance. Now into its 80th year, his father Ratnakar Kambli and Santosh continue the tradition. He explained why the idol was so popular. “Unlike the stereotypical pot-bellied figure, we have a slim Ganpati which is not overweight. Staying true to the legend of an elephant’s head transplanted on a human form, he looks like a real person. He has a smiling face and bright small eyes. His posture, a slightly tilted body, reflects the personality of a benevolent king. His bhaav or expression has the smile of recognition and pleasure in seeing his subjects.”

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Most pandals have a large ostentatious utsav murti (festive idol) and another smaller puja murti that is simpler and worthy of prayer. The Lalbaug cha Ganpati is unique because despite its size, it serves as the puja murti. While other idols take a diversion via Opera House, the Lalbaug idol passes from Girgaum Bridge. To pass under low bridges, the idol is made in such a way that three parts are foldable – the kalash (vessel) on the crown, the round halo around the head and the main prabhavali (decorative arch) behind the idol!

While the idol’s appearance remains sacrosanct, cosmetic changes are done each year for the prabhavali (arch), singhasan (throne) and astras (weapons), which generate a lot of curiosity and excitement. “Earlier shankh-paash (conch and noose) were fixed props, but now we innovate,” said Santosh. As if on cue Mr. Ratnakar Kambli pulled out a large menacing axe made of fibre. His son continued, “This year’s design will be next year’s trend. If Amitabh Bachchan keeps a French beard, then his fans also keep the same style… It’s just like that.”

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After realizing that some of their smaller idol designs were being copied and how Indian concepts like basmati rice, turmeric and yoga had recently been exploited abroad, the Kamblis patented the face of the Lalbagh cha Raja idol in 2011. While brands, logos and songs are often protected by copyright, it was a first for an idol. Many idol makers in Gujarat and Maharashtra were scared about its repercussions, but it also created awareness among Ganesh utsav mandals, which got registrations, copyright and other issues sorted out in the process.

It is believed that during Ganesh Chaturthi, the grace of the Lalbaug cha Raja idol increases with each passing day. Researchers who come to study and document the celebrations have found an energy field and a 360-degree circle of vibration around Ganesha. In terms of power, they rank it just a notch lower than Siddhivinayak! The fame of Lalbaug cha Raja has spread far and wide with devotees celebrating a promotion, birth, good fortune, miraculous survival or whatever they wished for. Amitabh Bachchan, Lata Mangeshkar and the Ambanis are regulars every year. Shilpa Shetty had promised to install an idol if she got married to Raj Kundra and continues to be a client.

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Kambli Art is flooded with demands from actors, ministers, police officers and others, though their buyers include both rich and the poor. Their artworks have also traveled beyond India’s boundaries from Sydney to Switzerland. A 7 ft Saraswati stands in an Amsterdam museum while Gujarati clients in London got an idol of Jalaram Bapa made, besides regular requests for Ganesha idols from NRIs in US, Canada and London. “We have limited space so we make only 125 Ganpatis. Sadly, we don’t have the capability to fulfill everyone’s desires.” It’s belief over business, capacity over commerce…

Till a few decades ago, no one knew about this area of quiet Parsi enclaves, textile mills and Marathi theatres, but Lalbaug cha Raja made it famous worldwide. Santosh said that earlier there was a tramway with a footpath in the middle with gulmohar trees. When the flowers were in bloom the whole area resembled a lal baag (red garden). The trees were not there to prove the story. As for other origins, there was still a Parsi bungalow called Lal Baug with a red wall and the dargah of Saint Hazrat Lal Shah Saheb. The dargah houses a well donated by a Marathi Tamasha Group. Such stories of communal harmony stand out. Despite past riots and troubles, the Raja’s route has remained unchanged. As he passes through Nagpada, local Muslims serve sherbet to devotees while many observe fast and perform arti.

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We bid adieu to the Kamblis and crossed the Chinchpokli Railway Bridge to meet another legend. Vijay Ramakrishna Khatu specializes in large idols. His guru Dr Dinanath Welling made Mumbai’s first 26 ft idol for Ganesh Galli in 1977, setting the trend for large Ganeshas. Since Khatu’s workshop outside Parel station was overflowing with idols, he had a small shed at Chinchpokli with a dozen giant Ganeshas destined for South Mumbai. Like an army of Titans ready to be deployed, the murtis were arranged in the pandal according to their delivery schedule. The ones that had to go first were closer to the entrance…

We ducked under the scaffolding, walking gingerly over a pile of poles and narrowly missed getting doused by a bucket of water from a worker atop a towering white Ganpati idol. The workshop was busy as young men applied finishing touches to colossal idols that lined the shed on trolleys. His father RV Khatu, a former millworker started his own idol-making business on August 15, 1947 and Vijay joined him as a 14-year-old kid. In the old days, statues were as tall as 8-10ft. When he attempted making 15ft idols, they collapsed due to his lack of technical knowledge. So he sought the help of old karigars (craftsmen) and eventually perfected his technique. “The secret is in the centre of balance,” he smiles and explains, “First the trolley has to be leveled, then balance has to be decided and the idol must be architectured around a central metal rod in a part-by-part assembly.”

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This year’s highlight for Khatu is the Shankar-roopa Ganpati in the likeness of Lord Shiva sheltered under the hood of 11 serpents. An ashta-bhuja (8-handed) Mushaka-dhwaja Ganesha poised on one leg upon a warlike mouse mid-stride. The idol, commissioned by 11th Galli, Khetwadi is priced at 2.65 lakh rupees. Another large Ganpati seated on a singhasan (throne) had been booked by Chandanwadi mandal. About 2-3 months prior to the festival, Ganesh Mandals come with their requirements, select a sketch from Khatu’s collection and their preferred size. This year Vijay Khatu has created 185 idols and all are above 8 ft tall! “I’ve honed my skills through experience. I use unskilled labour in my workshop but my expertise is still a secret – the entire design, balance, posture and technical know-how I have not shared with anyone.

Talking about the viability of this art, Khatu says dryly “Sirf kala se pet nahi bharta, vyapar bhi zaroori hai” (You can’t feed the belly with talent alone, you need business sense as well). He goes on to explain, “I’ve seen many sculptors who are very strong artistically, but they lack business acumen and end up getting exploited.” He rattled out names of talented craftsmen – “Balachandar Ganar, Satish Walivadekar, Rajan Jhad, Manohar Bagwe, Shivalkar in Borivali and Rajan Vedak in Girgaum. These are true artists. 99% people who claim to be idol-makers in Mumbai don’t know how to make an idol. The seth (owner) just sits on chair and dictates orders, while true artists are ignored.”

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While most people source unfinished idols from nearby Pen, paint it and sell it at a mark-up price in Mumbai, many aren’t happy about Pen’s mass-production or painting quality. Khatu says, “Pen became an idol manufacturing hub because of several reasons – cheap labour, ample space and proximity to Pune and Mumbai. However Mumbai is stronger artistically and has much better quality. This business requires investment and space. The Government should make land and raw material available to artists.” He has been lobbying for this since 2004.

Dismissing ecological concerns raised during the Utsav, Khatu argues, “It is convenient to pass the buck to sculptors and painters. The government should offer incentives. There are 4-5 lakh small murtis for worship at home. Where will the material come from? You have to dig deep in agricultural land to obtain shadu (clay). Where is the space for that? And if we raid the fields, what will people eat? Of course, we can use natural colours – turmeric for yellow, soot for black, but the idols won’t be as attractive as the ones painted in brighter colours. Aap uske taraf dekhenge bhi nahi! (You will not even glance at them) And what about the detergents from your home, untreated waste, industrial effluents, the diesel launches out on sea that run for hours…. don’t they cause pollution? It happens all year round. Ganesh Utsav comes once a year and people have a problem!”

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Like moths to light, we were drawn by a yellow glow in a narrow passage. Soham Arts at Chinchpokli had a fine collection of Ganpatis in the soft pinkish hue of lotus petals. Inside, Prabhakar Katalkar (66) painter sat before an idol and daubed orange paint from his arm with a brush and drew a neat curving flower on Ganpati’s trunk with utmost concentration. Noticing us, his eyes crinkled into a smile as he said, “I paint the God’s eyes.” He makes a daily trip from Chunabhatti to Chinchpokli by train. Though the journey is stressful and crowded, he says “I forget everything when I come to the karkhana (factory).”

A former textile artist in Tata’s Swadeshi Mill, Katalkar became a freelance artist who painted Ganpati idols, after the mill downed its shutters. He’s been doing it for 30 years or so. For Katalkar, painting is a spiritual experience. He believes Ganpati himself gives him sphurti (energy). “I don’t do anything, apni shobha wo khud kar ke deta hai. (The Lord himself decides on his brilliance!) When I sit before an idol, the Lord appears before me. It’s almost as if he instructs me on how I should paint his eyes. When I return home, I think about the next day’s task and Ganpati emerges in a dream. I visualize him and he guides me.”

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Sunil Walunkar started Soham Arts 15 years ago. Because of bad roads, many people bought the sculptures in parts from Pen and reassembled it here. This entire process begins in June. People like his products because of the colour combination, expressive eyes and the glitter that is used. “I don’t cut costs when it comes to quality. I get expensive raw material from Masjid Bandar. Noting the number of idols in the room, we asked if they were made to order. “We make as many as we want. The unsold idols go back to godown and will be re-painted from scratch the next season. Damage hua to samandar mein,” he laughs! (The damaged ones go straight to the sea). His prices are competitive and depend on the affordability of the mandal.

Rahul Khanvilkar, an electrician for the rest of the year, takes leave for 3 months to make an extra buck. Echoing Khatu’s thoughts on eco-friendly options, Khanvilkar says, “Shadu doesn’t work because it’s prone to damage and cracks. Given that an idol is handled many times through its 8-10 procedures, these sculptures are risky to handle.” We watched Khanvilkar paint the background and a worker gently blow glitter from a sheet of paper, over the wet paint. Its dull background instantly transformed into a blue-spangled halo. Walunkar outlined that though paints and materials were expensive (glitter costs Rs.3000/kg), devotees would be assured of quality products at reasonable rates.

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In Ganesh Galli, Parag Kadam took us through the history of Mumbai cha Raja. Set up in 1928, it was the first Ganpati of Lalbaug. Steeped in the swarajya movement, it showcased historical plot scenes to instill nationalistic pride. Statues of Muktabhai, Dyaneshwar, Eknath and other luminaries were kept for 45 days. Interestingly, Ganesh ji’s idol was also kept; but wasn’t the highlight! A mela was organized where plays, lavni performances and bhajan-kirtan were staged for 11 days of festivity.

In 1945, a local seth commissioned an Arjun-type ratha with Subhash Chandra Bose as the charioteer. Bose briefly stayed next door at Batatawala Mansion, which served as a temporary office for his organizing committee. To celebrate the mandal’s golden jubilee in 1977, Dinanath Welling sculpted a 26 ft idol. During his 15-year association, he built elaborate sculptures like Ganesha on an upturned lotus and Kalia-mardan, Ganesha standing atop a serpent on one toe. Welling’s old workshop is a few lanes away. For the 75th year celebration in 2002, the mandal decided on something novel. Since the old and the poor could not afford long, distant pilgrimages, pandals were built in the likeness of India’s top spiritual attractions. “Starting from Madurai Meenakshi, Kedarnath, Mallikarjun temple, Chamundeshwari, Akshar Dham, Hawa Mahal… we had Pashupatinath last year and this year it’s Sorti Somnath.”

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“At 8:05 am only after the arti at Ganesh Galli, do other processions move out. We must reach in time for a scientific reason. We have to catch the low tide at 4:15pm, so that we can go as further into the sea till 6:15pm. The best swimmers and 1,500 volunteers help us during the event. We don’t delay lest the entire schedule in Mumbai gets affected. The next day, metallic plates and all debris are brought back along with the trolley.”

A sea of people follow the procession for the visarjan or ceremonial immersion that takes place in Sewri, Korai, Girgaum, Versova, Gateway of India and Worli. Eighty per cent of the idols go to Girgaum because of its central location and wide area that can tackle large crowds. Roads are chock-a-block with crowds pulling 15 ft tall Ganpatis on trolleys. Parel alone has 25-30 mandals with large idols. While Mumbai cha Raja sets off on his time-bound mission, Lalbaug cha Raja is waylaid by devotees for a last glimpse as they make offerings or collect flowers. The procession leaves at 10:30 am and reaches Chowpatty next day around 6 am, taking 20 hrs to cover the 6 km distance!

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While smaller idols are immersed close to the beach, Lalbaug cha Raja rides a tarafa (metal barge) 4km into the sea. Local boatmen and coolies hire launches for audiences who dare to undertake a perilous journey to see Mumbai’s most popular idol slowly consigned to water. The salty tears of the devotees mingle into the sea, as they wait another year to welcome him into their hearts and homes. 

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Rail Bandhu, the in-train magazine of the Indian Railways.

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6 responses »

  1. Brilliant!! Thanks for a lovely post on Ganesh utsav in Bombay and people behind the scenes who make it happen. It gave me the same pleasure of walking through Kumartuli in Calcutta, the mecca for Durga idols.

    • Thanks Poorna. After our trip to Pen, the hub of Ganpati idol manufacture, we were wondering if we’ll have any new material in Mumbai. And were pleasantly surprised. Have gone pandal-hopping during Durga Puja but not done Kumartuli. For the idols, do artisans still scoop out mud from the front of a brothel as that’s where man leaves all his goodness behind and is hence very pure?

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