At this Pune celebration, devotion is completely optional.
For most of our childhood, we avoided the heart of Pune where a majority of pandals conduct the Ganesh Visarjan procession. The unruly crowds and noise acted as strong deterrents to leaving the comfort of home, nor did we want to get stuck in traffic. Besides we weren’t religious. A deity’s comings and goings didn’t move us enough to hit the streets. We did attend and enjoy the Ganesh Visarjan festivities organised in our neighbourhood, but that was almost like a family affair.
When we finally made our way to Laxmi Road and the adjoining lanes some years ago, we thought we'd reached a party! It seemed like all Puneris, young and old, had congregated there on Ganesh Visarjan day.
The Big Boss
For the uninitiated, Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations are a 10-day long birthday party we throw for our beloved elephant-headed deity. Visarjan is the day he leaves (via a water body of our choice), there’s a huge farewell party on Laxmi Road in Pune that lasts 24-28 hours. Each Ganesh idol is followed by a dhol-taasha pathak (a band of percussion instruments) that travels with the idol and performs at several locations along the way.
We went back for some more of the heady music and dance this year. And we are hooked, for more than one reason.
Observation # 1: The dhol-taasha players are like rockstars and the crowd is like a mosh pit.
The players have security; volunteers clear the path for them. I’m not exaggerating. I think the first dhol-pathak got more attention from the crowd than the first Ganapati. They were so excited that they all charged ahead almost causing a stampede. One of the later pathaks had a volunteer pass a Red Bull to the dhol players. As I enviously watched him drink, I decided that they deserve the special treatment. Carrying that dhol (approximate weight l10 kilos) in the hot sun and walking the entire stretch of Laxmi Road is no mean feat. I was happy to be part of the moshpit and to enjoy the performances.
The mosh pit
Observation # 2: It’s an open-air party where you can just be.
You don’t have to know how to dance, you don’t have to dress in uncomfortable clothes, you don’t have to wear heels or makeup. Just walk in, find a 2 x 2 feet space, and go crazy. Throw your hands in the air, shake your body, drink if you like, no judgement. The rhythm of the dhol-taasha is so powerful and the music on the speakers so loud, that it’s enough to give you a natural high.
Observation # 3: If you watch the pathaks long enough, you’ll want to become one of them.
Every time the crowd heard faint strains of an approaching pathak, they braced themselves. The anticipation grew as they got closer and closer, and erupted in screams, whistles, jumping bodies and arms waving in the air. For the brief time that the pathak played, the crowd stopped complaining about the heat and claustrophobia and let the music take over. I danced, whistled and cheered lustily… and imagined that one day, I would be the one making the music.
Observation # 4: Crowds test character.
If crowds make you frustrated and angry, yell and scream, test your patience, then a visarjan is for you. Not only will you realise the limits of your restraint, you will come out of it better and bigger – the best version of yourself.
Observation # 5: The phrase of the day was “maage sarka” (move behind)!
I heard everyone say it in increasing volumes. The police said it in threatening tones. The people around me pleaded. Everyone had one request to the people around them: maage sarkaa! But the people in front refused to leave their locationally advantageous position and the people behind tried their best to push their way ahead. We witnessed some Olympic -level dhakka-mukki. Even after I went home in the afternoon to nap (as all true Puneris do), I could hear ‘maage sarkaaa’ in my dreams.
A female dhol player smiles for us
Observation # 6: Camaraderie is easy.
All you need to do is smile and dance. Be careful who you dance with though - boys can be frisky, but I found most who just wanted to enjoy their groove. Dancing with girls was a piece of cake. Exchange moves and follow each other for an impromptu synchronised dance sequence.
Observation # 7: Camera = Access.
While most people stand behind a tightly drawn rope barricade, men with DSLRs happily saunter along in the space meant for the pathak. A few are press photographers, but most are there to experiment with their camera. These camera toting specimens can stand a foot away from the players and not be squished without space to move and sometimes breathe. It’s a photographers delight - there’s movement, there are traditional costumes, percussion instruments, and exuberance, passion and focus on everyone’s face.
Everyone’s a photographer
Observation # 8: At night the streets turn into a discotheque.
It’s a matter of perspective: when you’re at home trying to work and someone is playing loud music for Ganesh Chaturthi, we curse and complain. But when you’re out on the streets dancing like a hooligan, you cease to care about life, the universe, God, and potential deafness. Laxmi Road, Pune hosts the most happening Ganesh Visarjan evening parties. Trucks carrying portable disco equipment (lights, speakers, and DJs) cater to the crowd’s need to let their hair down and dance like there’s no tomorrow.
Observation # 9: You don’t have to be religious to enjoy this event. Devotion is optional.
Though community Ganapati celebrations started as a religious event in 1893, you don’t necessarily have to be religious to enjoy the party anymore. The most fun parts of the event are the non-religious ones, though Ganapati Bappa is the big boss in whose name you can get the crowd to do anything. “Move out of the way for Bappa!” and the crowd will really move. “Dance for Bappa!” And everyone gets into the groove. But no one insists that you pray or partake in any of the religious rituals. Devotion is completely optional.
Atheists bid farewell
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com
By Vinaya Kurtkoti / Shatakshi Gawade
Photographs by: Vinaya Kurtkoti and Shatakshi Gawade