Mumbai News : As the editor of newspapers Kesari and Mahratta, ‘Lokmanya’ Bal Gangadhar Tilak took up cudgels on behalf of Hindus. He stressed that during communal conflict, the British should be impartial Lokmanya Tilak popularised Ganesh utsav. The cultural and religious events held during the Ganesh festival celebrations saw open anti-British propaganda.
What is now the most celebrated festival in Maharashtra has its roots in an unfortunate conflict that happened in the late 19th century.
In August 1893, there was a communal riot after music was played at a Hanuman Temple at Pydhonie in Mumbai. The riot was the first major flare-up between Hindus and Muslims in the city. Marathi textile mill workers also entered the fray, and the violence intensified. By some accounts, 75 people were killed. Riots were also reported from places like Raver and Yeola in North Maharashtra. Eventually, the army was summoned.
As the editor of newspapers Kesari and Mahratta, ‘Lokmanya’ Bal Gangadhar Tilak took up cudgels on behalf of Hindus. He stressed that during communal conflict, the British should be impartial. But though the Hindus had acted in self-defence, Governor Lord Harris blamed them. Thus, it became a dispute not just between Hindus and Muslims, but also involved the British government, making it a triangular fight. Tilak’s biographer Sadanand More has pointed out that though it seemed as if Tilak was opposing the Muslims, his real fight was with the British, as he was challenging its ‘divide-and-rule’ policies.
But the aggressive espousal of the Hindu cause during such communal conflicts widened Tilak’s influence beyond the conservative Brahmins and created a constituency for him in the working classes and the Gujarati and Marwari merchants in Mumbai.
The next year, (April 1894), there was communal tension over a festival at the Dulya Maruti temple in Pune and in June, the ‘palkhi’ of the revered bhakti saint Dnyaneshwar that was heading to Pandharpur, was stoned.
At the time, Muharram was the most popular event in the Bombay presidency. In the early 19th century, people across caste and religious denominations marked the occasion, noted Pune-based history and heritage enthusiast Sandeep Godbole. Taboots (replicas of the mausoleum of Hazrat Imam Hussain) were also installed in the wadas (mansions) of prominent and aristocratic families like the Rastes, Khasgiwales and Kunjirs as also at Shukrawar wada built by Bajirao-II, he added. There is a photograph of Tilak participating in a Muharram procession at the Budhwar Chowk in Pune in 1892.
Muharram was also popular in parts of the country with a significant presence of Maharashtrian Hindus. The author-journalist A.J. Karandikar writes that in Mudhol (present-day Karnataka), Muharram was marked by Hindus even in those villages without any Muslim resident.
As the scholar ‘Ahitagni’ Shankar Ramchandra Rajwade writes, Bhikobadada Agashe, a renowned wrestler in the Lokhande Talim, would perform the lezim before the Taziya procession of the Ghodepir dargah in Pune, with his wards. The procession of the Ghodepir was so popular that a bullock cart used to move around with it to collect the revdis (a sweet) showered at it.
The communal tensions ended this synthesis, with Hindus refusing to commemorate Muharram. In 1894, the number of taboots in Pune fell to just 50- 75 compared to around 300- 400 the previous year. That year, Tilak promoted the celebration of Ganesh utsav, which soon replaced Muharram in its popularity. Incidentally, like Muharram, the Ganesh utsav also concludes with a procession.
Though it is said that Tilak began the public celebrations of Ganesh utsav, the festival was celebrated even earlier at three places in Pune, namely, by Annasaheb Khasgiwale, Bhau Lakshman Javale aka Bhausaheb Rangari and Ganesh Narayan Ghotawadekar. These celebrations were widened and popularized by Tilak after the riots.
As Tilak’s biographer Dhananjay Keer writes: “Before the advent of Tilak, the Ganesh festival was not a public affair. It was his organising ability which transformed it into a public festival.” Soon, Ganesh mandals or festival societies were launched across Maharashtra. It was no coincidence that the Chitpavan Brahmin Peshwas, who as the de-facto chiefs of the Maratha confederacy, once ruled large parts of the Indian sub-continent from Pune, revered Lord Ganapati. These public celebrations also helped take Ganesh worship to the non-Brahmin masses.
Pune was known for its tradition of wrestling and had several akhadas (wrestling clubs). These wrestlers, who cut across caste and religious lines, were influenced by Tilak, who had learnt wrestling in his younger days, and his guru ‘Bramharshi’ Annasaheb Patwardhan, a scholar and medical practitioner. Led on by Rangari, Dagdu Halwai and others, these young pailwans (wrestlers) ensured that the celebrations of the Ganesh festival were a success and managed to “persuade” Hindus against observing Muharram.
The Ganesh festival celebrations also led to some Hindu-Muslim conflict initially, including an attack on a procession at the Daruwala bridge in Pune in which Sardar ‘Tatyasaheb’ Hari Ramchandra Natu was injured.
The festival spread beyond Pune and also took root in Mumbai, beginning with the Keshavji Naik chawl in Girgaon. Tilak visited the chawl’s pandal in 1901.
“It is a misnomer to say that the 1992-93 riots changed the social fabric of Mumbai. It was the 1893 riot that did so,” noted Bharat Gothoskar, founder of the heritage and experiential tourism initiative ‘Khaki Tours’. He said that before industrialization, Mumbai was a Hindu-minority city, but the demographics had gradually changed due to the influx of the Marathi toiling classes from the Konkan who joined textile mills.
“Before the riots, Muharram was the most popular event in Mumbai. Hindu boys would dance in the procession. Ganesh utsav had rituals like immersion processions, which borrowed practices from Muharram like dancing and decorating the floats like was done with the taziya,” said Gothoskar. He added that even today, in cities and towns like Solapur and Belgaum, which are located on the state’s border with Karnataka, the images of local deities and folk deities are part of Muharram processions.
The cultural and religious events held during the Ganesh festival celebrations saw open anti-British propaganda. In his ‘Indian Unrest,’ (1910) the journalist Valentine Chirol mentions the part played by the revival of Ganpati celebrations “in stimulating political disaffection in the Deccan.”
The Ganesh utsav also helped nurture the first generation of cadres for Hindutva. Parimala V Rao has pointed to how the notion of Hindutva as distinct from Hinduism was first used by Tilak in 1884. But Tilak was not anti-Muslim or Islamophobic. The Shiv Jayanti celebrations popularized by him to mark the birth of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj spread beyond Maharashtra. Speaking on the occasion at Calcutta in 1906, Tilak pointed to how Shivaji Maharaj was not an enemy of the Muslims per se and his struggle was a fight against injustice. He also called on Muslims to join the festivities. In 1916, Tilak and his then colleague and future architect of the sub-continent’s partition, M.A. Jinnah had helmed the ‘Lucknow Pact’ between the Congress and the Muslim League.
After Tilak’s death in Mumbai on 1 August 1920, one of the bearers of his mortal remains was Maulana Shaukat Ali, leader of the Khilafat movement. Another pallbearer was Mahatma Gandhi. The freedom fighter and poet Maulana Hasrat Mohani, who is credited with coining the slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad,’ wrote a poem in Urdu titled ‘Tilak’ that was read out at the third Khilafat conference as a tribute to the Lokmanya.
But, in an irony of sorts, while Tilak would spur the celebrations of Ganesh utsav as a substitute to Muharram, mass celebrations of Navratri would be used to counter it three decades on. In 1926, anti-caste activists and social reformers like Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, ‘Prabodhankar’ Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, father of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, and Raobahadur S.K. Bole launched public celebrations of Navratri as a form of counter-culture against the ‘Brahmin-dominated’ Ganesh utsav. But that is another story.