The wonder years of Ganesh Chaturthi: My memories

The wonder years of Ganesh Chaturthi: My memories

It’s exciting that one of my favourite times in the year is here – Ganesh Chaturthi. Much has been said, shown, and spoken about how this part of the country comes alive at this time. Much also about how it evolved into a sarvajanik affair. However, in Mumbai, it’s not just sarvajanik in the scale of celebrations, but in how each  community has customised the festivities, infusing them with traditions from all corners of the country. Chembur too, with its cultural mosaic, stands true to this. You may have heard of the celebrations at RK Studios, Duke’s Factory, or Tilak Nagar. Let me introduce you to the one at a certain Revati Society (14th Road), where I grew up, complete with its distinct TamBrahm flavour. 

We moved in soon after I was born, in the late 80s, in a cozy one-room kitchen flat on the ground floor. One of the balconies opened up into the society’s quadrangle. This was where kids played cricket, lagori, or badminton through most of the year, but come Ganeshotsav, it transformed into a lively event space with a large pandal. At one corner of the quadrangle were two adjacent, cuboid water tanks, raised around four feet above ground, with pump rooms on either side. When the pandal went up, a platform was erected to cover the two feet gap in between the tanks, and a carpet laid over it, making for a perfect stage (in later years, the gap was simply cemented up). 

Next to the right corner of the stage, was the core of the pandal, the altar where the idols were installed… always two, and always the same kind. We welcomed them late at night on a haath gadi borrowed from the bhaji wala. Those who kept household idols for a shorter period also added these idols to the mandap, and this ensemble, which looked like a gigantic Indian babushka doll set, had its visarjan together after the whole 10 days.

The schedule wavered little and I can replay it in my head like an old movie. There were three buildings in the society, and each day, prasad was the responsibility of a designated set of flats. Visit those houses through the day, and the aromas of sugar, spice, and everything nice were just intoxicating. At around 4:30 p.m., the mamis also started assembling their artful kolams – rice flour rangolis, with typical geometric, join-the-dots formats.

As the sun set, people started returning from work, and children started playing. The sound man arrived and the speakers echoed the latest Bollywood hits (yes, Bollywood, because these are Bambaiyya TamBrahms). At seven something, he used to be on the lookout for someone who was the “master of ceremonies” through all those years, Sundaram mama (may he rest in peace). Mama’s arrival silenced everyone from Kumar Sanu to Sonu Nigam. There were some initial rituals after which he shared some words of wisdom and invited people to sing a few bhajans of their choice. And then he launched into the most epic rendition of the Atharvashirsh. To me, it remains incomparable after all these years. In fact, if any of us remember parts of the Atharvashirsh by-heart, it’s because of listening to Sundaram mama so many times. The crescendo kept rising. Then came the pièce de résistance, when mama gave the cue to the sound man to hit play and out came Lata Mangeshkar’s melodious Sukhkarta Dukhharta. Her voice was like the pied-piper sans the tragic ending, and the crowd swelled irrespective of the frequent rain, joining in with almost mandatory double claps every other second. 

The distribution of prasad after arti was only the end of the ceremony. The celebrations were yet to come. Each of the 10 days had something unique in store, organised by a group embodying the enthusiasm of the Duracell bunny, and the nerve centre for planning and rehearsals was often our tiny house (my father is one of those bunnies). There were dance performances, quizzes, antakshari, and more, but the highlights were the orchestra, and for me personally, the stage plays. There were generally two to them, for the kids, and for the grown-ups. My father, a born-and-raised Delhiite in this sea of Iyers and Iyengars, sometimes wrote the script in Hindi, which others translated into Tamil, the language of delivery. The result was an eclectic mix of stories, from mythology and fables, to custom-written pop-culture commentaries like Kaun banega mera pati? The different groups would all assemble in our living room and emotions would run high during rehearsal after rehearsal. I’m certain that for my mother, it was a worrisome task to also get me to study – Ganesh Chaturthi was often close to the Semester exams! 

Memories of two plays distinctly stand out; Bhasmasur vadh, in which I played the title role as an 7-8 eight year old. I was to die in the last scene, which to me, was a major buzzkill. They tried and tried to get me to lie down motionless, but no! On stage, I did finally drop to my death, but only to pop up and stand beside Mohini before the curtains fell – in defiance of centuries of mythology. The other was when I was 11, but already too tall (5 feet 8 inches) to be a part of the children’s play. So, I was bunched with the 15-16 year olds in a comedy about two couples. Calling out to my much older stage wife saying, “Darling, darling, nee enga irrukai?” (where are you?) was something that really cracked me up! Fortunately, I didn’t laugh into my “darling’s” face on stage.

It is thanks to these plays, as well as the fancy dress contests, which were held on the final night, that I have never had any stage fright. My parents pushed me onstage from the time I could barely string together a sentence – as a fisherman, a doctor, and once, even as the late politician, NT Rama Rao!

Ganpati came and went with an equal bang. On the day of visarjan, Sundaram mama and Lata Mangeshkar did their renditions for the final time, albeit a little earlier in the evening. A packed quadrangle cried out “Ganpati Bappa morya, pudchya varshi lavkar ya” as the 30+ full-size and baby Ganpatis were carefully loaded back on to the haath gaadi. At the gates of the society, gunny bags full of coconuts awaited the departing deity. Smash! Smash! Smash! The coconuts were cracked open on the ground with feverish intensity by those with the necessary physical prowess, as others stayed a safe distance behind (the pieces were all collected for use afterwards). These were also the times when firecrackers weren’t looked down upon. So, just as the coconut shower ended, a 5,000-strong garland of crackers, interspersed with Lakshmi bombs, went off just outside the gates. The procession slowly made its way forward when the smoke cleared. Amidst the cacophony of the larger processions with their thundering bands and manic dancing, ours stood out, accompanied only by the voices of the men chanting Ganpati Bappa Morya, and accompanied at times with women in their distinctly identifiable saris singing bhajans. Once, we even had two men playing the nadaswaram. This was before the visarjan pond at Ghatla was inaugurated, so we made our way to the crowded one at Chembur Naka. Along the way, there was even a small samosa break at Sandu Garden.

Ten days of devotion and merriment wound down to a close once we returned, when everyone in the society contributed something to a communal feast of traditional delicacies, which, weather permitting, would also be consumed in the quadrangle, sitting in long rows. Prizes, often Glaxo or Cadbury’s products since two key members worked there, were then distributed to all those who made the event a grand success. The next evening, we would forlornly look at the pandal being brought down, feeling the void of silence, waiting for the next year.

The early- to mid-90s are the times I fondly recollect, when enthusiasm and participation were still high. It could be that it’s the rose-tinted glasses of childhood at play. But as work and study patterns changed and cable TV brought stiff competition to our humble programmes, the celebrations crumbled. There was a brief burst of revival in the early 2000s, but the death knell came when the almost all the kids reached the competitive exam phase and couldn’t take on the mantle of being organisers, which the previous generation now wanted to hand over. The pooja continued in a skeletal form until a few years back with ever fewer attendees and baby idols (eventually, without Sundaram mama too).

We no longer live there either, and like so many other societies in the area, Revati (now fittingly called Avighna) too will soon undergo a much needed redevelopment. With it, everything in this article will solely remain as memories of those who experienced it. But the thoughts will always be dearly cherished – bringing a smile whenever we think of things like all the suitors in Kaun banega mera pati.

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