Once upon a time, Ganesha Habba as it used to be

SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes: On the day of Ganesha Chaturthi, when most of India endeavours to seek the munificent blessings of the potbellied deity, and celebrates the occasion with ‘religious fervour and traditional gaiety’, as the AIR news bulletins are wont to inform us, I paused to think of the times when the Saraswathipuram that I lived in still echoed the bored roaring of the lions at the Mysore zoo after the bronze bell in the fire brigade premises had struck ten at night.

Those times when “Ganapathi Habba” was the most colourful and joyous of occasions with young boys and girls coming together towards evening to go around the block, door to door, seeking to glimpse 101 idols of the lord for that, the elders said, would bestow upon us all His blessings in their entirety.

Groups of children, chattering excitedly; the sounds of innocent banter, the hurried shuffle at the entrance to a house hosting the lord; the desire to get in and out quickly and move on to the next house; keeping a feverish count of the number of ‘Ganeshas’ they saw, sometimes losing count in a state of frenzied confusion and reconciling to a certain figure and carrying on in the quest for the magical 101.

And, finally, the huge sense of joy, delight, elation and relief after having really done the 101!

When entrances to most houses were festooned with fresh green mango leaves and the idol of the lord placed inside an old rosewood or teakwood mantapa, invariably handed down since generations, with layer after layer of flowers of all colours, shapes and sizes; jasmine, chrysanthemum, hibiscus, rose and the tiny white thumbe with an assortment of bilwa, tulasi, garike and such other leaves bunched together from towards the feet of the lord making their way up to his sizeable chest with only the trunk being visible and resting on the delicate floral bed.

Small serial bulbs lit up the mantapa towards evening and in the delicate twinkling of their mellow incandescence, the lord sat in resplendent glory with delicate wafts of the heady agarbhatti completing the aura of piety pervading the hall.

When men and women, friends and relatives all, came visiting, bending low in obeisance before the idol as if on cue, and after the routine sprinkling of the holy turmeric smeared grains of rice onto the idol in a delicate shower, sat down to contemplate life in all its unhurried grace.

There was to the largely sparsely populated streets a sense of the divine; a melodious ‘sharanu sharanaiyya sharanu benaka…. streaming out mostly from a Sony tape recorder which showed the length of the running tape in digits with a reset button below; women walked around wearing traditional sarees with large mango motifs to the borders, mostly green, blue and cream. Children, especially young girls, wearing smart, colourful long skirts, tailed their mothers with floral baskets in their hands.

As for lunch, it would be a mouthwatering repast of an array of dishes starting with a dollop of payasa at the edge of the right-hand bottom of the shimmering green plantain leaf washed fresh with a generous sprinkling of water from the steel tumbler set against each person sitting down for the feast.

The various palyas, of beans and carrot, the ash gourd curry and pappadoms, lentil flour wafers fried in oil, accompanied by crunchy sandige, puffed rice fritters, that went so divinely well with the tang of the curry and the heady asafoetida scented, coriander garnished rasam with a smattering of seasoned mustard floating tantalisingly on the surface like miniature dots of black and imparting to the whole feast a touch of the traditional.

Desserts were holige, a sweetened flat bread suffused with fresh coconut, and the ubiquitous kadabu, a most mouthwatering crepe with serrated borders made by deft feminine fingers, loaded with sugar and coconut shreddings and fried in oil, a sweetmeat said to be lord Ganesha’s favourite.

As the years have rolled by and many a Ganesha idol has been immersed in the neighbourhood Kukkarahalli Kere, much to the anguish of self driven environmentalists who mean mostly good, there is a nagging thought that the values, the feelings of pious involvement with the festival and the sincere engagement with the lord have melted with the painted clay of the idols in the turbid waters of ridiculous tomfoolery.

Now groups of young boys atop open jeeps and trucks, taking  along the idol of the lord in frenzied disarray to the neighbourhood pond or lake, scream and shout in mad confusion, holding up traffic; a hint of cheap alcohol in their breaths, as they meander along chanting ‘vidya ganapathi ki…’ almost in a tone of belligerence.

And then there are the roadside orchestras in the neighbourhood. Belting out songs without a sense of occasion. Songs that could be straight out of a disco situation in some Kannada movie with the vamp gyrating to the heavy beats of the drum and the heavier breathing of her ample bosom.

Not for the organisers a desire to stick to the seriously devotional!

Where have we reached really?

The idols of the lord themselves have been made to take all kinds of laughably stupid connotations with complete lack of sensitivity and sanctity to His depiction.

You have Ganesha’s holding cricket bats if there is a major cricket engagement round the corner; a Ganesha who’s made to look like a traffic policeman; there was even a Ganesha in battle fatigues resembling a commando in the hunt for terrorists.

A dim-witted parody, a sick caricature of misplaced religiousness enough to make you wonder whether there is anything called meaningful prayer covered with dignity left in today’s age.

As the Ganesha bandwagon rumbles on, it is better to scamper off like a mouse. Into the safe confines of a past filled with beautiful memories of a grand festival that we all awaited with truly innocent anticipation.

Photograph: A Bangalore city corporation worker immerses a Ganesha idol at a pond in Ulsoor lake in Bangalore on Saturday (Karnataka Photo News)

Also read: The delightful feminism behind Ganesha‘s birth

One child per family; one Ganesha idol per colony?

When Gajanana meets the JCB on Chowpatty

“What’s in a name?” Aha! What’s in 108 names?

When Goldfinger meets Gajanana in our gullies

Once upon a habba, idol worship of another kind