As the monsoon starts to fade somewhere in late August, Mumbai sets aside its umbrellas and bhajia platters and gears up up for a frenetic festive season. In every corner of India there is at least one festival that the locals claim as their own, in Mumbai it’s the Ganeshotsav, a ten day long celebration of the elephant headed one’s annual visit to the city’s homes, neighborhoods and streets. There is the hurried sprucing up of homes, somehow crunched into the tiniest of time-slots between the rain-drenched days and the arrival of Ganesh Chaturthi. There is a mental adjustment to a change of season and acknowledgement that the commute to work will need those extra few minutes from here on. Annual leave requests are filed so that families can return to their ancestral homes and villages. The announcement of festive bonanza sales at prominent malls and stores segues in, displacing the parade of monsoon offers that serenaded from newspaper and television advertising till the other day.
For someone who grew up in Kolkata and spent a few years in Delhi before eventually moving to Mumbai, what stands out most about this festival is its ability to produce spectacular scale without an overreliance on lavish sums of money. This is not a commentary on either the size of Ganeshotsav’s economy, of donations collected or made. While there are Ganesh mandals that traditionally attract huge crowds, with people sometimes queuing up for over 24 hours, in its imagination the festival remains a neighborhood community event. This localized imagination makes it unlike the tourist attractions that spring up all over Kolkata during Durga Puja, with elaborate light installations, pandals inspired by architectural marvels and ‘artistic’ renditions of the divine ensemble. While Kolkata lavishes its resources on creating a public spectacle, Delhi insists on doing what it does best, making a statement by way of gifting and hospitality. In Mumbai we see production of a different kind, one that is generated by the collective energy of visarjan processions, as they take over the city and surges through its streets like a sensory eruption.
Visarjan or immersion processions aren’t unique to Mumbai. Idols are immersed all over India, all year round. Often these processions are accompanied by beating drums and communal dancing of varying intensity. Durga puja visarjans were quite the parade to witness as a child. The more elaborate of these processions would include a marching band playing popular tunes, which now has been replaced by actual song playing on the loudspeakers. Traffic would be either diverted to roads already choking under the pressure or made to simply wait out the passing of the procession. Columns of people, separated by generator vans on hand trolleys would walk rather obediently. Dancing was occasional and sporadic, as small groups of people succumbed to the tempo of the accompanying dhakis, breaking into a dance form typified by its trance like state and lack of coordination. The elaborate displays notwithstanding, Durga puja visarjans were always a wistful reminder of the festive days gone by. The visarjans in Kolkata made their presence felt sporadically given the city’s geography, whereas the Mumbai visarjans are structured to deliver maximum impact. The festival rituals demand that immersions happen on set dates. This results in a grand finale of immersion processions on the most auspicious day, with festival organizers favoring the biggest stage to go out with a bang. This compressing of the immersion processions through a combination of ritual observance and administrative considerations into a tight compartment of time and space, seem to have created conditions for it to find expression in all its urgency and potency, indelibly inscribing itself into the imagination of a city and its people.
While visarjans might be a uniquely Indian phenomenon, there are other instances where people take to the streets in large numbers, to celebrate a tradition like the bull-run in Madrid or the Mardi gras in New Orleans. The carnival in Rio has been one of the world’s foremost tourist attractions, attracting visitors from all around. However, the visarjans as experienced in Mumbai come with none of the accoutrements that make for a fancy parade. People who make up the large moving column of a visarjan are by and large dressed ordinarily. Being a part of a religious festival, women tend to be attired in their customary sarees and jewelry. Apart from the truck that carries the idol there are the contingent of drummers who are always part of the company and the mobile DJ station that blares out Bollywood hits that are designed to shake the city’s foundations at hundred and twenty beats per minute.
To many of us, the idea of getting caught in visarjan traffic is a nightmare. Traffic in the city is diverted and several key roads closed off to accommodate processions that seem to come through in waves. The reaction to being in such a situation can play out in different ways. For some the frenetic dancing, adrenaline-cranking drum-beats and a sense of being enclosed in a uncontrolled mosh pit of bodies bouncing off each other, smeared in colour?—?all comes together with an intensity that is hard to engage with. At the same time there are occasions where some others experience a strong pull, to be at the center with those bodies, to be lost to all and oneself. In doing so establish a connection with the beating drums, the movie song on loudspeakers and the very land, the part of the city’s terrain they pass through.
When people take to the streets in large numbers in this state of joyful catharsis as it happens during immersions in Mumbai, the energy of the city that in modern times is imagined as an efficient non-intrusive hum manifests in an intensely tactile form. What we experience is a coming together of many fragments and currents?—?of communities that once grew up and grew old together now scattered by shifting force-fields that run through the city, a common way of life that lies obscured by towering structures in glass and chrome, a strong working class ethos steeped in the culture of industrial production now forgotten and many others who find their connections pushed to the periphery as the city strives to script for itself a new era. Some of these fragments are memories of being in the midst of those who you’ve been around all your life, of feeling safe, feeling at home, memories where we felt free to express ourselves, with joy and without being judged. The visarjan becomes a call to all these little fragments that lie scattered, currents that have dissipated to swarm together and remind the city that no matter what it chooses to dress up as, at its core it still is a rambunctious soul.
On visarjan day, people throng their tenement balconies, street level doorways and pavements and bear witness to this heart-thumping takeover of their city streets. The street here becomes a significant stage establishes a common frame of reference for participants in a visarjan as well as those who watch from the ramparts. The streets have always been an integral part of Mumbai life. There are settlements scattered through out the city, where people comb their hair, scold their children and engage in all kinds of activity in full public view set against impatient honking of rush hour traffic. The most exciting shopping destinations in Mumbai have always been the streets?—?fashion street, Hill road, Linking road, Colaba causeway?—?are like pilgrimages for those who visit the city. The network of railway stations ensure there is a steady supply of street food that caters to the commuting regulars, who sustain themselves on a steady diet of street-side vada-pao, missal and other such innovations. To be on Mumbai’s streets is to feel a sense of belonging, with people and the minutiae of their lives and sometimes with communities with their worlds caught in a time warp. During visarjan what we encounter is not a self-conscious display of pride and fervor but a spontaneous giving in, to this inner belongingness. In the process it also plays out as a frenzied reminder to the city that its famed indomitability, its energizing frenzy, comes from having its feet planted firmly on the ground.
What we witness from our windows and sidewalks seems to stretch beyond the limits of a festival ritual. The procession might simply be a ritual being observed, but the manner in which what we encounter it, speaks of an overflowing devotion that does not restrict itself to the divine figure at the center of it all. The visarjan procession with its breathless beat, unlocks a narrative?—?of giving every ounce of yourself to that, which is dearest to you. As the mad, love-drunk visarjan dancer moves unpredictably, we see a story in slow motion of all those who have loved, labored and lost in a city that somehow hasn’t moved on, forever rebounding back to its working class heart.