By all accounts, the colourful chaos and commerce typically associated with the season will be subdued when festivities begin on August 22 (Saturday). There won’t be elaborate pandals and banners, nor the overpowering scent of incense mingling with smoke from traffic snarls.
In light of Covid-19, according to guidelines by the state government and municipal authorities, devotees will have to wear masks and pray from a distance. They cannot offer flowers or prasad. Idols are to be no taller than four feet. Processions for the aagman (arrival) and visarjan (immersion), led by large numbers of volunteers and families, have been banned. Immersions have to be done in private or in Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation tanks rather than at the beach.
In this context, several prominent trusts plan to cancel celebrations and worship small idols in their offices this year. Many intend to organise camps for donating blood and plasma instead. The best recognised and most visited Lalbaugcha Raja — 18 to 20 feet tall — will not be installed for the first time in 86 years. GSB Seva Mandal in King’s Circle, with the city’s richest Ganesha otherwise bedecked in 70 kg gold and 300 kg silver, will livestream celebrations and keep the venue off-limits. “We understand the problems people are going through, so we will have only pujas and chanting without an exorbitant display of gold and wealth,” says the trust’s convener Bhujang Pai.
The total turnover from Ganeshotsav in the city is expected to fall to Rs 30 crore, says Naresh Dahibhavkar, president of the Brihanmumbai Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Samanvay Samiti. This compares with Rs 70 crore raked in last year. “It will also mean a drop in earnings in taxes for the government,” reminds Dahibhavkar.
In addition to health concerns, the downsizing indicates dramatic shifts in the spending capacities of individuals and firms. As it happens, Ganeshotsav is not as “recession-proof” as once held by Assocham. “With folded hands, people are excusing themselves from donating,” says S Manikandan of the Sakthi Vinayagar Narpani Mandram in Matunga, which will hold a small ceremony only to ensure continuity.
A total of 18.9 million salaried jobs were wiped out in the formal sector in India between April and July, according to data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. In many cases, salaries have been cut too. In normal times, devotees make offerings in cash, gold, diamonds, foreign currency, coconuts and sugar.
Bigger mandals, equipped with apps and YouTube channels, will webcast rituals this year. They also plan to courier prasad. Insurance and sponsorships attached to the celebrations have shrunk too. The King’s Circle GSB, which had a cover of a whopping Rs 265 crore last year, will have no need for protections beyond individual health insurance for a handful of employees. The Andhericha Raja, popular with Bollywood celebrities who always stop by for photo ops, will have no publicised visits by VIPs. So, the battery of sponsors “who usually approach us themselves” have remained very quiet, says the trust’s spokesperson Uday Salian.
Santosh Murasu, a Byculla-based idol sculptor, says the atmosphere of doubt has affected the creativity normally linked with the festival. “We lost a month just waiting for materials to arrive from Gujarat. People come to us with drawings of particular designs that they want, but given the slowdown we did not make any customisations.”
The last time the sentiment was so badly affected was during the plague of 1896, when people took to worshipping images on calendars at home. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the founder of community Ganeshotsav celebrations, was blamed then for having brought the illness upon people by taking the deity onto the streets. Dahibhavkar reckons, “This year, everyone will be praying for restoration of normalcy.”