Friday, February 06, 2009

The Maharashtra Samaj Mhow and 100 Years of Ganesh Puja

In September 2008 the Maharashtra Samaj Mhow celebrated the 100th Ganesh Puja. The Samaj was formed in 1924 but the Pujas, I am told, had started long ago.

Maharshtra Samaj Mhow is basically an association of the Maharashtrian Brahmin community of Mhow. As they are a small community in Mhow they do not observe the distinctions between sub-communities as is done in Maharashtra. Many of my friends from childhood were a part of this larger family so I have been touch with it for almost four decades now.

When did the Marathis first come to Mhow? I would say that since Indore, of which Mhow is a part, was a Maratha Kingdom the Marathi community in Mhow must be as old as Indore itself. But it is possible that more families moved in after 1818 when Mhow was handed over to the British under the treaty of Mandsaur. The army of the East India Company under the Scotsman John Malcolm had defeated the Holkars at the Battle of Mahidpur in December 1817 and Mhow had been handed over to them to be used as a Cantonment.

When I chatted with Shri Sharad Joshi, one of the elders of this community, he told me that the Maharashtrian Brahmins came to Mhow from around the mid-nineteenth century onwards. According to him the first of the community came to Mhow from Pune on transfer. They were employed in the accounts department of the Army. He specifically mentioned the MES (Military Engineering Service). Once the Railways arrived in Mhow, he added, it became another provider of jobs to this educated community. Later more brahmins came from Indore and other parts of Maharashtra too. The Maharashtra Samaj in Mhow was established in 1924. One of the plaques inside the Samaj building mentions the name of a gentleman named Balwant Yashwant Godbole who was born in 1861 and died in 1939.

A local paper had alerted me to the fact that the Maharashtrian community of Mhow would be celebrating the 100th Ganesh puja in 2008. As the days came closer to Sept 3 which was the fourth day in the new month of Bhadrapad in the lunar calendar one could see the preparations getting more intense. Press release in various local newspapers, posters at prominent places and finally an invitation card from retired Lieutenant Colonel Borgaonkar, a family friend, to my parents with a day by day break up of the celebrations convinced me that I must attend as many of the functions as possible.

A special souvenir was brought out in 1958 to celebrate the completion of 50 years of Ganesh Puja. The most striking aspect of this souvenir is that it is handwritten. An exquisite example of beautiful handwriting in the Devnagari script. An awful lot of hard work has gone into the creation of this beautiful 'Granth'.

I felt a thrill as I flipped through the pages of this souvenir. The list of guest speakers in English and Hindi besides Marathi was really fascinating. The list of English speakers in the pre-independence days included Britishers. I wish I could get a copy of the words spoken by them. Ganesh Puja was basically a chance to show the nationalistic spirit and was started by Bal Gangadhar Tilak for this very purpose. So it is fascinating to learn that Englishmen also participated in it. I feel it may have had to do with the fact that the Maharashtrian Samaj of Mhow was dominated by government employees and the British government ensured that they did not antagonise the Indians and they could also monitor the activities by giving the Puja a form of approval.

I requested Mr Joshi to take good care of the souvenir. I also suggested that they save it in digital format so that multiple copies can be easily made and anyone interested can get a copy. I will try my best to lend a hand in this worthwhile project.

The Celebrations in September 2008
I was looking forward to Sept 3 the day of Ganesh Chaturthi. The Samaj would be taking out a procession through Mhow town which would go towards the Main Street and then come back to the Samaj via the M G Road.
It was also interesting to see that the 26 Maratha Light Infantry would be participating in this procession. This must be one of the rare occasions when an Army unit participated in a non-Army function. This would definitely not have been possible during the days of the Raj. In those days the British officers allowed each battalion to celebrate its festivals depending on which part of India the troops belonged to. But there was no question of 'fraternising with the native civilians.' This mindset had got ingrained in the minds of most Army officers. The trend has been changing of late. The Army continues to keep to itself but not with an air of superiority as was the norm in the post 1857 British Indian Army.

Besides the permanent residents of Mhow who belong to this community and have been living here for generations many retired army officers from the Maharashtrian community who have settled here participated in the procession along with their wives. Most of them were dresssed in traditional dress very similar to the ones which one associates with the freedom fighter Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

Besides the procession I also attended a musical program where bhajans in praise of Lord Ganesh were sung by Ms. Niharika Naidu. She is the daughter of a Lt. Colonel from the Rajput Regiment who was killed in the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, her husband is also from the same regiment. I also attended a classical music program at the Samaj hall where Ms. Kalpana Jhokarkar of Indore and her team sang beautifully. The concert had gone on till midnight. The nexr day, Sunday 14 Sept, I attended the Mahaprasad function at the Samaj hall and also had a very tasty Maharashtrian lunch. Due to commitments I could not attend the visarjan program where the statue of Ganesha was taken to a lake and bid goodbye to. But on the whole it was a fantastic occassion to see one of the communities of Mhow celebrating its 100th puja. It is a small community numerically but they have given a lot to Mhow and to the country. I am already looking forward to next year's celebrations...

To see the complete post with many more photographs please click here.

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