ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Building New Solidarities

Public religious festivals are a ready resource for reactionary politics. Can they be secularised?

Religious festivals are no more merely about religion or spirituality. They are as much, if not much more, about politics, about national and other identities, and about the market. They are also, lest we forget, about celebrating and fraternising. Increasingly though, many festivals are coming under pressure from caste, gender and civic groups for their symbolisms and ideological content. As the country gets into the period of public festivals it may be a good time to take a step back and reflect on these events.

It was only in the late 19th century that religious festivals started coming out of the seclusion of the home and the religious gathering to become public spectacles, involving and inviting a larger public to participate. This tradition of public or, in that particular sense, communal (sarvajanik) religious festivals was a conscious effort by some nationalists to unite the community for the nation. The deliberate effort of Bal Gangadhar Tilak in starting the public Ganesh Pujas in Bombay or of the young Bengali nationalists in starting similar public Durga Pujas in Calcutta was to harness the potential of religious symbols and icons to unite large numbers of people in the new cities of colonial India by unshackling these ceremonies from their traditional family, caste and locality moorings. That this was a successful political intervention is attested to by the history of the 20th century where all mass religious denominations have changed their religious practices to make public religious celebration the centrepiece of their religious imagination and community identity. Thus Ganesh Chaturthi has become a cultural symbol of Maharashtra, like Onam has for Kerala or Durga Puja for Bengal.

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