Puja as spectacle leads to shortage of pujaris

Puja as spectacle leads to shortage of pujaris

It’s puja time, folks! And since by now mid-term polls seem a distinct possibility, political parties have begun courting all mohulla-level (neighbourhood-level) youth clubs and puja mandalis (organizers of pujas) big time. In the age of 24-hour TV, the crowds will no longer come milling to hear the netas at party meets, even if buses and tractor-trolleys are provided along with coupons for free meals. And since most netas no longer reach out and bond directly with their constituencies, there is a growing disconnect between the people and the political leaders and also the humble young party worker. Things are so bad that even the party handouts in metros are now increasingly being delivered at newspaper offices by hired PR professionals.

In times such as these, it is but natural that politicians’ fancy should turn to religious events that still remain big crowd-pullers. These have become the new nodal points for a public flexing of political muscles and dispensing of large gifts in cash and kind.

Bhadrapad is the monsoon month in the Hindu calendar, when that fabled butter thief (makhan chor), Krishna, was born. For years in Mumbai, young men’s (now also women’s) clubs at street corners have re-enacted the drama of Krishna stealing butter and yogurt from clay pots hung out of his reach. They create intricate human pyramids and the guy at the top then risks life and limb to get at a clay pitcher, hung tantalizingly high. If he can finally reach and crack it by butting his head against it to the general merriment of the crowds gathered below, he and his group stand to collect a small reward. But given the stirrings about a possible mid-term poll, the humble Janmashtami Handis in Mumbai this year were filled not just with the traditional yogurt and butter, but huge amounts of cash and gold.

The Shiv Sena, the first to politicize the festival as a “Marathi thing" and had already started rewarding the makhan chors with hard cash, announced that this year it would give away not just hard cash but also 50,000 T-shirts by way of rewards. How could the rival Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Pawar lag behind? It capped the Sena offer by announcing a top cash reward of Rs11,111,11. At this point, Sanjay Nirupam, an erstwhile Sena man and now a member of the Congress, swung into action. Never at a loss for a dramatic gesture or turn of phrase, he came out with an astounding “handi phodo, sona looto", (crack the pot and loot the gold) offer whereby the winners stood to collect a veritable cascade of gold coins.

If Janmashtami, the birthday of Lord Krishna, turns into a mega bucks game of political one-upmanship, can a greater Maharashtrian festival, Ganpati puja, not follow suit? Last year had seen a fierce competition among sponsored mandals to have the biggest, the tallest, the most lavishly decorated idol in their pandal, with worthies such as Arun Gawli, the don, organizing one of the most-talked-about pujas. This year, if rumours from usually reliable sources are to be believed, the feared underworld personality, Chhota Rajan, has expressed a desire to offer a solid gold crown to Ganpati Bappa in a locality of his choosing. And if Rajan Bhai comes, can other bhais be far behind?

Raise high the antennae,TV channels! Here comes the don!! There is, however, a small problem. Each puja needs a priest to perform the intricate age-old rituals for welcoming the deity and later bidding him goodbye, and Mumbai is facing an acute shortage of trained priests for the Ganpati installation puja slated for 15 September.

The immediate reason for this crunch is a sudden rise in the numbers of idols to be installed. Last year, the 10,228 Ganesh mandals in the city helped install Ganesha idols in 138,537 homes. This year, the number of such homes has gone up to half a million. Another reason is the time-crunch. Atul Mahajan, the priest at the Mukteswar temple at Juhu, says on Ganesh Chaturthi the puja begins at 3.30am and each takes about two to two-and-a-half hours—or else the installation isn’t considered proper. Despite being offered record rates, local priests say that even if they resort to the best time management practices, one priest will be able to cover no more than two to three households.

It does not need an IIM degree to see that it is time the net for priests was cast outside, in Class B and C cities such as Varanasi and Allahabad and Vadodara and Somnath that have underemployed (of late) troops of skilled pujaris.

The ultimate reality check for puja managers in Maximum City became discovering single-point procurement centres in small-town India, for leased holy lines. An intricate feedback system from specialists from various states who have made Mumbai their home was used, and their requirements matched against the competency level of available priests. It was discovered, not unsurprisingly, that given a choice, the bhaiyyas from UP wanted priests from “their side"; ditto for the equally parochial Gujaratis. Ultimately, 5,000 priests from Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh were sent for. They shall be paid passage, apart, of course, from a hefty fee, and they shall tackle the situation jointly with local priests.

So Jai Shri Krishna and Jai Ganpati Bappa!!

All’s well, as the Bard said, that ends well.

Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor ofHindustan. Your comments are welcome at theotherside@livemint.com