Lessons from past: city celebrated Ganesh festival despite epidemics

A good 91 years ago, Pune had faced a situation similar to the one it is facing today an epidemic outbreak. A peep into history also reveals that an epidemic outbreak ahead of the Ganesh festival is nothing new to the city. In fact, outbreak of plague was a regular feature during that period till the 1940s. However, the city has always showed the courage to carry on with the festival.

According to history researcher Mandar Lawate, a 1944 book by Dhundiraj Dixit on 'Ganesh festival in Pune' mentions that the festival was never cancelled though the pandemic had often marred its preparations. "Punekars have never bowed down to any disaster when it came to celebrating Ganesh festival. In 1918 too, the festival was celebrated in a toned-down manner. Features like lecture series and Mele were cancelled, but mandals installed Ganesh idols and carried out the festival with simplicity."

"Even in 1897, when plague epidemic was at its peak in Pune, the festival did take place. In the same year, on June 22, British officer Rand was shot dead by the Chapekar brothers. Against that backdrop, Kesari a news publication established by Lokmanya Tilak, which was a weekly at that time had written that people were disturbed, but it did not hamper the festival," Lawate said.

Similarly, in 1918, during the influenza epidemic, Marathi newspaper Dnyanprakash had published a series of articles about how "uncleanliness" was contributing to its spread. A member of the Central Government committee who visited Pune after the first H1N1 death on August 3 also made a similar comment.

When the epidemic became uncontrollable in 1918, Arogya Mandal (Health Circle), a voluntary organisation set up by history researcher VK Rajwade and GH Bhat, supported by a few doctors and vaidyas, had launched a door-to-door campaign to treat patients.

Bhat and his colleagues used to report what they saw on their visits in Dnyanprakash. "There are references of broken drainage pipes, bins spilling over with garbage and mud everywhere due to rains. They had blamed aswachhat' for the spread of disease," Lawate said.

Pune was among the worst-hit by the epidemic. According to a report in the October 1, 1918 issue of Kesari, around 200 citizens died each day in the last week of September.

The September and October issues of Kesari had underlined the need for cleanliness to keep the disease at bay and had articles by doctors on precautionary measures.

"The municipal council has started clinics in Nana Peth, Sadashiv Peth and Ray Market (now Mahatma Phule Mandai) areas and even a hospital in New Poona College (now SP College). New Poona College and Fergusson College will remain closed till November 8 and 11 respectively," reads an excerpt from the October 8, 1918 issue of Kesari, indicating that the closure of educationational institutes is also nothing new.

Missing trait

History researcher Lawate also pointed out an interesting anecdote recorded in Dnyanprakash in 1918. When Arogya Mandal members complained about garbage piling up in the city, the then health officer of municipal council, Khambata, denied it and claimed that the city was clean, according to his reports. GH Bhat and his colleagues then showed him the garbage and Khambata resigned from his post, accepting the fact.

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