IT IS a few minutes past midnight and the crowd has swollen steadily over the past two hours at the Ganesh Galli Ganpati pandal in Lalbaug. As hundreds of devotees queue up to catch a glimpse of Mumbaicha Raja, one of the most popular Ganpati idols in the city, the onus of smooth darshan lies on 150 night shift volunteers. Supervising them is 25-year-old Aniket Singh, one of the eight chief volunteers.
Between 6 pm and 4 am, the usual night shift timings, Singh has to make several rounds of the entire pandal to make sure everything is in order. The volunteers, also known as gansevaks, share their responsibilities with more than 30 police personnel and 12 security guards deployed at the busy pandal at night.
“Our aim is to provide a hassle-free experience to visitors,” says Singh, moving towards the staircase leading to the sanctum sanctorum of the pandal. Noticing the sluggish pace of the crowd at the spot, Singh instructs the gansevaks to break the queue into two parallel ones and make way for both. The crowd immediately picks up pace. “Crowd management is only a part of what we do, although it is our most significant responsibility,” says Singh. A bunch of gansevaks stand guard at the main gate of the pandal. Several have been deployed at intervals along the queue that stretches for almost half a kilometre from the gate to the idol. Collection of donations and maintaining the treasury are also part of the job. Some have been assigned the task of keeping the traffic moving outside the pandal.
According to Singh, the pandal sees a daily footfall of more than a lakh. The typical rush hours are between 8:30pm, when the evening ‘aarti’ begins, and 1:30 am, when the last local train plies. During the rush hours, most gansevaks can be seen shuttling between spots and just watching the crowd. “They are keeping an eye on miscreants,” says Singh. “We have caught many pickpockets, especially during the rush hours, and returned the belongings to the owners,” he says, walking over to the medical camp for a quick check. Volunteers have to be on their toes and look out for devotees needing medical assistance, such as those feeling dizziness or breathlessness,” Singh says.
One the oldest pandals— it was established in 1928— Ganesh Galli is frequented by celebrities, adding to the responsibilities of the volunteers. “It is a difficult task to manage security and the crowd when celebrities visit,” says Singh.
The general queue is stopped while the celebrity offers prayers. “We try our best to not cause any inconvenience to the devotees because of the celebrities,” says Singh, who gets only four hours of sleep all through the 11 days of Ganeshotsav. However, he and the other volunteers are well prepared with snacks and beverages. “We have grown up in these pandals and learnt from our elders. Our enthusiasm keeps us going,” says Singh. He works as a Risk Management Consultant at a multi-national company by the day and has to be in office by 9 am. Many others, like him, have jobs but have dedicated a better part of their day to the smooth functioning of the pandals.
With the crowd thinning around 2 am, the volunteers are more at ease. Some have huddled up with tea cups to discuss their day’s experience. Singh says this is a great time for volunteers to catch up with friends. “With your daily busy schedule, you rarely have the time to hang out with friends. But this festival brings us together,” he says. A little past 4am, the gansevaks head home to catch a few hours of sleep.