Ganpati – Sacred in the Making
Ganpati: Sacred in the Making by Eugenio Giorgianni is an observational film that immerses us in the devotional rituals of the Ganesha festival as practiced by the Mauritian diasporic community in the city of Palmero. The film follows the unfolding of the festival at the temporary shrine of a woman called Terry: from the initial preparations and the ritual sequence of mantras, music and dance, through the movement of the statue of Ganesha through the city and its immersion in the sea, to the final ritual acts and dismantling of the shrine. Featuring sequence shots that bring attention to the vibrant materiality and sonic texture of the festival, the film reveals how sacred space is forged through sensory experience and how it extends into the digital sphere and transnational networks as participants record and share performances on their mobile phones.
Authors: Eugenio Giorgianni (director) · University of Messina, and Ruben Monterosso (additional camera)
Published: September 2022
Ganpati. Sacred in the Making explores the celebration of the Ganesha festival in Palermo, Italy, from the point of view of Terry, a woman of Mauritian origins, and the ritual community gathering at her temporary shrine.
While filming Ganpati, I had in mind Turner’s idea of rite as social drama (1986), celebrating the existing order at the same time as expressing conflicts and foreseeing transformations. Thus, my main point in filming and researching the celebration of a Hindu festival in the “plural city” of Palermo was to observe the conversion of segments of urban space into migrant sacred spaces, and how this process resonates with the city’s social fabric. In particular, Ganpati explores the way devotional music performances structure the festival and provide a common ground to Ganesha devotional community of practice in multilingual Mauritian diasporic context.
Music and sound have a paramount importance in Hinduism, and this is particularly evident in the specific ritual settings of the Ganesha festival – which is called ‘Ganpati’ in Kreol Morisien. With the ceremony of prana pratishta, the priest brings the divine presence of Ganesha to the clay statue by opening his eyes: from that moment on, the festival becomes a ritual party whose main guest is Lord Ganesha himself, enjoying the show of his devotees performing mantras, dances, and cheering him with his favourite delicacies, flowers and ornaments.
For Palermo-based Mauritians, to offer devotional songs (bhajans) and traditional Marathi folk dances (Jhakri) to Ganesha means to evoke the land of their ancestors, who left India and crossed the Kala Pani (“Black Waters”, meaning the Indian Ocean) to work as indentured labour on plantations in the British colonies following the abolition of slavery. Through community-based music making, Hindu Mauritians perpetuate their transnational belonging “from below”, as imagined and embodied in the diaspora (Goreau-Ponceaud & Servan-Schreiber 2010; Aterianus-Owanga, Djebbari & Salzbrunn 2019). Besides collective and individual performances, Ganpati ritual sonic space is filled with YouTube Marathi music dedicated to Ganesha mainly coming from recent Bollywood soundtracks, which in turn represent the ever-changing aural articulations of postcolonial India, in dialogue with diaspora trends and styles, between symbolic resistance to assimilation and commercial empowerment in the global market (Murthy 2010; Zuberi & Sarrazin 2016: 172). The resulting soundspace is “a phonic collage without a composer” (Colas 2020: 50) where the pandit chanting mantras overlaps electronic dance tracks played loud from a Bluetooth portable speaker. Such a polytonal space creates a non-hierarchical flow of performative modes of worship in which devotees freely express their love to the God. In the light of Small’s concept of musicking (1998) – that is, music intended as a set of relationships between humans, sounds, natural and supernatural world designed by a collective artistic process – I observe how Mauritian migrants in Palermo and their kids display strategies and elaborate a sense of place-making while constructing and sharing the sacred performative space.
The entire ritual setting constitutes the performing space: the statue and its canopy, ghee and rose water, grain and dried legumes, fruits, plants and flowers, food, sarees and kurtas, earrings and bracelets, woodfire, oil lamps, incense smoke; all these elements are offered to the God through ritual gestures. Their movements in the ritual space compose the sacred performance together with dance steps, rhythm patterns, jhal and hand clapping, mantra singing, and conch shell blowing. The camera as well becomes instrumental in Terry’s ritual project, as it allows to incorporate beloved ones at the distance into the migrant rites, which have to involve the entire family network in order to effectively please the God and win his favours. Absorbed by a ritual mechanism that I did not fully grasp, I could not but communicate with the ritual social fabric through performing practices – like most of the other participants did. Not everybody masters the ritual languages, especially young people; the priest continuously had to interrupt the chanting in Sanskrit to explain in interlanguages (Italian and Kreol Morisien) how to perform ritual gestures. The meaning of this powerful community of practice led by Lord Ganesha himself is not in the text; it is in the gestures, notes and drum beats; it is in the collective preparation, and in the participation through offerings, body movements, and minds focused.
Three generations of Hindus of Palermo participate in the festival, crossing their cultural and linguistic differences in the ritual chronotope, and sharing the performative language of devotion. As sections of urban space are (temporary) turned into sacred by the ritual endeavour of Hindu migrants, ritual performances become what Pratt (1991) defines as contact zones, where the encounter (and clash) between different cultural groups manifests their unbalanced relationship and experiments new ways of culture crossing. In the case of Palermo Ganpati, different groups gaze at each other through the glass of sacred performance, sharing some singing and clapping at the other’s rhythm.
– How is migrant sacred space produced in the “plural city”? How does it affect the rest of the urban texture?
– How do music performances provide a ritual fabric for the relationships between humans, space, and gods?
– How can the camera mediate the encounter between the community of ritual practice and the researcher while being incorporated as a ritual element?
The film is part of the research project “Migrations, blurring boundaries, and home-making: Anthropological analysis of the rituals/migrations nexus in Southern Italy” funded by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research, which involves the Universities of Basilicata, Catania, Messina, and Palermo. My contribution to the research concerns ritual practices of place-making among the Hindu Mauritian community in Palermo, where I have been conducting ethnographic work since March 2021 under the supervision of Prof Gabriella D’Agostino (University of Palermo) and Principal Investigator Prof Berardino Palumbo (University of Messina).
My engagement with the research participants and my approach to their ritual practices involve participatory audiovisual methods and collaborative ethnography, in line with my previous works on music, spirituality and civic engagement in Congolese music diaspora. My particular engagement with the Ganesha festival depends mainly on unexpected fieldwork dynamics. While I was conducting research at a local Hindu temple, Terry, a Mauritian woman of Marathi origins approached me about the upcoming Ganesha festival that she was planning to celebrate. As a young adult in Mauritius, she was struggling in the midst of great adversity, so she asked Ganesha, her tutelar deity, to help her overcome difficulties and bless her family with prosperity. After a life spent working abroad, Terry was able to help her sons complete their studies and buy their houses, hence she decided to offer the sacrifice to Ganesha to thank Him for having fulfilled her lifelong vow. Terry’s plan was to celebrate Ganpati in Mauritius with her family, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was forced to stay in Palermo. Thus, Terry asked me to film the entire celebration for her and make a documentary film of ‘her’ festival to send back home in Mauritius.
The rich ritual fabric of the Ganesha festival suggests Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss as a marvellous example of constructing non-verbal narratives when putting ‘other’ cultures on screen. Ganpati follows an observational approach in exploring the festival: no interview, no written information apart from date and place, only diegetic sound, long sequence shots. The senses and the bodily participation in the rite, more than explicit meanings and explanations, convey a comprehension and a form of communication of the experience of being in the rite with other people and their gods, engaging with the creative and cultural ecology of the devotional music-making community (DeNora & Andsell 2017: 232). Yet, my inclusion in Terry’s ritual project entails a very specific position in the network of relationships between humans, spirits, places and movements that constitutes the Ganesha festival of the Mauritian diaspora in Palermo, Italy. Rather than to represent the rites, Ganpati aspires to activate “new relations, new worlds” (Dattatreyan & Marrero-Guillamón 2019) between physical and remote, long-time and sporadic ritual actors through a shared aural-visual document. However problematic and incomplete, my inclusion in the rituals as an instrument for the digital presence of Terry’s family determined my deep involvement in the ritual practices, resounding Jean Rouch’s ciné-trance and his use of the camera as a tool for creative, mutually transformative encounters in the ethnographic field, as exemplified in Tourou et Bitti, les tambours d’avant. In my case, unlike Rouch, I was invited inside the ritual space to accomplish a specific task: it is Terry, not me, who holds the direction of the filmic encounter, retaining much of the control over my position in the field, and what is happening in front of the camera lens, in a sort of decolonial inversion of authorial agency.
Ganpati’s filming style follows the ritual performances, repeating the movements to convey the bodily experience of the devotional gestures from a devotee’s point of view. I based both my filming and editing strategies on the construction of hand-held sequence shots to convey the perception of a real-time observer/participant in the rite (MacDougall 2009). Long sequence takes are particularly opportune to film different aspects of music performances and context at a time, giving the sense of the relationships between various ritual elements – including my camera and me – within space (Baily 2009).
The circular, hypnotic rhythm of the rite allows for filming the same ritual gestures in different ways, reproducing my experience as a participant in the rite observing the others’ movements and performing the rite myself. At times, the ritual gestures embrace my presence through the lens, like the drops of rose water sprinkled by the pandit onto the participants including me at the beginning of the rite. Terry, while blessing her guests with a circular movement of the pooja tray, holds it for a moment in front of me, looking into the lens, to include her kids in Mauritius in the blessing as well. Other times, the camera joins the ritual movements as just another participant, like the Jhakri singing and dancing in a circle around the dholak player, or the clockwise motion of the arti offering flames before the God accompanied by mantra chanting.
Sonic texture, rather than textual meaning, gives ritual power to words, as shown by the triple ‘ohm’ resonating at the beginning of the rite. The sound editing reproduces the repetitive ritual patterns, and includes silences, chanting, conversations and ritual preparations as equally relevant sonic elements. Sounds are a key element in the endeavour to reproduce on screen the ritual synesthesia: the sizzling sound of ghee and dried beans thrown into the crackling fire, the coils of smoke following the rotation of the incense stick in front of the gaddi, the crack of the cleaver hitting the coconut and the milky drops of water tricking down the hand, are all filmic elements to elicit the viewer’s sensory memories and connect them to the ritual experience of Ganesha devotees in Palermo.
Due to the migratory context of the ritual festival, I paid attention to the constant presence of mobile devices recording and streaming the event. The film itself is an aspect of the multimodal ritual project of Ganpati, that evokes contemporary forms of human presence reverberating through digital sacred spaces.
In constructing the film’s aesthetics and narrative, I let the fieldwork dynamics take the lead. To film the visarjan – the immersion of the statue – I had to enter the sea water, struggling to stay still and resist the waves while holding my camera as the young men holding the murti. The thin layer of condensation produced inside the camera lens by the wave movement has slightly fogged the last shots of the day: while editing, I found that unwanted effect to be the most fitting visual solution to convey on screen the end of the festive time, determined by the departure of God from the devotees’ place. The dismantling of the sacred space, emphasised by the act of shaking the remains of holiness off the ritual stand, turns the canopy back into a normal desktop, and the shrine becomes again an empty garage in the old town centre of Palermo.
This film applies participatory audiovisual methods to a wider ethnographic research project on ritual and migration, allowing for a multimodal approach to the issues through the observation of music ritual practices. As a research tool, the film has already shown itself to be a valid trigger for reflexivity within the research participants, and it provides a useful piece of work for the Mauritian community of Palermo in terms of representational power and diasporic circulation of images, which constitutes an achievement for the collaborative ethics of the research project.
Ganpati has not been screen yet at any film festival. Instead, it is circulating through the affective networks of Palermo-based Mauritian migrants involved in the project. I plan to collect feedback from this communitarian circulation and add them to another version of the film which includes reflexive elements on the work’s digital circulation.
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Baily, J. (2009) ‘The Art of the ‘Fieldwork Movie’: 35 Years of Making Ethnomusicological Films’. Ethnomusicological Forum. 18 (1), pp. 55-64.
Colas, G. (2020) ‘Temple soundspaces and ancient Hindu ritual texts’. In: C. Guillebaud, and C. Lavandier, eds. Worship Sound Spaces. Architecture, Acoustics and Anthropology. London, New York: Routledge, pp. 44-58.
Crowley, T. (2010) ‘Ganesh Chaturthi: Recovering the Ecological Roots of an Ancient Festival’. Reality Sandwich. Available from https://realitysandwich.com/ganesh_eco_festival/ [accessed 13 August 2022].
Dattatreyan, E. G., and Marrero-Guillamón, I. (2019) ‘Introduction: Multimodal Anthropology and the Politics of Invention’. American Anthropologist. 121 (1), pp. 220-228.
DeNora, T., and Andsell, G. (2017) ‘Music in action: tinkering, testing and tracing over time’. Qualitative Research. 17 (2), pp. 231-245.
Goreau-Ponceaud, A., and Servan-Schreiber, C. (2010) ‘« Black Waters » et « Black Atlantic ». Quel teint pour la musique indienne de diaspora ?’. Géographie et cultures [online]. 76. Available from https://journals.openedition.org/gc/ [accessed 13 August 2022].
Kasic, K. (2020) ‘Sensory Vérité’. In: P. Vannini, ed. The Routledge International Handbook of Ethnographic Film and Video. London, New York: Routledge, pp. 173-182.
MacDougall, D. (2009) ‘Beyond Observational Cinema’. In: P. Hockings, ed. Principles of Visual Anthropology. Third edition. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter Mouton, pp. 115-32.
Murthy, D. (2010) ‘Nationalism remixed? The politics of cultural flows between the South Asian diaspora and ‘homeland”. Ethnic and Racial Studies. 33 (8), pp. 1412-1430.
Pratt, M. L. (1991) ‘The Arts of the Contact Zone’. Profession. 91, pp. 33-40.
Servan-Schreiber, C. (2011) ‘Indian Folk Music and ‘Tropical Body Language’: The Case of Mauritian Chutney’. South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [online]. Free-Standing Articles. Available from www.journals.openedition.org/samaj/ [accessed 13 August 2022].
Small, C. (1998) Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press.
Turner, V. (1986) The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications.
Zuberi, I., and Sarrazin, N. (2016) ‘Evolution of a Ritual Musical Genre: The Adaptation of Qawwali in Contemporary Hindi Film’. In: J. Beaster-Jones, and N. Sarrazin, eds. Music in Contemporary Indian Film. London, New York: Routledge, pp. 174-187.
Forest of Bliss (Robert Gardner, 1986, USA).
Tourou et Bitti, les tambours d’avant (Jean Rouch, 1971, France).
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement
Ganpati explores the production of migrants’ sacred space through ritual practices in the “plural city” of Palermo. Hence, one of its goals is to document the temporary transformation of ordinary spaces into sacred places, where the diasporic community gathers to reinforce both their own spirituality and their bonds. However, despite its observational approach, the film falls short in describing this process, as well as its impact in the neighborhood. We know that the rite takes place in a garage only from the author’s written report, while a full audiovisual description of its transformation and how it affects the urban texture is scarce. At the same time, I believe that a deeper audiovisual ethnography of the preparation of the offerings and the acquisition of the material objects required for the altars during the days prior to the ceremony would have contributed to the description of the place-making process.
Among the reasons for this absence can be considered the imponderables and urgencies of fieldwork research, especially when working with a collaborative ethos. But, once again, certain dynamics involving the leadership of the author’s main collaborator during the shoot and her reasons for organizing the festival are better captured in the written report than in the film itself. Something similar happens with the interruptions of the chant in Sanskrit by the priest to explain in interlanguages how to perform ritual gestures: a very significant process in which the film could have delved into more. At one point the author refers to Forest of Bliss as inspiration, my comments point in the same direction, with more presence of longer and more detailed shots.
Apart from this, the film is beautifully shot and successfully depicts many aspects of the ritual activity of Hindu migrants in Palermo. The announced inclusion of its impact, both within the local community and in Mauritius, in a later version will certainly help to complete its methodological approach.
Review 2: Accept submission for publication with no amendments
Eugenio Giorgianni’s film Ganpati – Sacred in the Making represents important work documenting traditions of the Indian Mauritian community in Palermo, Italy. Taking a decidedly observational approach, the film traces the community’s preparations for and participation in devotion of Lord Ganesh.
The film is comprised entirely of hand-held shots, which lend a certain intimacy to the rituals and fellowship presented on screen. This sense of realness is further informed by a lack of artificial lighting, reliance on diegetic stereo sound, the absence of interviews and voiceover narration, and relatively unobtrusive editing consisting of a series of jump cuts throughout. The result is a linear filmic narrative that captures communal processes in detail while placing events in the context of a residential neighborhood in Palermo.
In general, I like this kind of documentary film. From an ethnographer’s point of view, this style of observational filmmaking allows for long, uninterrupted performance sequences. This is indeed the case with Ganapati, which is made up of a series of lengthy scenes carefully and minimally edited. Even with no on-screen interviews, this method allows for a number of recognizable “characters” to emerge, in this way usefully constructing a narrative out of the rather disorganized and sometimes chaotic events presented in the film.
On the other hand, the absence of explanatory material may be confusing for some viewers. Without reading the filmmaker’s accompanying statement, for example, viewers would have no direct way of knowing who or what the film is meant to represent. From a purely artistic perspective, this, in itself, is not a problem. However, the film’s relative lack of expository and directly interpretive work means that Ganapati is likely not so useful as a broadly accessible work of ethnographic documentation.
Having some close contact with Indian diasporic religious and musical traditions, I was able to follow the gist of the events depicted in the film, yet I was nonetheless left with many unanswered questions. I was particularly struck by the mix of musical styles and modes of performative participation evident in the preparations and performance of the documented rituals. While the filmmaker makes reference to Small’s notion of “musicking” in the accompanying essay, I felt that there could have been a deeper engagement with the existing literature on Indian diasporic musical practice (while there is admittedly little published research in English on Indian Mauritian music, there are some studies published in French that could be useful).
Moreover, it seemed clear from the film that this Ganapati devotion was not exclusive to the Indian Mauritian community; there seemed to be participation by outsiders as well, this in part evidenced by the use of stylistically atypical instruments (the doumbek/darbuka in particular) and rhythmic patterns accompanying devotional songs (at about 19:30, for example). These moments of diverse participation stood in rather stark contrast to moments where music-makers seemed to be exclusively Indian Mauritian (for example, at about 28:00 and in the closing outdoor scenes).
Despite the absence of direct ethnographic interpretation and musical critique evident in the film, Ganapati remains an important documentary work. The filmmaker maintains a certain filmic objectivity while also achieving a kind of intimacy that might be lacking in more traditional documentary form.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.
Eugenio Giorgianni (Music Phd from Royal Holloway) is an anthropologist and a filmmaker. His audiovisual works mainly concern music, spirituality and mobility in urban environments, with research projects in DRC, England, Italy, Morocco, and Spain. A Research Fellow in the COSPECS Department at the University of Messina, he is currently conducting ethnographic research on the rituals/migrations nexus in Palermo, Italy.