The passion and pageantry of India meet the refined lines of Columbus.

That’s how Harshal Keskar sees the local manifestation of one of his homeland’s biggest celebrations. So it is with Omkar 2015: The 11th annual Columbus Ganesh Festival, which is expected to attract about 900 people daily Wednesday through Sunday at The Commons.

Pre-festival events — including drawing, cooking and Rangoli patterned decoration competitions — unfolded Sunday.

“The decorations definitely will signify India,” Keskar said of the gathering, which includes singing and dancing, traditional fashion, Mehendi or henna designs and other elements highlighting Indian culture. “But they also will look like Columbus.”

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That’s because depictions of local landmarks, including The Commons and other well-known architecture, will be a part of the décor. The free gathering pays homage to Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of prosperity and prudence. Omkar is another name for Ganesh.

But organizers emphasize that some who attend are not Hindu, and much of the spiritual element is limited to end-of-the-day prayers in three languages. So they extend a welcome to anyone wanting to share in the cultural presentations. Last year’s event attracted a record 850 people some days, according to organizers.

About 1,500 people from India live in Columbus, according to organizers. Many of the Columbus residents are also members of the Hindu Society of Southern Indiana or the Indian Association of Columbus.

Rajashree Deo, who launched the local observation in 2005 with her husband, Mandar Deo, sees Omkar as a way to share a bit of India with others, given the city’s emphasis on diversity with such global employers as Cummins Inc. Plus, the event fits well with welcoming community efforts in recent years from high-profile agencies such as the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County.

“Also, we all have friends and families back home,” Rajashree Deo said. “And we know this is a big festival time this month in India. We would like for (Indian) people here to have that same kind of experience that they would have at home.

“And we really do not want our younger generation to lose that connection with home.”

Several members of the 60-person organizing committee — nearly as large as the festival’s first-year total attendance — mentioned that this time of year can trigger cases of homesickness.

“But the basic thing about this is that you can feel like you’re back in your hometown in India,” committee member Sharvari Kolhatkar said.

Ganesh festivals began in the 1890s, when India was a British colony. While England squelched political expression, it allowed Hindus to celebrate their religious beliefs openly, and they used those gatherings to unite people from various backgrounds and beliefs.

As Hindus migrated elsewhere, they took their celebration with them.

Local festival organizers have stretched elements of their culture beyond the September celebration in recent years. For example, they have presented cultural programs at area churches, the Commons and elsewhere to educate others. They also have blended Western culture, from ballet to pop music, with those presentations, thanks to the input of Indian young people.

The festival closes each year with an elaborate, celebratory, Ganesh-oriented procession from The Commons to Mill Race Park via downtown streets closed to vehicles.

When a group expected to be in the hundreds dances and winds its way up Washington Street and then west on Fifth Street to the park, exuberance and the heavy percussion of five drummers will lead the way rain or shine, committee member Sakshi Jain said.

“The pounding of those drums — they really get to your heart,” Jain said. “You can feel them in your blood.”

Ganesh Festival highlights

What: Omkar 2015, the 11th annual Columbus Utsav Mandal or festival. It celebrates the presence of Hindu’s Lord Ganesh, the god of wisdom and prudence, during the event, which includes traditional Indian cultural activities such as singing and dancing. Omkar is another name for Ganesh.

When: 6 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 9:30 a.m. to 5:50 p.m. Sunday.

Where: The Commons, 300 Washington St. in Columbus.

Admission: Free. There is a charge for Indian food available at Saturday evening’s cultural program.

Highlights: Musical program from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Friday; a variety of cultural programs 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday and a colorful Ganesh-oriented procession from the Commons to Mill Race Park from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

Information: columbusganesh.com.

Background of Ganesh festivals

Ganesh festivals began in the 1890s, when India was a British colony. While England squelched political expression, it allowed Hindus to celebrate their religious beliefs openly, and they used those gatherings to unite people from various backgrounds and beliefs.

As Hindus migrated, they took their celebration with them.

SOURCE: Columbus Ganesh Festival organizers

To get involved

Several members of the Ganesh Festival organizers got involved soon after moving to Columbus.

  • To get involved in the festival: columbusganesh.com or ganeshutsavatcolumbus@gmail.com.
  • To get involved in the Hindu Society of Southern Indiana: 812-344-2689 or hssicolumbus.org.
  • To get involved in the Indian Association of Columbus: 812-390-8577 or iac.columbus@gmail.com.
Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.