Getting to know Lord Ganesh through Mahen

By Megara Tegal, Pix by Saman Kariyawasam

“I don’t think of myself as an artist,” says Mahen Chanmugam unassumingly as he brushes off the idea, “I only like to paint Lord Ganesh.” His paintings that surrounded us at the Barefoot Gallery however, rendered his claim unconvincing.

Following the classical forms of painting, Mahen’s depictions of Lord Ganesh are rooted in the past while he draws his work into the present by giving it a colourful contemporary feel. Described as ‘reaching back to the past, while looking forward, balancing the challenges between the spirit of modernism and the need to capture the essence of traditional art form’, Mahen’s work is both evocative and transfixing.

Mahen Chanmugam’s many takes on Lord Ganesh.

Ganeshism2 is the third exhibition Mahen has held in Sri Lanka, and was launched in tandem with the Ganesh Chathurthi festival in celebration of Lord Ganesh’s birth on September 11. Mahen has dedicated the past 16 years to studying and painting Lord Ganesh. His work is inspired by what he has learnt about the deity with the elephantine countenance, who is one of the best known and widely worshipped.

The story of Lord Ganesh varies; while some texts state that he was born with the head of an elephant, the more popular belief is that he was created by the goddess Parvathi as a boy. When her husband, Lord Shiva, discovered the boy he decapitated the child in rage.

Realising his impulsive actions were a mistake, he quickly sought his squad to fetch the head of any sleeping being they first encountered, which happened to be an elephant.

Throughout his time extensively studying about Lord Ganesh- collecting books and travelling, Mahen has discovered much about the zoomorphic deity. “He’s very fascinating,” asserts Mahen, his eyes twinkling with enthusiasm.

“First he is one of the most human of all gods. He likes food and dance, and is unlike Shiva and Vishnu who are stern in nature. Things that make you feel good are good for you, and his form is nice and calm,” he adds.

One of the many aspects of Lord Ganesh that Mahen has discovered is his female form. Mahen made this the core of his previous exhibition. He recalls how most people who were unaware of the female form of the deity found it deeply offensive and consequently left him stern remarks in his book of comments. Mahen is enlightening people about all aspects of Lord Ganesh, and while Ganeshism2 concentrates largely on other facets of Lord Ganesh, apart from one painting, some project subtle traces of femininity.

Each of his paintings reveals facets of Lord Ganesh’s life and nature. From when the deity was a child- through the naivety of his eyes and his full tusks, to his adult form with one of his tusks hacked off, Mahen’s paintings are distinctively brightly coloured and eye-catching.

“I prefer to make it [his work] cheerful and happy” he explains. “During the time of ancient art, colour was given emotional value, much like movement in dance to communicate emotion. Yellow and orange are considered happy, red as passion and blue as the colour of erotism.”

“All my life I’ve been enjoying art. Art makes the world go round. It makes people happier and less grouchy,” Mahen adds with a smile. You can take Mahen’s advice and perk up your spirits by checking out Ganeshism2 which is on display at the Barefoot Gallery till September 26. You might just be surprised by what you discover about Lord Ganesh in each of the artist’s paintings.

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