Review: Homage to Ganesha

The Ashmolean Museum is famous for its comprehensive retrospectives and thematic exhibitions; ‘Great British Drawings’ recently closed, and ‘Titian to Canaletto’ opens on October 15th. However, the museum also hosts smaller-scale exhibitions, such as ‘Homage to Ganesha’, which runs until 24th January 2016, in Gallery 29. The exhibition offers an insight into the image of Ganesha, the elephant god of Hinduism, as portrayed in the works of the museum’s collection.

Ganesha is known as the ‘gentle, wise, pleasure-loving god’ of the Hindu pantheon. Son of Shiva and Parvati, he has a human body and an elephant head, and uses a mouse as a means of transport. He is conventionally represented with two or four hands, in which he carries his attributes: a sweet cake, an axe, an elephant goad, and a lotus flower. Ganesha is worshipped for his power to remove obstacles from one’s way, and devotees invoke him at the beginning of new enterprises. The appearance, paraphernalia, and personality of the god emerge from the various works displayed; for a Hindu profane, the exhibition possesses the charm of novelty.

Ganesha with attendants, c. 1654
Ganesha with attendants, c. 1654

‘Homage to Ganesha’ is engaging not only for its theme, but also for the variety of media and techniques with which the god is represented. The works span from 17th-century votive statuettes to folk illustrations, from Klighat bazaar paintings to 20th-century chromolithographs. What is interesting to see is which aspects of the god tend to recur (many of his poses remain constant, for instance) and which ones change depending on function and date of the works. For example, many of the illustrations displayed were used as votives by believers, and can be considered ‘Hindu icons’. Many 20th-century prints, though mass-produced and arguably lower in aesthetic quality, serve the same purpose as their predecessors. The works are also appealing in their use of colour, which is one of the typical features of Indian art: orange, pink, blue – the god Ganesha is represented in all possible chromatic variations.

I was particularly struck by one drawing, which shows the god seated among his wives, Siddhi (spiritual power) and Riddhi (prosperity), with two attendants flanking them and the god’s personal carrier, his mouse, eating quietly in the bottom right. Ganesha and his wives are sitting in a hexagonal couch, under a canopy, and the surroundings consist of a well-kept garden with flowers, trees, and a number of birds, including a peacock. The use of colour is remarkable, and the texture of the women’s garments, the wooden couch, and the finely embroidered canopy are particularly vivid. The viewer’s attention is immediately seized by the god, with his prominent position and eye-catching colour (orange), and then gently moves away to examine the other elements of the work. It was interesting to imagine how a believer may have looked at the drawing, and how he/she may have used it as a starting point to meditate and pray.

On a separate wall, the exhibition displays some pencil studies by William Daniell (1796-1837), a British painter who travelled extensively across India. In quiet contrast with the colourful works of Indian provenance, the drawings represent Ganesha as seen in statues and architectural complexes. Here, the god is shown from a different perspective – that of the inquisitive explorer eager to record the material culture of foreign lands. The drawings may lose part of their votive power and religious aura, but they become the testimony of the meeting of East and West, by presenting the god as seen from the eyes of a British artist. This final touch makes the exhibition an informative and fascinating journey into the religion and visual culture not only of India, but also of its visitors.

Anna Zanetti

‘Homage to Ganesha’ runs at the Ashmolean Museum until 24 January 2016. More information can be found on their website.

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