Ganesha is probably India’s most popular deity, with Hindus believing all things auspicious begin with the god of wisdom.
It’s little wonder then that the image of the elephant god has seen several transformations, including in the way modern art depicts him.
Iconic representations show his form changing from that of a simple elephant in the earliest depictions, to the more contemporary image of an elephant-headed figure with a large belly.
Artists, however, point out that the predominant shapes of the idol’s iconography have never changed since the first geometrical depiction of the triangle, oval, circle as that date back to the Vedic age.
Portrayed as standing, seated, dancing, crawling as a child (with modak in one hand), or even seated on his mother’s knee, unlike other deities in Hindu mythology, the god of wisdom is depicted in several ways.
With the help of artist Vasudeo Kamath, the president of Bombay Arts Society who has created images of the deity in several paintings, HT looks at some of Ganesha’s contemporary avatars.
“Every artist, from their early days, has always drawn an image of Ganesha as it has the basic form and it gives the artist the confidence that they can make the image,” Kamath said. “The visual form created right in the beginning is the real inspiration. In iconography, there are other gods such as Hanuman, Garuda, Narasimha and Tumbaru, but none of them has the kind of beauty Ganesha does.”
The blessing Ganesha
The elephant god is depicted with both hands upright, one with a modak and the other blessing. This is perhaps one of the most common postures, and the image can be traced back to the 6th century. “The image portrays the blessing given by the god and acceptance of offerings by devotees of his favourite sweet, modak,” Kamath said.
The sitting Ganesha
With his mount, the humble mouse, often shown at his feet, Ganesha sits with cross-legged.
“The combination of elephant and mouse represents the removal of obstacles and Ganesha’s ability to control even the most unpredictable situations,” Kamath said. “The image of the form of a plump person sitting upright on the ground speaks of simplicity. The same art form changed to show Ganesha sitting on thrones made of gold.”
The dancing Ganesha
This image replicates the tandava-nritya or spiritual dance performed by Ganesha’s father in Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva. This symbolises the performing arts. Devotees believe Ganesha is the god of all arts - vidya and kala, Kamath said.
“While the head is a sign of unmatched wisdom and knowledge through reflection and listening, the posture upholds ideas such as virtue and a sense of security and protection.”
The natural Ganesha
These Ganesha images, also called Udbhava, are self-generated through nature.
“The deity is celebrated through the Ashtavinayak – eight shrines in Maharashtra. Each of the idols has a story behind it and they are all carved in stone with an organish-red touch. Contemporary culture tries to use this colour and natural aspect to associate the god as a form of nature or paganism,” said Kamath
Form created through individual creation
The oldest tradition of creating the Ganesha idol, this form can be created by any person, using any amount of imagination, Kamath said.
“This is the Ganesha form made by a child, woman or man, worshipped by the creator. The idea started from an ancient tradition where the head of the family would draw, paint or sculpt the idol and the rest of the family used it as the household god,” he said. “The idols were made only of clay from the nearest river or well. Today, this form are used in jewellery, advertisements, design and many other fields.”