LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest)

Issue#51, January, ’05.


Dr. Anoma Pieris

Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, University of Melbourne.



The Gods in art and life


Anoma Peiris responds to an exhibition of ‘Ganeshism’ held in Singapore recently, and featuring a Sri Lankan artist.


Lord Ganesh is one of the most beloved Hindu deities, the remover of obstacles, god of new beginnings and of wisdom. He has strong human qualities: Ganesh enjoys food and drink, as evident in his large belly, and is a fun-filled pleasure-loving figure. Gana Devi to the Sinhalese, Pullaiyar to the Tamils and the silent partner in many a Chetty company, the reach of his elephant-headed image into our everyday imagination is all-pervasive. My favourite statue of Lord Ganesh is on the left-hand-side wall of the image house at the Kelaniya temple. An ample figure carved into a niche on one side of the building, he sits astride a large rat – his vehicle. Before school exams (particularly important to Sri Lankans), many are the anxious mothers who stand before this figure. At the Kelaniya temple, they are mainly Sinhalese clad in white saris, with their children in lamaa saris imitating their parent’s every move.


But Lord Ganesh and his brother Lord Murugan have an important role to play as deities who are shared by Sri Lankan’s two largest ethnic groups, the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil community – who have been in conflict for over 20 years. As Gana Devi and Kataragama Deviyo, they loom large in the Sinhalese imagination, marking the path to that annual pilgrimage in the south-east, where a Hindu shrine is officiated over by Sinhalese priests.


In India, such deities are part of everyday life, normalized through a mythology that describes their almost human failings, their quarrels, petty jealousies, passions and loving familial relationships. The gods become a mirror of life itself, anthropomorphized as both omnipotent and human. They and their various progeny enter into daily life as sacred objects, brightly coloured memorabilia, plastic toys and countless advertisements for textiles, cosmetics, cooking appliances and matchboxes. Large and small businesses adopt their names in order to ensure their own prosperity by association. Paintings of the various deities are placed above the threshold to the house in order to sacralise the space and are decorated with chains of mango leaves and flowers. The ritualized celebration of the relationship between the deity and the devotee marks the temporality of daily life, where supernatural beings are constantly called upon to officiate over quotidian practices.

The family is at the centre of the ‘Shaivite’ faith, with Shiva, Parvati and their two children often depicted as if framed in a family photograph. The names of Hindu gods are given to family members and the Tamil family is often a microcosm of the pantheon. There is a sense that the deity is revered, respected, loved and feared – just as one may treat the various members within the implicit (or explicit) hierarchy of an extended family.


Through art and sculpture, it is the image of the deity that is most easily transferred across the several hundred languages spoken in the Indian subcontinent.

It is this tradition of depicting and normalizing the everyday understanding of the Hindu deity that has been captured by Mahen Chanmugam, a Sri Lankan artist who has been living in Singapore. Chanmugam has always been an artist – professionally, as art director and illustrator in the advertising/publishing industry, at the helm of his own company. He also paints as his private passion, having studied art under Prof. Stanley Abeysinghe in Sri Lanka before entering the field of commercial art. He has worked with all types of media including oil painting, air brush illustration and acrylic, and now works on various materials including canvas, wood, sackcloth and concrete, with his long years in the creative industry underwriting his willingness and skill in experimenting with new materials.


Chanmugam turned to representations of Lord Ganesh eight years ago, when the stress of his professional life forced him to look for a meaningful avenue of expression. Born into a Christian family in Colombo, who had converted from Hinduism three generations back, his exploration of the iconography around Lord Ganesh is entirely personal. ‘Ganeshism’ is an interpretation of a private philosophy inspired by Lord Ganesh in a modern diasporic Sri Lankan. Through it, Chanmugam seeks to reconcile the contradiction of modernity – those of a deeply held spiritual belief and devotion to family life that must be incorporated into the pace and materiality of contemporary existence. In the rituals of the painterly act, he finds his refuge.


The ritualized sacrality of the creative act is shared by all South Asian religions, where months of meditation and abstinence precede the creation of an image of the saint or deity. Yet the sacred lives – in close harmony with more profane representations of the same image circulate through brightly-coloured images of religious figures sold by Indian street vendors. As children, we learn of complex mythologies through the Amar Chitra Katha books that have compiled and published the hundreds of narratives underlying South Asian beliefs. In Sri Lanka, we too have watched the dubbed versions of the Mahabharat learning the legends of our Hindu ancestors. The commodification of the image, which enables its circulation, is in fact the primary force in the dissemination of the religion, bringing it into the shrine room and the home. When a deity becomes normalized in this way, it means that he or she is integral to everyday life, a part of the real world of ordinary people. What is wonderful about Hindu deities is that they have always operated at both these levels.


In response to this conflation of the religious and the profane worlds of religious art, Chanmugam’s paintings are a striking combination of traditional and modern forms. He inserts the dark and moody depiction of the icon in sculpture, associated with the interiority of the Hindu temple, into the brightly-coloured, opalescent foreground reminiscent of the modern temple’s surface. The combination of these two moments in the religious experience captures the history of its architectural presence, the exterior being revived and repainted every 12 years, while the interior image maintains its historic sacrality and link to an essentialised past.


To achieve this contrast of ancient and new, of traditional and modern representations, Chanmugam depends on a life-size canvas that is composed of strong geometric motifs saturated with intense luminous colours. Translating familiar symbols – lotus petals, chakras and repetitive images of the deity – into the modernist language of the retro era, the symbolism is released from its physical context to float across a lime-green or saffron-coloured ethereal sky. The disengagement of the sacred object from its traditional space and its release into the world of the spiritual imagination describes its parallel journey in the hearts of the Hindu diaspora in the modern world.


In his representations of Lord Ganesh, Chanmugam has succeeded in capturing two seemingly schizophrenic perceptions of the deity as a mystical and ethereal figure that resides in the flat pop-art world of commodity. To do so, ha has had to carefully study the multiple symbolic representations of Ganesh in various mudras in order to understand the significance of the iconography. Each representation has a deeply embedded meaning that can be interpreted both literally and metaphorically – the literal expression ensuring its continuity in human memory, while the metaphorical dimension gives meaning to human experience. The translation of this iconography and its attendant meanings into the language of a modern art idiom is both surprising and invigorating, appealing to a modern generation of believers. More importantly, it opens up the spiritual import of the iconic representation, making it accessible to people like Chanmugam, whose reverence for Lord Ganesh is disconnected from an entrenched religious culture.


This artist’s paintings are aesthetically appealing and emotive, evoking the humanity behind the god-image, while his translation of familiar symbols into a modern vocabulary stimulates the philosopher in every one of us. In many of his paintings, Chanmugam refuses to dilute the character of the traditional image, relegating his interventions and interpretations to the foreground. Yet in particular paintings, such as the ‘Lord Of Thresholds’, he breaks his own rules – allowing the figure to move into the foreground. In this particular painting – created as a reaction to the Bali bombing and the violence that has dominated this new millennium – the Lord Ganesh walks out of his traditional surrounds to confront the contemporary world. He raises his hands in the sign of peace that resonates strongly with Chanmugam’s own generational experience – and no doubt appeals to young musicians ever since, now engaging in rap, reggae or hip-hop. Secreted within this image is Chanmugam’s own personalized identity that is legible only to Sri Lankans – a blue-and-black striped jersey that informs us of the artist’s origins and history.


In an era dominated by a new conservatism, where the tensions between ethnicity and homogeneity have wrought havoc in our political landscape, few artists have the courage to address, translate or reinvent essentialised notions of the self into new and creative forms of hybridity. Few artists are able to do so in a manner that continues to resonate with personal spiritual and cultural experiences.


The world of art and artists is more likely to be trapped in imitations of the West or in reversions to purely traditionalist forms. Much of the spiritual sentimentality that emanates from South Asia attempts to fix it in the past rather than carry it into the future.

Artists such as Chanmugam present us with the possibility of a new and dynamic cultural landscape shared by Sinhalese and Tamil, old and young – one that is waiting close at hand to be discovered.



Artist Profile: Mahen Chanmugam

Mieke Kooistra 

Creative Director

kOOii  International Artist Support and Promotion



Among the virtues commonly attributed to artists, modesty, it can confidently be said, is not to be found. As the famous 20th century art historians Rudolf and Margot Wittkower observe in their book, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists, “There is an almost unanimous belief among [laymen] that artists are, and always have been, egocentric, temperamental, neurotic, rebellious, unreliable, licentious, extravagant, obsessed by their work, and altogether difficult to live with.”

If this is what these eminent scholars wrote in 1963, I feel that it is justified to say that the trouble with an artist like Mahen Chanmugam (43) is that he is just too modest.  How he quietly and unassumingly built up his impressive body of work over a number of years, without keenly pursuing the option to put it up for public display is just one typical example of how Mahen thinks of himself as an artist.

For Mahen Chanmugam painting Lord Ganesh, the deity with the elephant head, started off as a personal journey and was not at all inspired by religion, nor is his work meant as religious art. Mahen:  “Lord Ganesh is universal and the philosophy surrounding him is Buddhist as much as it is Hindu. I subscribe to these philosophies, but I was always more compelled to create something rather than represent something.”

Born in Sri Lanka, he was brought up in a family that converted from Hinduism to Christianity three generations ago. His first memories of lord Ganesh imagery were the dark earthy pigments of the temples he visited with his father as a child.

The first experiments with the subject came quietly, by a mixture of chance and intuition. In 1994, while working and living in Singapore, Mahen began a study of the iconography and symbolism of Lord Ganesh. He started exploring the ancient guidelines such as the classic postures for perfect poise within the 32 forms lord Ganesh appears in and translated these into a contemporary picture.

The intensity of the search for new content in classic form, added an intellectual ambivalence to his work, perhaps originating from an unwillingness to commit to a definite position on what Lord Ganesh should represent. Whereas the image topic is constant, the paintings capture a range of emotions and themes.  In a modest self effacing way his art addresses social issues, taboos and artistic conventions.

His paintings do challenge an ever more prevailing system of thought that humanity is categorized according to the god they worship. After all, Ganesha is also the destroyer of vanity, selfishness and pride and the personification of material universe in all its various magnificent manifestations. In response to the 2002 bombings on the Indonesian island Bali, Mahen painted Lord Ganesh dressed in the school colors of his old Christian school uniform, the deity’s hands displaying the V-sign in a bid for peace.

In 2007 he discovered the existence of Vinayaki, the manifestation of Lord Ganesh in a female form and this became his next fascination. The earliest evidence of a female Ganesh or Vinayaki is a weathered terracotta plaque from Rairh in Rajhasthan, which dates back to the first century. Mahen: “It is not widely known, but there are records of Vinayaki’s in 64 Yoginî enclosures or temples. Eighteen of these temples have been indexed in India with one, supposedly, in Sri Lanka. The real statues at temples have mostly been disfigured, but there are references and writing on the subject in various publications. Because there are such few visual examples it is for me as an artist a total liberation from the 32 classic postures and forms – and it gives me a license to be more interpretive”.

While he has been painting since childhood Mahen has no formal schooling. At the age of 16 he started working in printing, quickly moved on to graphic design and left Sri Lanka to work in Hong Kong and Singapore. Mahen: “I have always had this amazing determination that I wanted to be an artist”.

At a younger age, Mahen was interested in surrealism, Dali, Ernst, Magritte but also the British artist duo Gilbert & George. Like many Sri Lankans he has his cultural roots in East and West though the artist admits his personal visual library is definitely Asian. His work is largely inspired by temple motifs and sculpture, especially the pre Gandhāra style of art when sculptors used the process of visualization through meditation to cut the stylized image straight out of the rock, unlike the Greco-Budhist art which focused on using plum lines and frames for measured, planned realism.

Mahen’s work, the fruit of many years of creative labour is currently on display at the Barefoot Gallery in Colombo The exhibition titled Ganeshism runs from the 15th of May to the 1st of June.


Mieke Kooistra 

Creative Director

kOOii  International Artist Support and Promotion