Ganesha is the elephant-headed god of the Hindu pantheon, a popular figure in Indian art and the subject of Homage to Ganesha, a new exhibition at the Ashmolean.
At a superficial level, the images are both simple and attractive; at another, they provoke complex questions.
Simple, because it’s easy to pick up the basics of the iconography – the elephant head, the axe (for cutting through obstacles), the dish of sweets, the single tusk (the other tusk is held in one of Ganesha’s many hands, though whether it has anything to do with all those sweets is not clear). And then there’s the rat – again, this seems to be linked to the idea of cutting, or possibly gnawing, through obstacles.
Visually, the images, particularly the earlier ones in the courtly Mughal style suggest the fine brushwork of European miniatures or, because of the intensity of the colours, illuminated manuscripts. Others are the product of popular or folk art and yet others, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th century, show the influence of book illustrations and even postcard art, whilst retaining their essential Indian-ness.
What’s interesting is that, despite the different artistic influences and the move from painting to printing, the underlying image changes very little in the 450-odd years covered by the display.
Ganesha’s image can also be found in sculptures designed as an object of domestic devotion or meditation, of which there is a single example, or statues, represented here by a collection of drawings by William Carriell (an 18th century artist unknown to the world wide web, which is a pity, because I can’t quite read my writing and so may have got his name wrong).
So here’s the complex and confusing bit. I realised at some point that I didn’t really understand what I was looking at. If I’d been sharper and not suffering the aftermath of root canal work I might have fallen into conversation with a Hindu family who were visiting the gallery at the same time. But I wasn’t and I didn’t – another moment that can’t be recovered.
A brief trip across one of those vertigo-inducing walkways to visit the Mughal Art gallery (to compare and contrast) took me through Byzantium (so to speak) and past a fine collection of icons. Did the images of Ganesha serve a similar function for Hindus as icons do for Orthodox Christians or the images of saints for Catholics? Admittedly, I don’t really understand those either – even so, I thought that there was a difference.
There didn’t seem to be any correspondence either to the gods of ancient Greece, despite early cultural and trading links between India and the Mediterranean world.
Perhaps Ganesha and his fellow gods are more symbolic – something along the lines of the Statue of Liberty – the personification of an abstract idea: except that nobody prays to the Statue of Liberty (at least, I don’t think they do).
Wanting to find out more, I headed off to a couple of local bookshops on what turned out to be some sort of National Non-Book Selling Day, so, in desperation, turned to the public library and came away with history of Indian Art, an introduction to Hinduism and a DVD.