For Mahen Chanmugam painting Lord Ganesh, the deity with the elephant head, is a personal journey that was inspired by his spiritual connection to Lord Ganesh. In 1994, while working and living in Singapore, Mahen began a study of the iconography and symbolism of Lord Ganesh. He started exploring the classic forms, postures and the iconographic principles of perfect poise within the 32 forms Lord Ganesh appears in and translated these into contemporary representations.
The intensity of the search for new content in classic form has added an intellectual ambivalence to his work. Whereas the image topic is constant, the paintings now capture a range of emotions and themes. Today his art looks at Lord Ganesh’s iconography as a philosophical template that symbolizes liberation from ego, acceptance and the laws of cause and effect. Paintings like the Thousand Petaled Lotus of Light and Lord Ganesh with a Flute visualize the deity as a force that enables consciousness to evolve from its lowest to its highest. Deep, mesmerizing eyes gently look down from many of his paintings, reflecting his inspiration of love and awe from a single form that is so eloquently described in Progress of the soul by John Donne: Nature’s great masterpiece, the elephant, the only harmless great thing, the giant of the beasts.
Mahen has worked with all types of media, having mastered, then abandoned, oil painting and airbrush illustration for the transluscent brilliance of acrylic. He now works on materials as varied as canvas, wood, glass and mirror and sometimes, even on rice bags and other industrial packing material. He has had five solo exhibitions in Singapore and Sri Lanka and he paints and lives with his wife, two children and cats in his home studio, amongst the water monitors and bats in Nawala.
Among the virtues commonly attributed to artists, modesty, it can onfidently 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 odest. 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 conography 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 Gandhâra 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.
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