By Mahen Chanmugam at Barefoot Gallery


The Oxford dictionary lists “-ism” (a noun): as a distinctive practice, a system, a philosophy, a political ideology or an artistic movement (like Cubism, Realism, or even non artistic movements such as Darwinism and intellectualism).  

Ganeshism is all of the above. Except, of course, it has no political ideology.  

Unwilling to take ‘ownership’ of the work, Mahen has lovingly shaped Ganeshism, over more than a quarter century, into a distinct practice, a patient study of Ganesha’s iconography and symbolism. It has revolved around an ancient Vedic philosophy of self-realization, expressed through an art form that is rich in symbolism that has far reaching cosmic significance. 

‘Ganeshism 5’ is a celebration of Lord Ganesh in art, through an exhibition of paintings at the Barefoot Gallery in Colombo. It is the fifth show of its kind since 2008 by Sri Lankan artist Mahen Chanmugam and is the first in the last nine years.
Mahen has been painting for most of his life, but has devoted the last quarter century to portraying Ganesha. The paintings in this year’s show are part of a collection that attempts to present, not only the symbolism and iconography surrounding Lord Ganesh, but also the artists view of the powerful energies that Lord Ganesh represents, in the world around us, and within ourselves. Mahen Chanmugam’s paintings have been exhibited at several solo exhibitions in Singapore and Sri Lanka. The artist including varying components of surfaces such as antique door panels and industrial packaging materials. The artist appeared as cover personality on ARTRA Magazine E47 where we conversed with him as we revealed his perspective on the practices of Lord Ganesh and the expression of the idea that the divinity or spiritual awakening is found within one’s self.

Today his art looks at Lord Ganesh’s iconography as a philosophical template. One that symbolizes liberation from ego, acceptance and the laws of cause and effect. The paintings are an interpretation of what the symbolism means to him. 

Mahen sees Ganesha as a mirror to the soul, not as an often misunderstood “favour granting god”. As the artist says, “Ganesha represents a superimposition of reality, not an unending search for some higher divinity, but instead, the search for a higher consciousness, a self that recognizes the unifying principle of all life.
Over the last 25 years of painting Ganesha, Mahen has gone through many changing spiritual views. He is not conventionally religious at all. Temples and churches are buildings he rarely enters, but the strange, euphoric, elated feelings he gets sometimes, during the meditative process of painting he experiences, has led him to believe in something else. A spirituality and a consciousness within. This collection of paintings attempts to express this idea. That divinity, or spiritual awakening, is to be found in the self. Within and not without. Where Ganesha’s presence and image feels like something more. As he says, “it goes beyond the symbolism and the teachings. He poses for me in my mind, and the images he brings to me transcend convention, formality, dogma and even gender. Their meaning is sometimes obscure even to me”. 


Etymologically, religion means “that which binds one back to the origin”. It is derived from the Latin terms ‘re’ and ‘ligare’. ‘Re’ means back, again, and ‘Ligare’ means to bind or to unite with ones origin. The origin of man is his real self, or his supreme self, and through the paintings, Ganeshism attempts to communicate the concepts of self-realisation, especially through the collections like “The God Within” where Ganesha is shown, literally, within us.  
As Swami vivekananda says “You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no teacher but your own soul”.  

Unfortunately, today, religion is often misunderstood. Most deities have been shorn of their philosophical significance and reduced to mere superstition. Ganeshism, as an art form and movement, attempts to create an inward discussion, to debate, question and meditate on the deep truths represented by the symbols. It aims to dispel the singular concept of the ‘favour granting god’ and focus instead, on the deity, as a mirror to the soul. 


The fact that Ganesha, in Vedic iconography, is represented as gravity, his brother Murugan or Subramanya, represented as electromagnetic energy and their father, the great Shiva, as nuclear energy is fascinating. These three are the fundamental forms of energy in our universe and make up the basis for the standard model of particle physics. A cosmology that was postulated so long ago, yet only proven, scientifically, fairly recently.  

Sure, it wouldn’t be in the same direct sense that physics is measured or accepted in this era, but could it be that the ancient Vedic rishis knew of these categories, of different kinds of particles and forces? And if so, did they do this from - the patterns the outer senses and the inner instruments of the mind create? 

Modern science describes the whole of the universe as energy in one form or another. Matter itself is merely condensed energy. And just like many of the Ganeshism paintings, Ganesha is shown as the core of matter, while he swirls through his cosmic dance of creation as Nritya Ganapati, illustrating a concept that describes the divine operations of the universe.  

For the modern physicist, then, the Dance of Creation is the dance of subatomic matter, a continual dance of creation and destruction involving the whole cosmos, unifying ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics. 

The exhibition, ‘Ganeshism 5’ can be viewed online at 


15th June, 2021 Visual Art | Paintings