Any day now when we step outside, despite our face masks, we will know the air has changed. Fall is approaching, and along with it, many other things: school, the final phase of the presidential election, season 29 of Dancing with the Stars. It’s a good time to turn to Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god depicted in this 11th-century sculpture from central India. He is known in Sanskrit as Vighneshvara, the Remover of Obstacles, and Hindu communities invoke him regularly when undertaking some new endeavor. His big round belly sends an unmistakable signal about the possibility of satisfaction and success. Ganesha gives assurance that you can fulfill your potential and achieve your goals.
In the ten years I’ve worked at the MFA, I’ve enjoyed bringing visitors to see this sculpture. Its profusion of bulging and curving forms brilliantly offsets the deep negative spaces and crisp decoration on the throne framing the god’s body. The whole thing bursts with energy, pleasure, and optimism. In the unlikely event that the sculpture doesn’t immediately charm a visitor, I point out one of Ganesha’s companions: the small rat at the center of the base. He quietly nibbles on a piece of candy that has fallen from an overflowing bowl held by one of Ganesha’s wives, who is seated on her husband’s massive knee.
A few weeks ago, Hindus around the world celebrated Ganesh Chaturthi, an annual festival held in Ganesha’s honor. It’s particularly popular in the Indian state of Maharashtra, where in normal times, people create large, colorful sculptures of the god to display in public spaces. Devotees can pray and make offerings to him, and after ten days, the sculptures are immersed in water and dissolve. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced governments to limit the size of the sculptures so large groups wouldn’t be required to move them. Many people carried out the rituals entirely at home. Though I am not a Hindu, I find myself hoping that Ganesha’s worshippers let the Remover of Obstacles know how badly we need him right now.
I also notice that the joy I normally feel when I spend time with this work of art is muted and joined by a sense of unease. Do I want to let my guard down and embrace the happiness Ganesha brings me when right now people all over the world are in pain?
If there is an upside, it’s this: with my normal happy response to the sculpture inaccessible right now, I’m looking—really looking—at it for the first time in years. I see the crisscrossing limbs of Ganesha’s wives, the taut skin of his belly, and the delicacy of his ears. I’ve been reading, too; I’ve learned that the worship of Ganesha has changed over time and I’ve come across myths about him that I never encountered before. I don’t have the contentment and security I long for, but I have my curiosity. And we all have this great sculpture.