In an India flush with devotion and disposable income, a new status symbol is making the rounds: anything unique and expensive related to Ganesha.
People have been collecting paintings, books and sculptures of the popular elephant-headed god for decades, but a battle for “exclusives” is intensifying. That means Ganesha driving a Mercedes Benz or playing cricket, Ganesha dressed as a cowboy or a rishi.
So fierce has collectors’ desire to one-up each other become that suddenly some can say they have thousands and thousands of Ganeshas. Their hobby (and habit) is fuelled by many factors, from sincere devotion to simple indulgence. Observers say the trend reflects a change in the way Indians are spending their money and worshipping god. And there’s no denying that Ganesha, buoyed by rising prices when he graces a painting or fills a sculpture, is also making some long-time collectors very rich.
“I travelled to Thailand, China, Japan, Bramhadesh, Jamnagar, everywhere I could get a Ganesha. If I truly like a piece, there is no price that I will not pay,” said security consultant Joginder Singh Kahaan, a Sikh by birth, who estimates he owns more than 10,000 idols, about 6,000 books and as many paintings bearing Ganesha.
The hobby started in 1990, although Kahaan can’t exactly recall why, saying it was not so much about him choosing to collect Ganesha, as it was about Ganesha choosing him. “Once I decided to collect Ganesha, I never stopped,” he said, adding that he still visits the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a holy site for Sikhs, on occasion.
The trend has definitely intensified from the usual stream of customers requesting a simple Ganesha, also known as Ganapati, for their mandir or foyers, says Bhalchandra Shahpur, 42, a sculptor of Ganesha idols for the past decade.
“Everyone wants to have a Ganesha in their homes, because he is the Vighnaharta, or remover of obstacles,” claims Shahpur. But nowadays, he says, “there are always others who only want unusual Ganapati for their collection.”
The “unusual” requests are for depictions of the god playing sport, or perhaps reading a book under a lamp—and then that piece becomes a bedside table lamp. Other collectors ask for one made of precious stones, bone resin, white cotton, or carvings. Sometimes elephant lovers even demand that their Ganesha be made of ivory; the material derived from elephant tusk. Never mind that it is generally banned in India and many parts of the world.
Shahpur expects that many such people are walking into his studio apartment above his father’s Ganesha temple in Bhayander because they have more money to spend on themselves, their homes and their religion.
Many Hindus believe that Ganesha, beyond removing obstacles, is also the god of new beginnings, luck and prosperity. “Over the centuries, the meaning of Ganesha was forgotten. He became only an idol,” wrote Vedic philosophy and symbolism expert Makrand Dave in his book, Chirantana. But the importance of Ganesha has not been forgotten. Many Hindus start new businesses and buildings with an invocation to him, and in many cases, Hindu shopkeepers and traders still begin their day with a prayer to Ganesha.
“We have never had it so good,” Shahpur’s business partner Mansi Vyas said. “We have been trying to save up and put together an exhibition of our Ganesha sculptures for years. It is very expensive to do that. But now it seems possible.” They have not fixed a venue yet but hope to assemble an exhibit next year.
They are not alone in planning a formal tribute to Ganesh. In New York City, the Rubin Museum plans a Ganesha exhibition in fall 2009. In India, Kahaan, the man who has more than 10,000 Ganeshas, says within the next few months, he plans to launch the International Ganpati Dham and Research Centre near Karjat, at the foothills of Matheran, Maharashtra.
The centre’s temple will have three depictions of Ganesha: first of the 56 Ganesha forms in different poses, like the dancing Ganesha, or single-tusked Ganesha, or Ganesha blessing with many hands, or Ganesha with an axe; a second series of Ganesha forms from other countries like Thailand, Japan, China, Malaysia, and a series of Vinayaki, the female forms of Ganesha.
Kahaan, who runs a security company called Guardian Facilities Management out of Nagpur, says he will fund the entire project himself. “This is my project. I don’t want anyone else getting involved, especially financially.”
Kahaan ran a manufacturing centre for seven years, where he commissioned artists to make thousands of fiber-made Ganeshas exclusively for his collection. He won’t divulge how much his collection is worth but claims assembling it cost him up to Rs3 crore. He plans to build the Ganesha centre in the shape of, well, Ganesha.
“I want to be special,” Kahaan said, sinking into a plush sofa in his living room.
Special and different have become the hallmark of collectors trying to distinguish themselves beyond the usual Ganesha enthusiasts.
“It’s like an ego trip. They look for the unusual thing, they talk about, show it off and it defines them and sets them apart,” said Shana Dressler, a photographer working on a coffee table book about Ganesha for the Rubin Museum. The book, yet another example of Ganesha’s growing official recognition, is scheduled for a fall 2009 release in New York timed with the museum’s exhibition.
As the demand and awareness for Indian art has grown, so too has Ganesha’s value. On Mumbai-based Saffron Art’s online auction, for example, two works of Ganesha by Ravindra Salve are listed for more than Rs 40,000 each.
And at Christie’s Asian Art auction in New York last month, a 13 1/2-inch sandstone figure of Ganesha listed as “from Khmer, Pre-Angkor Period, circa 8th Century” was given a range price of $30,000 (Rs1,260,000) to $50,000. It sold for $96,000.
Until a few years ago, gallery owners had to keep reminding art lovers that, apart from luxury, their purchases were also an investment, recalls Shobha Bhatia, owner of the Delhi-based Gallerie Ganesha that showcases various artists and various art forms. “But no one ever believed us,” she says. “Now, we don’t need to tell them this. They know it.”
The net worth of some collections has increased several times over, said Praful Patel, who has a collection of 2,500 idols and one of India’s largest Ganesha music collections.
Patel says he is an investment adviser to “high-net worth individuals,” as the very rich people are called these days. He lives in a suite at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai and says he travels a great deal. “Whenever I am travelling, I am buying,” he said. “I have bought pieces from Thailand, Japan, and Malaysia as well.”
As a result, his suite at the Taj shimmers with various-hued Ganeshas made from gold, semi-precious stones, fiber, clay, choir cords, stone, bamboo, tree bark and paper. “But, this does not even begin to tell of his collection,” said Wilma Saldhana, who had worked with him for six years. “You should see his apartment in London!”
The London collection includes a series of Tanjore Ganeshas. Tanjore paintings are of South Indian origin, made on wood or glass with gold detailing. Very difficult to make, they cost about Rs10-15 lakh in the market today. Patel also owns Ganesha as cricketer and cowboy, Ganesha carrying mail as a postal carrier and the more upscale Ganesha driving a Mercedes. His London collection has been made into a 20-minute film by the religious TV channel, Aastha, and has been broadcast in Indiaand abroad.
“After the broadcasts, I have got so many calls from people who want to see my collection there that it is now becoming very hard to manage,” Patel said. “Everything I ever saved, I put into my collection.”
Frowning slightly as he did the math, Patel said the collection might have a market value of about $1 million (Rs4.25 crore) “But I simply love special pieces,” he said. “I dream up all these forms and try to find an artist to execute it.”
Patel began collecting almost four decades ago when his then guru, Swami Yogi Maharaj, spiritual leader of the Swaminarayan sect, asked him first to collect five Ganeshas and then 51.
“I was in mid-teens. I travelled with him to do his seva and one day I gave my Ganesha to do pooja and he did it for me for a few weeks. He then asked me to collect five because five makes the divine in Hinduism. When I left for London, the word had got out and friends, family, other members of the sect started to gift me Ganeshas.”
Patel said his London apartment was getting filled with Ganesha idols. “Then Guruji came to London and asked me to take that number to 101. And somehow, I just went on collecting. Especially after Yogi Maharaj passed away, I felt compelled to go on. Even now, the gurus and swamijis in the Swaminarayan sect buy Ganeshas for me whereverthey travel..”
Although the prices of Ganesha have risen in the market, Patel does not intend to stop buying nor does he plan to sell any of his own valuables. Looking around his suite with content, he says, “I like it here, surrounded by my bappa.”