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  • Keith Prossick and Stephanie Kohler

Breaking the Mandala: Ganesh


Welcome to a new feature of Aquarius, which examines the aesthetics, insights, and greater context of art. We humans awaken not just through what we read, but what we see and explore beyond words.

The commentary is specifically drawn from the artist, as a way to show the process and background to the work. There is no “correct” way to do this. You can read first; you can look first. You can do one or the other, though certainly we recommend both. This month’s art is Ganesh, by Keith Prossick.

Ganesh is one of the Hindu deities, a human body with an elephant head. Known as the “Remover of Obstacles,” he is often invoked at the start of an undertaking.

The background of this painting is a mandala. Mandalas are ancient symbols, which function as architectural blueprints for the hyperdimensional palaces of the deities manifested within them. The mandala behind Ganesh anchors this painting, the symmetry a safe boundary for self-inquiry and discovery.

Ganesh appears within this symmetry, but also breaks it. His head is tilted. One tusk is intact; the other has just been broken. There are several stories about Ganesh’s broken tusk; this painting shows his choice to break it, while transcribing the Mahabarata.

Composed over 1000 years ago, the Mahabarata is the world’s longest epic poem, about 10 times the length of the Illiad and the Odyssey combined. Authorship is traditionally attributed to the great sage Vyasa. He asked Ganesh to transcribe his epic poem, and they agreed Ganesh would do so without any pause.

As Vyasa recited, Ganesh carefully captured all the essence of the tale, without missing anything. In the furious dexterity of his writing, his quill broke. Without missing a word, Ganesh broke off his own tusk, and wrote with it until Vyasa finished reciting.

For years, I had been playing with mandalas on the canvas, captivated by their architectural structure and depth. Eventually, I wanted to expand my visions, but encountered difficulty to think beyond symmetrical patterns. No matter how hard I tried to capture asymmetric landscapes, they would always feel unbalanced without the symmetries upon which I had grown dependent. Symmetry had gone from being the guiding framework to being the obstacle keeping my artistic practice from evolving.

At that point, I chose to call Ganesh to the canvas—to paint him in the very moment that he chose to break his own tusk. In keeping his promise, he broke free of the dualistic tendencies between which we are often caught. He rose beyond the being that he was, into something more.

Breaking the tusk represents breaking from dualism in both thought and pattern, as well as accepting the impermanence of material form. Breaking symmetry is a way to face obstacles, and transcend challenges.

This painting was a turning point in the direction of my practice as an artist. It opened up my canvas beyond the symmetry of mandalas, into a more expansive, multi-dimensional space. This world does not necessarily exist in perfect order and harmony, but rather a deeper perfection—one which is found in the balance between chaos and symmetry.

Symmetry, though, sometimes can be a cage that suffocates creativity. You can get caught up in the beauty of its rhythms and consistency. But symmetry can restrict if you never allow yourself to dance beyond it. When you are ready to move on, you may find yourself in a circular room, going round and round without any sign of an exit.

Symmetry, ultimately, must be broken in order for the currents of evolution to flow. Our obstacles are always tied to the release of that which is no longer in need. You have to break yourself upon this symmetry to find your cosmic dance. What remains, is still you.

Break the mandala.

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