ALL PHOTOS COURTESY STEPHEN HUYLER
With Ganapati bolted onto the hood and dancing on the doors of his Ganeshmobile, this anthropologist drives the culture of India across America
EVERYWHERE I DRIVE IN THE UNITED STATES I am greeted with smiles. People wave, children laugh and point, occasionally someone will make a pranam in my direction. It is all because of my Ganeshmobile. It entrances everyone.
It began about twenty years ago when an elderly friend here in Maine purchased a 1930s Daimler hood ornament that he affixed to the front of his beat-up 1960s Ford pick-up. I thought it was a great idea and asked him if he could tell me where he found it. Then I realized that it truly made no sense for me to have one on my car. What would it symbolize? My work is in India. Among other things, I write books and organize exhibitions about Hinduism. Wouldn’t it make much more sense for me to employ a Hindu symbol on my car?
The next time I was in Tamil Nadu, I made of point of traveling to Swamimalai, the capitol of fine, South Indian lost-wax bronze sculpting and casting. I met there with Radhakrishna Sthapati, a master artist I had previously interviewed. I commissioned him to sculpt for me a dancing Ganesh, eight inches tall, with a heavy bolt cast into its base that could be secured through the hood of my car.
Friends had warned me that to mount such an unusual and fine sculpture on my car would be tempting fate—that it would be torn off the hood by vandals or thieves. Even though I tend to trust people, I had the sthapati create two identical sculptures for me. I was thrilled when they arrived in the mail a few months later: each an excellent rendition of a masterful Chola-style bronze. I put one aside for safety, had a hole drilled in the front of my Audi station wagon’s hood, and mounted the other. I also had ordered a vanity plate from the Maine Department of Motor Vehicles that stated simply: “Ganesh”.
Together the two were an immediate success. I drove the car everywhere—to Boston, New York, Philadelphia and later across the country to California and back. People would honk and wave when they saw my license plate. When the car was parked, many people would examine the dancing Ganesh with delight. It was certainly never ripped off, even when parked overnight on a Manhattan street. And although many might pass it off as pure superstition, my luck in finding parking spaces changed dramatically. All I would need to do was visualize an empty space, acknowledge Ganesh, and one would open up wherever I needed it!
On my cross-country drive, I stopped for gas at a Navaho station in the middle of New Mexico. Near the gas pumps was a long table lined with strings of glass beads sold by a colorfully dressed Native American woman. I purchased a simple string for two dollars and doubled it to hang over Ganesh’s neck like a mala. I did not even wire it on. It remains there to this day, still on the original Ganesh although mounted on a different vehicle, still only loosely hung around His neck. It has been through rain and windstorms, blizzards and even a tornado and never has even blown off! I consider it a good example of Ganesh’s protective nature.
In 2005, I helped host a group of Sufi musicians from Rajasthan who came to give a concert in my small coastal town. When they first saw my car, they immediately and spontaneously gathered in front to chant a Ganesh mantra to the murti on its hood! I was deeply moved. Here was a group of Muslim men on their first visit to a foreign country singing a Hindu Ganesh mantra to an American’s car!
In 2008, I wanted to be more environmentally proactive and decided to purchase a Toyota Prius. At that time demand for this car was so high in the US that the waiting list was four months. I could not choose the color of the vehicle or what extras might be included. When I picked up my new car from the dealer in Portland, Maine, I was dismayed to discover that it was dark grey. Four decades in India has taught me to love bright colors. I never wear black or grey and I didn’t want to drive such a dull-hued car. I told the Toyota dealer that I was planning to have the vehicle painted and he responded that that would be a bad choice. It would devalue the car for future resale. However, I could instead cover the grey with a vinyl wrap. When I asked what that was, he told me that it is the same process used to put graphics on the sides of busses or commercial vans. For a relatively inexpensive cost (less than having it painted), I could have my car covered with a solid shade or make it two-toned or perhaps give it a racing stripe. I am an artist. This opened for me a palette of choices!
I contacted a local design shop, Adventure Advertising, to execute the process. For the pattern to cover the car I chose my grandmother’s late nineteenth century paisley shawl. In the midst of a heavy Maine winter, the designers sculpted a life-size Prius out of a snow bank and draped the shawl over it, photographing it at high resolution from each angle. To complement the Ganesh theme, we scanned a painting of a dancing Ganesh and digitally imbedded it into the shawl. They then copied these images into a template of the Prius and printed the entire thing onto adhesive vinyl, carefully adhering it to every external surface of the car. Once that was complete, they drilled the hood and remounted my Chola-style dancing Ganesh at the front. The car was finished.
When I first saw it, I was delighted, but concerned that it would be too ostentatious to drive. But as soon as I took it out on the road, I realized I had a winner. First of all, there is something very gratifying about driving down the street with the image of Ganesh leading me wherever I go. Then the response of almost every person I pass is heartening. Frowns change to grins, eyes light up, people wave and call out. My car is boldly festive.
It has been driven across the entire country twice. Once in Asheville, North Carolina, and again in Santa Fe, New Mexico, large groups of pedestrians spontaneously broke into cheers and huzzahs, while many immediately put their hands together in a pranam and sang out praises to Ganesh. The trip each way went smoothly, unobstructed by any difficulties.
In the years since then, my Ganeshmobile has held up perfectly through rain and storms and the harsh Maine winters. The paisley finish still looks new, unblemished by any scratches, dents or peeling. Ganesh Himself still dances proudly in front, assuring me that I will always find a good parking space and that everything during my drive will go smoothly. In my cupboard at home is a second unused bronze Ganesh with a bolt in its base. It was never required to replace the first. No one would dream of harming my car or its murti. As I drive, the Navaho beaded mala blows gently back in the wind. And I am safe—assured of the best possible experience.