The Indian Artist: The Elephant God

I thought that this week I would tell a story that I loved hearing when I was growing up. This is the story of the Ganesha, and how he came to be known as the Elephant God. Enjoy!

Shiva’s wife Parvati disliked being disturbed when she was bathing but for some reason, Shiva never seemed to remember. He strode in whenever he wished oftentimes really annoying Parvati. One day when Shiva was away meditating in the forest, Parvati went into her bathing chamber full of determinations and a mischievous glint in her eyes. ‘Today I will not be disturbed,” she thought as she massaged herself with jasmine oil and sandalwood paste.

Picking up a flat wooden knife she scraped the scented paste off her body and kneaded it into a lump, mixing it with the pure, fine soil from the ground. When it was firm enough, she fashioned the clay into the figure of a boy, perfect in every limb. She held the beautiful sculpture of the boy up to her face and poured her life’s breath into him. In the twinkling of an eye, a young boy stood before her, handsome, alive, eyes bright with love.

Parvati hugged him. “Now look, I want you to do something for me. I’m going to have a bath and no one is to enter this chamber. You will be my little guard.”

A piece that I did in ink inspired by a beautiful drawing of Ganesha by Bijay Biswaal

The boy bowed, hands folded, “Of course, Mother.” Parvati went into her bathing chambers and shut the door. The boy posted himself outside and stood with legs apart, hands folded, the spitting image of a little knight.

Shiva returned from his meditative retreat and looked around for Parvati. When he didn’t see her, he made straight for the bathroom but came to an abrupt halt. In front of the door, blocking his passage, stood a strange young boy. Shiva moved forward, with purpose, but the boy didn’t budge.

“I will not,” said the boy coolly, without a trace of fear. “My mother said no one must enter, so I will not let anybody in until she says so.”

“I am not interested in what your mother said. Move out of my way!” Shiva roared, and his terrible anger erupted. In a flash, his sword was out and fell on the boy’s tender neck. The young boy cried as he fell, and his severed head rolled on the ground. Parvati sprang up and flung the door open. Her eyes widened in pain and anguish when she saw the headless body of her son. She turned on Shiva like a lioness, angry tears pouring down her face.

“You’ve killed my son, you heartless brute,” she stormed. “How could you kill a young boy unequal in strength and years? And they call you a Great God! Some Great God you are! I’ll never forgive you for this.” Shiva looked at her in blank astonishment, bewildered and appalled.

“I’m truly sorry, my dear, just don’t be angry with me,” Shiva tried to soothe his wife in his most calming voice. “I will bring him back to life, I promise.”

Parvati threw him a smoldering look and turned away. Shiva summoned his faithful attendants and spoke with power, “Bring me the head of the first dead creature you see,’ Shiva ordered. The servants left and almost immediately saw a beautiful elephant down the path. They cut off its head and quickly took it to Shiva. Shiva knelt by the headless body of the boy and placed the elephant’s head on the raw, bleeding neck. The head merged seamlessly into the torso of the boy and a moment later the little eyes flickered open.

Shiva picked him up and embraced him. “You, my son, will be the leader of my servants and the world will know you as Ganesha”’ he pronounced with a loving smile. “No god or man will dare begin a venture without first invoking you. In you shall be the power to remove every obstacle in the path of man, and in you shall lie the wisdom of the ages.”

This week was a little different, but if anything that I discussed in this post stands out or if any questions arise please feel free to comment and share your thoughts!

Looking forward to next Sunday!


~ Riya



The Indian Artist: The Festival of Lights

Seeing as yesterday was Diwali, I thought that it would be appropriate to do this week’s post on the festival of lights. Diwali is one of the most important festivals in Hindu culture and symbolizes the victory of light over darkness, power of good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.

A classic image of a rangoli design done with powdered pigments

During times of Diwali, which most traditionally is a five-day affair, families adorn and clean their houses, decorating it with beautiful flowers and ornaments. On the days leading up to the holiday and the day of, the entire home is lit up with candles and diyas. Diyas are small oil lamps that are generally made from clay. The wicks are made out of cotton and fueled by some type of oil or ghee. These Diyas or oil lamps are lit for deities and to bring light to the house and ward off any darkness. Another part of custom adornment is something called rangoli, a personal favorite of mine. Rangoli is created from either chalk or pigmented powders and used to create beautiful designs on pavements as well as home entrances.

The lighting of candles and oil lamps is a welcome to the Goddess of Fortune and Prosperity, Lakshmi. It lights a path, welcoming her into blessing the home with good fortune, prosperity, and health. The holiday celebrates new beginnings and the start of the Indian fiscal year.

The Goddess Lakshmi sitting on a lotus with wealth and prosperity flowing from her arms

The story of Diwali is long and well-loved. Diwali is said to be the commemoration of the return of Lord Rama and his wife Sita (Reincarnation of Goddess Lakshmi) and brother from a 14-year exile into the forest. While on their exile, Sita is taken by the demon Ravana. Lord Rama and his brother travel with an army far and wide, eventually conquering Ravana and bringing Sita back home. Lord Rama’s return to his home kingdom is celebrated by a festival from the townspeople that last for days with music, food, singing, and dancing. From then onwards, this festival came to be known as Diwali. The day Lord Rama returned home with Goddess Lakshmi (Sita).

Diwali is a time for being with family and loved ones. Families light fireworks and host large feasts and celebrations. Temples, homes, offices, and buildings are brightly illuminated inside and outside. In the days leading up to Diwali, people clean, renovate, and beautifully adorn their homes. On the final day of the celebration, people dress in their finest clothes and perform a puja (prayer) for Lakshmi.

This piece titled The Festival of Lights, well-named I know, is a small depiction of Diwali and the beautiful tradition that it represents. The hands are covered in henna holding a diya lamp. The entire piece is done in colored pencil and was done early on when I started using my culture and upbringing as a topic of my art. For me, Diwali has always been a beautiful time of the year. Family and friends come together and we all sit around enjoying each other’s company and laughter. Eating delicious food and Indian cuisine, praying for one another’s health, prosperity, and happiness, we all forget the daily mundane troubles for a moment and lose ourselves in mutual companionship and love.

Happy Diwali to you all. As always, if anything that I discussed in this post stands out or if any questions arise please feel free to comment and share your thoughts!

Looking forward to next Sunday.


~ Riya



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The Indian Artist – The Art Between Genders

Whenever I visit my family in India for the summers, one of my favorite parts of the trip is when my grandmother takes me to the street bazaars to get my mehndi done. I sit amongst the bustling crowd on a simple plastic crate, sounds of aunties and uncles in the background, bartering over the prices of everything from spices to table cloths. In front of me sits a young man wearing worn out and baggy clothing, hands stained with mehndi, papers full of practiced designs scattered around. In no time, I have a beautiful design of flowers and vines laid out on my hands in the deep, rich paste. I take immense care in making sure that I keep my hands perfectly still, bumping into nothing and nobody, never disrupting the design. When I get home, I carefully apply a mixture of lemon juice and eucalyptus oil in hopes of ensuring and dark and long-lasting stain.

Mehndi is a beautiful part of Indian and South Asian culture and a form of art in its own right. From a young age, I have always been fascinated with the art of mehndi, the intricacies of the designs, the possibilities with a single cone.

How about a little history? Henna, the plant itself, has been around for about 5,000 years. The plant, which is found in many parts of the world, is a small four-petaled flower ranging from yellow to pink. Twice a year the leaves are harvested, dried, and ground into a fine powder. This powder is used to dye hair and for the ancient eastern art of mehndi. Powder from the henna plant can be fine or coarse and pure natural henna powder can be bright to deep green, khaki, or brown. These powders render stains that are orange, red, burgundy, cinnamon, bittersweet chocolate brown, burgundy-black, black cherry, and near-black in color. Colloquially, mehndi and henna have become the same, referring to the method of applying body art with a smooth silky paste. It is most commonly applied to the hands and feet during times of joy and celebrations. No Indian wedding is ever complete without a Mehndi ceremony.

One thing that always fascinated me about the art of mehndi was the divide between genders. Historically in many places around the world, America included, women were reserved for the “artsy” jobs. While men went off to work in factories and mechanical plants, girls were trained in the arts, learning how to cook and embroider. However, this seemed to be flipped in regards to henna artists. On the streets where you could get a full design done in under ten minutes for 50-60 rupees (not even a dollar), only men dominate. In the professional arena, where bridal henna can cost upwards of hundreds of dollars, take hours on end to complete, and require appointments in advance, there only seem to be female artists in the business. This parallel interested me deeply and was something that I wished to capture in a recent piece of mine.

This piece titled The Art Between Genders captures a male street artist applying henna to the hand of a higher-class woman, as witnessed commonly in India. The foreground is done entirely in mehndi paste, diluted to behave like watercolor. The background is done in acrylic paint and is meant to depict common and traditional henna designs. Through this piece, I hope to spark conversation about the interesting dichotomy I witnessed and spread love for the beautiful art form that is mehndi.

Henna will continue to be a topic of future posts where I will dive into my own experience as a henna artist, building my business, and even tutorials on how common designs can be created. If anything that I discussed in this post stands out or if any questions arise please feel free to comment and share your thoughts.

Looking forward to next Sunday!


~ Riya




The Indian Artist – American Dhulan

When I mention the fact that my parents had an arranged marriage people look at me like I’ve stepped out of an 18th-century melodrama. At a young age, I never understood the semi-shocked looks or the elongated replies of “Ohhhhh interesting” that I would receive. Each one of my aunts and uncles had an arranged marriage along with all of my grandparents and their parents before them. It seemed like a normal thing that I was expected to partake in as well when I was ready to get hitched.

However, growing up in American society, and over time, veering away from the strict traditions of my culture, I have found myself torn between following in the footsteps of my ancestors and creating my own path. This is an aspect that I choose to discuss heavily through my art, the culture that I was born with versus the culture that I have grown up amongst, and the difficulties that come with being pulled constantly in different directions. As I am sure many kids growing up in an immigrant family with diverse backgrounds can sympathize with, this dichotomy, this constant battle between sticking to my roots while wanting to experience beyond the uber-traditional and what is “expected”, has proven to be more than challenging.

How about a little background before we dive in too deep? Both of my parents were born and raised in north India, coming from families that had strict ideals and followed tradition to a T. They were set up, married, and came to America for their educations, to start a new life, a life of promise and opportunity for their children. When my brother and I were born here, we were also raised in similar ways and held to the same expectations that my grandparents had set for my parents. Along with these expectations and all of the rules came the unspoken belief that I would one day grow up to blindly marry a man of my parents’ choosing. The mere thought of falling in love with whomever I chose, a man of any race, was something that wasn’t dared to be entertained.

The piece that I have shown represents this internal struggle and discusses some of the challenges faced by many children in strict traditional families. I chose to title this piece American Dhulan, once again representing the dichotomous relationship between my Indian upbringing in American society.

In Hindi, “dhulan” means the bride. This piece, done in various mediums ranging from watercolor, colored pencil, fabric, and gold leafing, is a rendition of a traditional Indian bride decorated in intricate ornaments and clothing. In the drawing, all of the jewelry has been removed in place of different scenes. Her necklace symbolizes the destruction of true love as two hands reach for each other but never meet. The earrings, nose ring, and forehead decoration are each whited-out. Instead, they are replaced by images demonstrating different modes of stress and mental health challenges many children face but are oftentimes overlooked.

As time has gone on, I have come to find solace in my culture while continuing on my own self-made journey. I have chosen to accept the very traditional parts of the Indian lifestyle and the difficulties that may come along with it as another part of the otherwise beautiful culture. However, now I choose what I want to be a part of my story.

In the following posts, I will dive into other aspects of my culture and how it has molded me into the person that I am today. If anything that I discussed in this post stands out or if any questions arise please comment and share your thoughts!!

Looking forward to next Sunday!


~ Riya



Meet the Indian Artist

To be completely honest, I have never been much of a writer. Sure I dabbled in my fair share of started diaries that would get tossed aside mere days later, the odd poem here or there, or even small soliloquies, detailing my intensely foreboding thoughts. School essays and papers? Simple. Right up my alley. But deciding to apply for a position as a blogger for arts, ink? Never something that I would have done on a whim.

Instead of writing, I express myself through my artwork. From a very young age, my art was where I found my solace, my home, and my cathartic release. I grew up scouring over the work of my favorite artists, trying to replicate them detail by detail. I got my start through observation and replication. As time has passed, I have found my own style, using mixed media to portray my Indian culture and tradition. Through my art, I demonstrate the most elemental parts of me, the parts that I wish to share with people, and the parts that I keep completely to myself. This blog is something that I wish to use as an avenue for sharing my past and current work. I hope to be able to open up conversations about diversity and equity, culture and worldly perspectives, and even mental health and racial disparities. 

So to all, welcome to my column: The Indian Artist!

A little about myself. My name is Riya Aggarwal. I am currently a freshman in LSA Honors majoring in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology with a minor in Art & Design. Amongst all of the crazy that 2020 has been, I am learning remotely for this semester. I hope that through this column, I can immerse myself in the arts on campus and find other students who share the same passion, learning about their experiences as well. Art is a powerful force. Being a conceptual artist, I am very attracted to the way that different people can take away different messages from a piece of artwork, the fact that a single painting can speak to so many people in many ways.

The goal of my column is to have a place to open up conversations about different cultures and religions. I plan to write about specific aspects of Indian life that I portray through my art. Each Sunday, I will feature an art piece that demonstrates my experiences growing up in a strict Indian family (all of the good and the bad), simple technical pieces, or videos detailing other cultural aspects. Much of the artwork I will write about has a cultural background and demonstrates Indian traditions, explaining it in detail and showing the intricacies of another culture. These posts will not be limited to conventional forms of artwork such as drawing and painting. Being a henna artist, some weeks will showcase original henna designs and video lessons on how some of the designs can be replicated. These step-by-step videos and demonstrations would hopefully spread an appreciation for the art of mehndi. In order to keep a worldly perspective for this column, I will dive into the work of other artists as well, how they use their art to portray deeply rooted traditions and their own unique cultures. Maybe I’ll even throw in a bit of dance and singing just to shake it up a bit. 

I think that I have said enough. I am truly excited to get this column started and to share my love for art with all of you! If there is ever anything specific that I mention in a post or any questions regarding the topics that I discuss, please feel free to leave a comment!

Looking forward to next Sunday!


~ Riya