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Posted on Sun, Oct 18, 2009 : 6 a.m.

Ganesha, Diwali, and Ravi Shankar too

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang


Frances Kai-Hwa Wang swinging during a warmer Diwali in Kathmandu, Nepal

I was at the University of Michigan Art Museum (UMMA) a few weeks ago when a museum staff member perched up high on the fourth floor where she could monitor many levels of the museum barked out at a family on the second floor not to touch. I turn to see a South Asian family showing their two young daughters, about 3 and 5 years old, an 11th century Ganesha carved out of volcanic rock.

Chastened, they back away. Curious, I go take a closer look.

The face is almost completely worn away from centuries of people touching and anointing the deity’s forehead with tikka powder and oil, but he is still unmistakably Ganesha, with his elephant’s head and round belly.

I love the juxtaposition. Here you have a family from India, with children likely born in America, trying to teach their children about their Indian culture, at an American museum, in front of a Ganesha from Indonesia. The Ganesha was probably originally on an outdoor temple where one was supposed to touch the deity, but here inside the museum, one is scolded for looking at the art too closely.

Whose Ganesha is it anyways?

These are issues being discussed this year by the University of Michigan’s LS&A Theme Year, “Meaningful Objects: Museums in the Academy,” which began with changes at the UM Exhibit Museum about how the cultures of those other Indians—American Indians (insert more irony here about who gets to misname peoples)—are represented. I do not know what the academics would say, but what I find interesting is how meaning and practice move and change as we ourselves move and change over time and place.

As we begin our annual descent into the bitter cold of winter, I have been thinking a lot about Lights for Gita by Rachna Gilmore, a children’s picture book about a girl who misses her grandmother in India and is anxious to celebrate her first Diwali in her new Canadian home…but how do you celebrate a warm outdoor holiday when a massive ice storm hits? Diwali (also called Divali, Deepawali, Tihar, and The Festival of Lights) is a Hindu harvest festival celebrated in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal,…and America. October 17 this year, it is a time for feasting, family, fireworks, giving thanks, and celebrating the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness.

When I lived in Kathmandu, I loved lighting the trail of diya oil lamps that wound through my house, swinging on homemade country swings suspended from giant bamboo poles, and going about the city in the evenings to see the many light displays that people created in the streets and around neighborhood temples.

I think of Diwali as a straw-colored end-of-summer sort of holiday, one of long days and warm nights, set against orange and brown fields—not one that requires the coat and hat and scarf and gloves I just took out of my Michigan closet. What to do, but brave the dark night and icy rain and go to Hill Auditorium and bask in the warmth and gracious charm of Ravi and Anoushka Shankar…and look, the whole community is here.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village and a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at



Sun, Oct 18, 2009 : 6:43 a.m.

Loved Diwali growing uo in India, We all got together and lit fireworks for three nights (and days), The fourth day was the New Year with people visiting each other with gifts and serving refreshments to guests. Diwali was FUN. Sadly, I hear things in India aren't quite the same.