Visual Art

Of Gods and Men

A spectacular Asia Society exhibition examines the changing depictions of Hindu deities.

By Michael Hardy May 5, 2014

Abhishek Singh, "Krishna – A Journey Within," Let Go, 2012, Paper, ink, digital.

Transcendent Deities: The Everyday Occurrence of the Divine
Thru Sept 14
Asia Society Texas Center
1370 Southmore Blvd.

Depending on how you count them, there are anywhere from a few thousand to a few hundred million deities in the Hindu pantheon. Hindus often adopt a personal or family god to pray to, the most popular being Vishnu, the protector; Shiva, the destroyer; the elephant-headed Ganesha; and the monkey god Hanuman. Representations of these gods, and many others, are on exhibition in a three-artist show at the Asia Society Texas Center through September 14. 

The exhibition, one of the best so far this year, highlights how depictions of the most prominent Hindu deities have evolved over the past century. The first galleries are devoted to chromolithographs by Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906), sometimes called the father of modern Indian painting. In addition to painting religious images influenced by the Western art tradition, Varma also experimented with other production methods, including chromolithographs, which could be easily and cheaply reproduced, making high-quality images of deities available to even the humblest Indian households. The prints were intended to be embroidered with various fabrics and ornaments by local craftsmen, making each one of the mass-produced images a personal object of worship, as demonstrated in the exhibition.

"Vishnu-Garud Wahan"; Paper, ink, fabric, metallic thread; Ravi Varma Press, Karla- Lonavla

Juxtaposed with Varma’s prints are works by two contemporary Indian artists who also bridge the past and present by depicting Hindu gods in strikingly modern ways. Abishek Singh creates graphic novels based on stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two major Hindu epics, as well as visually extravagant ink drawings of Shiva, Kali, and other gods that make them look like modern-day superheroes.

Photographer Manjari Sharma, on the other hand, creates elaborate tableaux based on traditional Hindu iconography, using costumed actors to play the various deities and then photographing the scene. At first, the resulting large-scale images look like paintings; only a close appraisal reveals the painted backdrop and props. Sharma employed dozens of Indian artisans to create the Bollywood-style stage sets and costumes, which closely mimic images of the deities found in earlier work by artists like Varma. The artist spent months looking for the right actors to play the nine deities in her series: Ganesha is played by Sharma’s family pundit, who married her and her husband; Hanuman is played by a bodybuilder; Maa Laxmi, the goddess of fortune and beauty, is played by a flight attendant; and Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and the arts, is played by an anchor on CNBC India.

Manjari Sharma, "Lord Vishnu," from the Darshan series, 2013, Chromogenic print, 60 x 48 in, Edition 1/2.

Sharma, who grew up in India and now lives in Brooklyn, told me that she chose to use photography to represent the deities — rather than the more traditional media of painting or sculpture — for the greater sense of connection it creates with the viewer.

“I think what it brings is the experience of seeing a person staring back at you,” she said. “Do you want to run into Maa Lakshmi on the subway? Would you want to run into Ganesha at the airport? I think photography humanizes the deities and the devotee, the subject and the object, in the very same way that you feel a sense of belonging when you look at a piece of art that relates to some aspect of your life.”

The Darshan series, named for the Sanskrit word for vision or apparition, is comprised of the nine monumental images now on view at the Asia Society. Some viewers of the series have urged Sharma to create more images—after all, there are thousands, if not millions, more deities to choose from—but the artist said she’s satisfied with the current set. At least for now. “Every curator I have talked to has asked, what if there was a room of 100 of these?” she said. “I feel like I’m very content about where the series stands now. But I’m open to the possibility of making more.”

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