Arts & Books, Religion

A grand declaration of faith through models of God

Artist Manjari Sharma’s humongous photo canvases adorn NYC gallery.

By Niharika Mookerjee

NEW YORK: Despite commonly held secular beliefs in contemporary society, art has historically found its finest efflorescence in temples, monasteries, synagogues and mosques, which were the keepers of culture in the ancient days. Depending on the age and time period, religion has, alternately, worked as its willing servant and, at other times, its tyrant.

Manjari Sharma
Manjari Sharma

In fast-paced, psychedelic world of New York City, far removed from the solitude of temples or monasteries, the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses has found a modern day refuge in the art gallery, ClampArt, located on West 25th Street in Chelsea.

The exhibition, Darshan, which opened on September 12th, and on view through October 12th, has a display of massive and elaborate photographs, more than six feet tall, of carefully constructed gods and goddesses such as Brahma, Vishnu, Shiv, Ganesh, Hanuman, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Durga and Kali—spectacular enough to be venerated in a temple replete with sacred chants and incense.

The artist, Manjari Sharma, uses photography to depict iconic images that were imbued in her sensibility while growing up in a religiously-devout family in Mumbai, India.

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“It is not that people have not attempted to photograph Hindu gods and goddesses previously. There have been programs in Indian television, including the Ramlila, with costumes, sculptures, models; but I really wanted to carefully construct a Fine Art photograph, to place every detail into the set and to assign it with honor and legacy. No doubt, it was a challenge, but I took it on. My first exhibition was in January 2011, which was successful, but also extremely expensive,” said Sharma.

Each of the photo shoots needed a skilled combination of artists, experts, prop-construction craftsmen, sculptors and painters whose end-goal was to make a true representation through a photo created on the film camera. Depending on how evolved the prosthetics and the props were, the cost of a photo construction was about $5000.

Interestingly enough, the subjects, who modeled as the gods and goddesses, were people from ordinary walks of life.  Brahma’s day-job was of an architect; Kali, on the other hand, was a painter; Maha Lakshmi, a flight attendant, Saraswati, a television anchor, while Hanuman, a state-wide campaigner and wrestler.

Inspired by religion rather than pure art, the pictures are a perfect rendition of immaculate symmetry drenched in lavish displays of colors, purple, blue, scarlet and vivid pink, conforming to the archetypal roles the deities play in the Hindu religion. In the scheme of color palette, her influence has been the painter, Raja Ravi Varma, for the Darshan series of photographs. Also, Satyajit Ray is credited for the stylistic executions of the other set of photographs, named Shower series, featured in the show.

The austere and billowy figure of Shiva is captured in the riveting Dance of the Cosmos: the Natraj, renting asunder Mother Earth in orange flames, while Lakshmi restores the image of order and serenity in pink, radiating from a flaring lotus, arched over by white swans. The visual illusion of golden coins streaming from the palm of her hands was accomplished using a fishing-line, Sharma mentioned.

The royal goddess, Durga, the primordial slayer of evil, is shown astride upon a tiger, but with a disarmingly tranquil expression than is usually associated with her.

Strong as thunder and swift as lightning, the Hanuman, the all-transcendental figure of steadfast loyalty and unquestioning devotion, is seen adorned in scarlet, bearing the Dronagiri mountain on his right hand to procure the right herbal salve for Lakshman’s wound.

And the zoomorphic deity, Ganesh, remover of all obstacles, is robust and avuncular, draped in yellow with long, flowing, pleated garments concealing his legs in the purest tradition of worship.

Without a doubt the photographs are a grand declaration of faith, but whether they translate into the emotions of the soul is a matter of subjective experience. The over-sized and out-reaching figures unambiguously convey the intended manifestations of omnipotence, while the expressions of the figures remain oddly human, marking a quizzical contrast, which is paradoxically the quintessence of Hinduism.

“The hierarchy of the gods and goddesses as generator (Brahma), operator (Vishnu), destroyer (Shiva) with their feminine counterparts as Sarawati, Lakshmi, Durga and Kali are important aspects that have inspired and surrounded me in one form or the other. Unfortunately, people forget the education we’ve been given in belonging to the oldest culture in the world, with years of incredible stories. Often such stories become far more powerful when you step away from the country and look back,” said Sharma.

She reflected with remorse that despite the great legacy of reverence for strong and empowered goddesses in India, women were still inexorably subjected to the most random acts of horrific violence in the country, with the numbers increasing daily.

“Problem is that with time, history becomes legend, legend becomes myth and nobody can distinguish the truth anymore. A lot of stories are kept hidden from us, which is actually the result of a patriarchal society that has kept a whip over women’s rights, opinions and views. But in our sacred texts, there is much to honor and admire, and people who do not honor history, have no place in it. We need to remind ourselves that we come from a place where women have traditionally been celebrated with respect and honor,” she stated.

Through these series of singularly religious creations, Sharma hopes to revive the value embedded in these sacred texts and open the door for a glimpse of that divinity (darshan) which calls out to the inner center of spirituality.

“Darshan is about being touched by divinity. In the midst of life’s challenges and commotion, when you hear the chant from a distance and have the image of the deity in front of you, the spiritual connection comes back. Life is moving from one important darshan to another. These are moments that have influenced you and are a result of the transmission of energy,” she said. Being an artist, she finds her sacred muse in Saraswati, the goddess of Art, Music and Poetry.

Nevertheless, the path to artistic self-discovery has not been one without obstacles.  “It was very challenging to command a crew of Indian men who are not used to male authority. Receiving commands from a woman with a strong vision and who would not be satisfied until perfection was reached was challenging for them. But in the end, we were all proud of the result,” she claimed.

The digital prints are of three sizes, with prices ranging from $17,000 for a picture, 60 by 80 inches for an edition of 2, $9,000 for the size 36 by 28.8 inches for edition of 4, and $5,000 for a frame 20 by 16 inches for an edition of 6.

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