The Setup: The pantheon of Hindu deities is almost too great to number; many of the gods and goddesses of the Indian subcontinent reincarnate at certain points in their mythologies into different forms, avatars with distinct attributes and temperaments. For the people of India, their deities are not passive onlookers of the human experience, but active participants that shape the word on both micro and macro levels. Asia Society Texas Center is currently showing Transcendent Deities of India: They Everyday Occurrence of the Divine, an exhibit that features the Hindu gods and goddesses as rendered through the valences of three artists working in different mediums and generations.
The Execution: The first two rooms of the exhibit are dedicated to the work of Raja Ravi Varma (1896-1906), a self-taught artist who blended Hindu imagery with European painting techniques. His use of chromolithography and founding of the Raja Ravi Varma Press made his work available on a mass scale, and codified the manner in which the Hindu deities were arranged. The chromolithographs his press produced boast gorgeous coloring and clear, bold lines that simultaneously make the human body an idealized form and a realistic shape. Many of the works in the exhibit are embellished with fabric and materials, creating a sense of humble, homespun craftsmanship.
Just about every middleclass household in India had a Varma reproduction during the peak of his popularity, and I suspect much has to do with the visual pleasantry of his work. The Hindu gods and goddesses are presented in handsome poses with serene faces, figures as approachable as a next door neighbor. The European influence on his aesthetic is clearly visible in his landscapes, which approach a soft form of Impressionism. In Monini (c1910), he portrays the Hindu temptress as a gorgeously harmless maiden on a swing, her sari covered in dazzling white beads and her mass of lush black hair a billowing anemone in the air. I'm reminded very much of Jean-Honoré Fragonard's The Swing, but with none of the pink frivolity.
Equally beautiful is Laxmi (1930), a quiet and endearing depiction of the goddess of wealth standing on a lotus flower. The lotus is classic Laxmi iconography, but her celestial powers are muted by the compositions feminine pinks and detailed, embellished floral work. In Varma's hands, Laxmi is a sort of exalted Every Woman. Some of his subjects do have an authoritative and imperial aura about them, such as the trifecta in Kodanda Rama (1930), a royal scene of Lord Rama, Lakshman, and Sita. This work doesn't have the embellishments of others in the exhibit, but Varma's use of line and scope showcase the three austere figures in a way that is also very much flesh-and-blood.
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Transcendent Deities also features the work of two contemporary artists who presents the Hindu pantheon through mediums and motifs of the twenty-first century. The first, Manjari Sharma, uses photography to recast the gods and goddesses in present day popular culture. The models for her work have their own stories as well, which provide an extension of sorts to the classic Hindu narratives. The sitter for her Maa Laxmi is a flight attendant; the woman's kind, domestic beauty gives the goddess a warm, familiar quality that is seemingly at odds with the gold coins streaming from her open palm and the ivory white elephants that flank her sides. There's a more humorous sense of juxtaposition in Maa Kali, the goddess of destruction. Her tongue juts out in a gruesome war face, but the wreath of heads around her waist looks like its dripping ketchup blood and have clearly been stylized so that they look anything but human. In this way, Kali's power is venerated at the same time that it's neutralized.
Abhishek Singh's hyper-stylized representations are inspired by comic book art and Japanese animation. In terms of form, his work is far less classical than Sharma's; he sheers away the traditional poses of the deities and uses their narratives and personas to create new images that have a bent towards science fiction and high fantasy. There's 2014's The Traveler (Radha and Krishna), which sees the bodies of the two holy persons blended together by swirling strokes of black ink, their torso lithe and nymph-like. The Traveler would be a piece of veneration art used for worship if Radha and Krishna had originated in Japan rather than India. Similarly, his Krishna - A Journey Within might as well be a still from a future Hayao Miyazaki.
The Verdict: This is a mystifying exhibit filled with rich visuals that successfully captures the allure, power, and magnanimity of the Hindu deities, but it's also successful in showing their true importance in the lives of their followers. I have to agree with the concluding comment of my date; on paper, I was initially interested in the contemporary art work of Sharma and Singh, but on actually visiting the exhibit, I was left entranced by the formalism and mannered beauty of the Raja Ravi Varma Press chromolithographs.
Transcendent Deities of India: The Everyday Occurrence of the Divine runs through September 14 at Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore Boulevard. For information, call 713-496-9901 or visit www.asiasociety.org/Texas.