Review: At the Carlos, ancient deities still transcendent

“The Transcendent Deities of India” suggests intriguing connections between traditional religious imagery and contemporary art practices of the subcontinent

by Jerry Cullum
January 22, 2020

Featured image: Vishnu-Garud Wahan, ca. 1920. Lithograph with fabric and embellishments. Lent by OJAS Art/Ramchander Nath Foundation.⁠ (Images courtesy Carlos Museum)

Transcendent Deities of India: The Everyday Occurrence of the Divine, at the Carlos Museum through May 17, sounds like it might be a show introducing viewers to the art of Hindu popular devotion—which is an excellent and valuable subject, but is not, and please forgive the old-school idiom, everyone’s cup of tea.

However, that is not what this show, organized by the Asia Society Texas Center, is about. It is about how three Indian artists in three different centuries have found ways to make new and different art about Hinduism’s divine beings and the stories that accompany their worship. When looked at closely, “Transcendent Deities of India” delves into potential depths of art and global politics, but it connects with so many themes of interest to the proverbial “general audience” that we have here, not the original cup of tea, but a whole menu of currently fashionable beverages.

Raja Ravi Varma photographed in the 1890s by Bhawani Ram (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

I’m cheating a little with the “three centuries” reference, because Raja Ravi Varma lived in the last years of the Victorian era and a few years into the twentieth century, while Abhishek Singh and Manjari Sharma are from a generation of contemporary artists who derive their aesthetic from a globalized culture, shaped by graphic novels in Singh’s case and ambitiously theatrical art photography in Sharma’s. But the chronological gap is less extreme than it seems; Varma’s transformation of Hindu religious art had a lasting impact on the twentieth-century culture of India, the culture that Sharma re-invents in photography for the twenty-first century and Singh reinterprets in terms of a popular imagination in the midst of enormous changes. The show jumps from the days of the British colonial Raj to the present day while leaving out most of the past hundred years, but even the oldest questions it raises are still with us.

Raja Ravi Varma, Mohini

The show touches on many questions that it doesn’t spell out in detail; for example, it would be quite possible to look at Varma’s part of the show as a textile exhibition. Varma was determined to bring devotional art into conversation with the visual language of European painting, and his gods and goddesses appear in poses derived from Fragonard or Botticelli, but their surroundings and attire are traditional even when rendered in a style influenced by Western European models. Varma imported chromolithography equipment to turn his vision into mass-market prints, and the people who bought them paid homage to the divinities by stitching sumptuous garments onto their paper images, in much the same way that less humble objects of worship are honored in temples—a practice that is followed in more than one religion, but that is a topic for another exhibition. Several differently decorated copies of the same chromolithograph are presented here, to make the point about popular practice and to illustrate the range of popular needlework.

Raja Ravi Varma (Indian, 1848-1906). Chandra, ca. 1925. Lithograph with fabric and embellishments. Lent by OJAS Art/Ramchander Nath Foundation.

From this nineteenth-century point of origin, much developed in the century of art history that is not part of this show.  The argument over whether accepting European styles was a surrender to foreign domination or a way of opening up Indian culture to a world economy has continued through all the years that have come after Varma’s time.

There is much, much more to Singh’s story, including how he came to create comic books for a company co-founded by a son of Deepak Chopra who changed his name from Gautama to Gotham because its similar pronunciation was more familiar to the consumers of popular culture with whom he had to deal. But that, again, is not part of this show, except in the copies of the books that accompany the framed and matted artworks on the wall.

Abhishek Singh (Indian, born 1982). Let Go (from KRISHNA: A Journey Within), 2010. Digital print. Lent by the artist.

In fact, that debate and that concern may well be this show’s unacknowledged bridge to the drawings and writings of Singh, who has devoted himself to bringing the reframed images and stories of Hindu divinities to a generation for whom the world of global mass-market superheroes has seemed more meaningful. His vigorous drawings return the gods and goddesses to the forest and river from which they originally came (Singh states this as a literal fact—the earliest places of worship were sites in natural settings). During his week-long residency at Emory University, he produced a new painting devoted to the elephant-headed god Ganesha whom Singh has chosen as a vehicle through whom to introduce audiences to environmental issues involving elephants.

Manjari Sharma, Lord Ganesha

Elephant-headed Ganesha, the remover of difficulties, recurs in Sharma’s large-scale photography, but here he appears in a form that translates yesterday’s multi-tinted chromolithographs into today’s digitally enhanced color images, done with live models and studio tableaux created with the help of set builders from a community that knows the original references intimately. This places the work firmly in the context of female photographers in other non-European cultures who are re-reading tradition in the context of the contemporary condition, but unlike most of them, Sharma is more interested in re-creating the devotional archetype than in critiquing it. Like Singh, Sharma wants to bring out what is good and valuable in the old images and the even older stories by updating their mode of presentation, in a form that speaks to a present-day viewer. In so doing, she alludes to trends in contemporary photography that are, once again, not part of this exhibition.

Raja Ravi Varma, Kothanda Rama

The fact that Transcendent Deities of India thus suggests at least three possible other exhibitions indicates that it provides a framework for considerable additional lectures and activities—and this is exactly what the Carlos has planned for the run of the show, on topics ranging from the scholarly to the family-friendly.

Jerry Cullum, an Atlanta poet, scholar, and longtime art critic, holds a Ph.D. from Emory University and has published in a wide variety of popular and scholarly venues and media.

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