Fire on the Ganges is an insightful yet compassionate book that hits hard with its bare facts by examination of the systemic gaps within a highly stratified society that systematically marginalises the specific community of the Doms, depriving them of even the basic remnants of humanity.
There is a striking difference between Hindu religious paintings and sculptures and Renaissance art in how mythological images are portrayed. In Hindu imagery, there is a strong emphasis on ornate decorations, starting from goldthreaded silk attires to jewellery with elaborate designs, garlands around the neck, and massive tiaras or other headgear.
These are common features, whether these figures are worshipped as idols in temples or displayed in the form of paintings on walls.
Even the background vistas are filled with colourful items like hills, rivers, abundant floral arrangements, leafy trees, roaming peacocks, and deer.
One would be hardpressed to just see the faces of mythological figures. They all have beautiful but expressionless faces with similar large dark eyes with long eyelashes, rosy cheeks, bright red lips, and a third eye on the forehead for some. I could never tell looking at an idol of Maa Durga if she was angry, happy, or proud of her triumph over Mahishasura; she always seems to be in a half-meditative state, ready to bless all her disciples.
Exposed parts of the bodies of even the males give one the impression of a young, plump figure with smooth joints, soft skin, and round faces.
The Greco-Roman art of the Renaissance era, on the other hand, depicts human figures in their natural forms with very little dressing up, whether they are painted or sculpted. Most of the figures are scantily dressed, if not completely nude, displaying the muscular bodies of the males and delicately beautiful curvy female figures.
They inspire not just religious fervour but a creative urge to replicate them in some way.
A conclusion about the connection between art and God becomes inescapable. The images also personify the characters in mythology so that one can almost identify with their emotions.
The only Hindu goddess appearing naked is Mother Kali, but she is depicted covering most of her body with heads and arms she chopped off in her raging act of decimating the demons. She invokes a feeling of fear, not artistic inspiration.
The recent trend in Durga puja pandals in Kolkata has been to present the idols of Maa Durga and her children in a non-traditional fashion. In any given pandal, images of all the figures are constructed in a unique way and follow a certain theme. The theme can be Egyptian art, Mayan art, space robots, ancient statues, medical concepts (portraying coronavirus as a demon, for example), military conflicts, recent political events, and many others.
Sree Bhumi Sporting Club has gone one step further. They not only changed the presentation of idols; they also changed the appearance of the entire puja pandal to give it an international flavour.
In 2021, they designed the pandal as a 145-foot-tall scaled-down replica of Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building in Dubai. In 2022, the pandal was designed in the form of St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican.
As a result, visiting the puja pandals has become an exercise in appreciation of art and architecture in addition to a religious celebration.
The presentation of pandals in the form of Islamic or Christian landmarks at a major Hindu festival also adds a secular feel to the event. While this trend has become immensely popular, it overemphasises the creativity of the artist and novelty of the concept, not the deities themselves, who should be the centre of our attention.
No one, neither the potter nor the priest nor the visitors, seems to pay any attention to the emotional display of the deities. By contrast, when I visited Italy for the first time, I was awed by how the mythological figures were drawn or sculpted by the Renaissance artists of Rome and Florence, who not only displayed their physiques but also their emotional states. My idol is Michelangelo. His two statues, “Pieta ” in Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome and “David” in Florence, are probably the two most beautiful statues in the world.
I can almost feel the pain of Mother Mary when I look at Pieta. David is the perfect male figure, majestically and nonchalantly standing seventeen feet tall, completely naked, and contemplating his next move against Goliath.
Michelangelo’s paintings of the Sistine Chapel remain unparalleled even to this day in terms of the enormity of the displays; they reflect all the emotions of dozens of human beings, including grief, terror, joy, pain, etc., as well as the details of their physical appearances.
I have often fantasised about what would have happened if Michelangelo were commissioned to paint or sculpt figures presenting stories from Hindu mythological tales on the walls and ceilings of famous temples in India.
There are literally hundreds of scenes just from epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata that provide an opportunity for reinterpretation in a different style of art. In addition to the external architecture, the interior of temples can then become an item of attraction, not just for religious salvation but for appreciation of art, just like Roman churches.
It is likely that this will remain a fantasy because tinkering with religious images in temples is taboo. I applaud the younger generation of Kolkata for their effort to break away from the traditional way of displaying religious idols, at least in outdoor pandals. It is a shame that the creations are only temporary and dismantled as soon as the puja is over. I do not know if this trend will spread to other displays, especially the permanent ones on temple grounds.
However, inspired by the recent images of Durga idols in Kolkata, I have e mbarked on the task of painting some scenes from Hindu mythology in the style of Michelangelo’s Renaissance art. One of them is titled “Rescue of Manu (the father of mankind) by Lord Brahma ” and obviously taken from the famous “Creation of Adam ” by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Note that Brahma is flying on his carrier, a swan, with all his children.
According to MatsyaPurana, the entire earth was flooded, and Manu was the only one who survived the flood by constructing a wooden boat that took him to a mountain top. The second one is an adaptation of Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement” on the walls of the Sistine Chapel, and I named my painting “The Last Salvation”.
I have transformed the image of Christ into an image of Sri Gouranga as an embodiment of Lord Krishna, engaged in Kirtan with his followers on the road of Puri near the Jagannath temple. Their only hope of salvation is a complete surrender to Lord Gouranga.
Finally, I present one of Maa Durga to celebrate the upcoming puja season, where each figure is an adaptation of a sculpture from the Renaissance era. I have painted a few more. If I can continue, this will be a great way to devote my retirement years to something unique and productive.
These works, which bring east and west together, would be a perfect symbol of my bi-cultural life, and I also like the implied secularism.