Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Temple in a Frame

God Posters For and Of Worship

Fig.04
Ravi Varma’s depiction of Mandodari has spawned no thematic offspring, but his Lakshmi has given birth to an abundance of children (Fig. 04).  Generally, subsequent poster artists have not appropriated Varma’s narrative scenes, but certain iconic designs of his have provided the starting point for prolific artistic adaptation.  These themes include his renderings of standing Lakshmi, seated Sarasvati, and the family of Shiva.  In the Smith Poster Archive, housed at Syracuse University Library, one finds more that a dozen later renderings of each of these themes by later artists, in each of which the fealty to Ravi Varma’s original vision is unmistakable.
Yet it would be a mistake to view the later posters as simple imitations.  On the one hand, the artists and publishers are constrained in certain ways within a commercial religious art sphere.  As the artist H. P. Singhal commented in an interview with Daniel Smith, everyone knows what the gods look like.  If they want their works to be produced and purchased, the artists must observe certain visual and iconographic conventions in their renderings of the deities.  (Some deities do seem to more susceptible than others to visual innovation, Ganesha most of all.)  However, within this format of what “everyone knows” the gods look like, which was often enough first taught to “everyone” by Ravi Varma, there is still considerable room for artistic adaptation and imaginative re-envisioning.  Much of this later adaptation moves in the direction of worship: artists have often modified their designs to create images more suitable to the purposes of worship.
Fig.05

We can compare the initial design of Ravi Varma’s Lakshmi with later treatments of the same goddess, in the same posture, to identify some of the ways poster artists have done this.  The important South Indian artists C. Kondiah Raju and T. S. Subbiah, active in the 1960s and 1970s, also depict a four-armed Lakshmi standing in a large pick lotus located in a waterfall-fed pool, but they alter their presentation of the goddess in several significant respects (Fig. 05). They have pushed Lakshmi farther forward in the image, so she occupies a much larger proportion of the frame.  Indeed, here she seems to emerge from the natural setting rather than being simply a part of nature.  Her eyes are much more pronounced, and her expression seems to beckon the viewer more directly.  The artists have used brighter, more vivid colors, especially in the dress, crown, and ornaments of the goddess.  And they have accentuated the items of iconographical significance to Lakshmi, such as the lotuses in her hands and the garland-holding elephant in the pool.

 
 

Fig.06

Kondiah Raju and Subbiah have also portrayed Lakshmi in seated posture, as have many other poster artists.  In the Kondiah Raju-Subbiah rendering in the Priya Paul Collection, the artists emphasize Lakshmi’s iconic features still more dramatically (Fig. 06). The natural landscape has been replaced by indeterminate blue background, and the goddess is now enhanced  by a halo of five or more circles of yellow, magenta, and pink. The elephant has disappeared, but here we see a stream of gold coins emerging from Lakshmi's right palm and collecting in a large green platter. This is the aspect of the goddess identified as Dhana Lakshmi, the bountiful goddess of wealth.

Fig.07

Finally, one more image of a seated Lakshmi, by the still-active artist C. Vishnu, will take us still further from the vision of Ravi Varma into the realm of the iconic (Fig. 07).Vishnu brings back elephants, who shower the goddess in her aspect as Gaja Lakshmi, yet he also maintains the stream of wealth that Lakshmi dispenses.  Her ornamentation here has reached an unsurpassable brilliance.  Once again she gazes directly at the viewer, with accentuated open eyes and a hint of a generous smile.  We should also observe what Vishnu has included below the great pink lotus-seat in front of Lakshmi.  In addition to the coin-collection plate there is another gold platter filled with open coconut, bananas, grapes and other fruit suitable for offering as worship to a goddess.  On each side of the plates, also resting on lotus pads, sit two oil lamps.  The introduction of elements of puja into the image, usually in the lower portion of the poster appearing closer to the viewer, provides a mirroring within the frame of the worship that a pious owner would offer to the goddess in the icon-poster outside its frame.  The iconic image points to its own intended purpose.

 
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