Traditional Indian piety makes way for pop culture images of Hindu gods

By Emily Wax
Sunday, June 13, 2010; A11

NEW DELHI -- Nestled between the wedding sari boutiques and hipster jean shops, there's a store in the city's most popular shopping mall that's playing with the gods.

The fashion, art and design store has funky throw pillows depicting a psychedelic-looking Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music and the creative arts. She's lounging on her pink lotus while swans float nearby and smaller versions of her likeness play the flute, drums and sitar.

There are retro journals, too, each featuring a particular god or goddess and a cheeky back story about the deity's personality and dramas. "Ganesha is a foodie, and is crazy about ladoos [Indian sweets]," one says of the elephant-headed Hindu god.

Not all that long ago, that kind of cheeky irreverence about Hinduism's most-sacred deities might have caused riots in the streets. Krishna on a mouse pad? Monkey-headed Hanuman on a drink coaster? Unimaginable a few years back.

But today they are just a (mostly) accepted sign of how young, urban Indians are changing the way they view themselves and their society. Market experts say it's also a sign of how India, an increasingly affluent and globalized society, is able to see itself through the eyes of the rest of the world.

"Young India is imagining what it can be. And it sees an abundance of inspiration in our culture, our religion, our streets," said Hemant Dongre, an artist and one of the founders of Play Clan, the shop best known for the funky new take on the gods.

"The economy is opening up. This has inspired a whole generation of young Indians to be creative, break mental barriers and have fun with ideas and commerce," he said.

As more businesses use images of Hindu deities on handbags, stuffed animals, coffee mugs and the dresses of runway models, it is causing more fascinated buzz in artistic circles than anger among religious purists.

Still, censorship is a lingering issue in this Hindu-majority secular democracy, whose constitution ensures freedom of expression.

Muslim artist M.F. Husain is seen in the international art world as a master of contemporary Indian art. But Indian galleries are often afraid to show his work because hard-line Hindus are exasperated that some of it depicts Hindu goddesses in the nude. Protests, hundreds of court cases and arrest warrants drove him to exile. He now lives mainly in London, Dubai and Qatar.

This year, a Hindu group in the United States asked for the recall of a Hanuman doll, saying that it is inappropriate to use Hindu deities for commercial gain and that it is offensive to devotees.

But young pop culture artists and comedians say they are increasingly able to make jokes about religion.

"Religion is a dangerous place to play in India, even though it's a country that has religion on every street corner," said Papa CJ, a well-known comic who hosts a new open mike night for young comedians in New Delhi. "But now, as a comedian, we can slowly dance on that line and stretch it. The new generation is more open to that. And comedy is the best vehicle for questioning a society."

Bhavani Puri, a bridal-wear designer, wore an ash-gray hooded sweat shirt painted with sadhus, or Hindu holy men, as she described her views on the intersection of religion, fashion and Indian culture.

"Indian religion and culture is now open to new concepts," said Puri, who has two young daughters. "The divine beings are depicted like cute icons and that makes them more relatable. What's great is that the younger, educated, college-going children would appreciate these deities depicted in a new and improved way, because they would not put up a traditional image in their rooms."

Shopping nearby was Seema Malhotra, who works in the fashion industry. She said the artwork is not offensive but helpful.

"Places like Play Clan are keeping our traditions alive for young Indians," Malhotra said. "In today's day and age, we don't even have time to frequent temples. Elements of our culture have been forgotten, and representing gods and goddesses helps us to learn about Indian culture in a fun way."

Special correspondent Ria Sen contributed to this report.

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