Contemporising a goddess
FEB 18 2011
A news item in Kantipur on Feb. 13 attracted my attention. The news was about an objection from the Forum for Hindu Awakening, a US-based religious organisation, to Nepali artist Ragini Upadhaya Grela's painting depicting the Hindu goddess Saraswati. According to the news, the Forum asked Ragini to take the painting off her website. The report reminded me of the same painting that I photographed during the opening of Ragini's exhibit Love in the Air in February 2009. I was particularly fascinated by that particular piece because Ragini's Saraswati did not represent the traditional, iconic image of the goddess; instead it re-imagined the traditional image in the context of contemporary life. Most of the artwork in the exhibition dealt with the theme of an increasingly integrated global world order—a liberal utopian world where, despite cultural and geographical differences, love was a possibility. Most of the works reflected mixed images of god and political leaders. Others showed modern gadgets and cupids flying over world-famous monuments. In addition to the theme of love, some of her work represented serious concerns over the failings of national politics.
Particularly striking were the works in which the artist self-incarnated into the mythical matriarchal figures of powerful goddesses like Saraswati and Durga, seemingly concerned over the failing political scenario in post-conflict Nepal. Love did seem to be in the air as political parties had finally reached an agreement on rewriting the constitution; however, all was not well. Ragini's artwork represented the troubled national psyche in the land of temples where gods and goddesses reside. In the painting that is now stirring a controversy, Ragini projects herself as a modern Saraswati riding her vahan—a white swan—holding mystical weapons as well as a keyboard, a computer display and a cell phone. Such a representation of the goddess of knowledge, synthesising modern and traditional imagery, generated new perspectives from which to understand new forms of knowledge. In other words, Saraswati received a makeover for the techno-age.
There were other works where devotional iconographies of Saraswati and Durga were re-imagined in modern, mortal forms and woven within the post-conflict political framework which, to me, looked appealing and appropriate for the moment. Her works were conscripted within a specific political background and overlaid with new religious imaginations. The deity in a new form looked in no way offensive or demeaning. Rather, such a portrayal allowed a new critical perspective to emerge. What is the reason behind the current controversy then? Is it because the iconic representation does not represent the goddess in her traditional form? Or is the modified representation sacrilege?
Disagreeing to assent to the rigidity of traditional iconography, the artist constructed an altered image of a contemporary Saraswati. By reinterpreting the conventions of religious iconography, she explored the possibilities of re-imagining the traditional image into new, agreeable forms. Gyatri Spivak, an art critic, argues that if we can learn fixed meanings for terms through the processes of ideological interpellation, we can also 'unlearn' those meanings by questioning their fixity. In this case, self-representation of the artist as Saraswati can be seen as an example of such 'unlearning'. Her self-incarnated divine image challenges fixed knowledge-centres and re-locates them to keyboards that anyone can access. On another level, maybe Ragini was 'unlearning' the traditional cultic imagery of the goddess of knowledge and re-imagining a goddess in every mortal human being, including herself. As I see it, the painting is not only liberal and religious, but also very political because it captures the mood of historic times when the power of mortals forced a supposed incarnation of Vishnu to step down. In addition, the embodiment of the artist in devotional iconic features, combined with material goods such as computers and a cell phone, in my understanding, was an effort to bring divinity and humanity closer in an age of modernity. The artist used free play of signifiers—both divine and mundane—to reconstruct divinity in a contemporary form. Combination of the half-human and half-divine figure demystified the beliefs and religious rigidities that have remained resistant to change, even when the nation has been undergoing multiple changes.
Benedict Anderson argues in his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism that "print capitalism" has unleashed the new power of technology on the world, and the revolution of mass media has helped create new cultural affinities and national borders. While Ragini's exhibition was similarly concerned with the technological aspects of globalisation, it simultaneously pointed to the blurring of national and religious borders because of technology. Her paintings also imagine newer religious and mythical forms to redefine cultural meanings in Nepal's post-conflict period. Instead of reproducing religious icons mechanically, she tried to fill in elements of its presence in time and space. She merely revised the political and divine 'aura' of the period and used her artistic imagination to create new, emergent forms in the age of mechanical reproduction. People need to understand that the image that caused the current controversy is not merely meant to be a simple reproduction of the religious icon.
I have come to believe that we can form as many religious fraternity groups as we want, but if doctrinaire religious views are not redefined, no group will lead anyone anywhere. In times of virtual reality, when cultic-gods are being replaced by techno-gods, when some spiritual babas have formed political parties and have crusaded against political corruption while other babas have acquired a new taste for hi-fi commercial commodities like Rolex watches and fancy communicative gadgets, why can't an iconic god or goddess take on a new, agreeable makeover? Knowledge is never stagnant; it is a stream of fresh and free thoughts that flows across the horizon of our daily experiences. Religious knowledge can only survive if it redefines itself into pragmatic moralism, rooted in humanitarian values and causes. Unless we redefine and rewrite
rigid theological metaphysical beliefs, those beliefs will never reach new heights. Chained, domesticated religious interpretations and rigid theological dogmas will eventually lose religious credentials.
Ragini's painting is about more than the religious aspect—it has successfully blended contextual political concerns and religious concerns in an alternative humanitarian form that de-constitutes and situates (but never rejects) the essence of religious imagination.
Published in Kathmandu Post