Saturday, August 20, 2011

Darshan: A Conversation with Photographer Manjari Sharma

A step in creating the first Darshan image

Manjari Sharma is a photographer from Mumbai, India, currently based in New York City.  Before moving to the U.S., she worked for her national news daily, The Times of India.  In her most recent project, Darshan, Ms. Sharma and her team are creating photographic depictions of Hindu deities.  The extensive project is being partially underwritten through the grass roots support of many individuals throughout the world via the crowdfunding entity Kickstarter.    

Patrick McNally: Thank you so much for sharing your work and this conversation on The Daily Undertaker. Photography is a special medium. Although photography is ubiquitous, it can elicit a wonder in us that other art forms cannot. I remember specifically a book I had as a child that was illustrated with photos of three dimensional models of the characters in the story. Although it was clear that the work was fictional the use of photography brought me into the story like magic. 
What is the importance of using a photograph to evoke a spiritual response? Does creating this kind of image with an art form that is experienced as a reality, and that is used by nearly everyone in the world to create images of themselves and their families bring us closer to a relationship with the divine? What kind of response do you hope to elicit? 

Manjari Sharma: I hope that people realize that this photo is a constructed set and everything fictional has been concretely created by the human hands. So in a sense if you think about it, when every element that goes into the construction of this image aims for perfection the image takes form of god. The creation of this image becomes itself an act of devotion. The photograph is plagued with the baggage of being the record keeper. It has been used to lend a believability, so when people look at an image, they would like to believe it really happened. In this project the photos I make are events that really take place. The event is the making of the photograph, but the result I hope to achieve should let one forget it is a place they can go visit or stumble upon. It's interesting what you bring up because It's a suspension of that belief of reality that allows us to enjoy the mind of a painter or sculptor. My photo may be made of concrete parts but I aim for the final result to feel other worldly or unreal. Unreal moments can be fashioned out of concrete reality and that is my favorite challenge of using photography. 

Maa Laxmi, the first Darshan Image

PM: In western cultures there is an interesting iconoclastic tradition that excludes photographic depictions of the divine. Perhaps it is seen as base or presumptuous, like naming your child Jesus (thought this is common in Spanish speaking groups and the name Chris is quite common), or being too familiar, or informal with God. Perhaps there is also an issue of identifying God in too specific a manner. With a clear photograph, we see the exact color of hair and hair style, the exact complexion and skin texture. Still, there is a long tradition of representations of the divine in paint and sculpture. Do you find any similarities in India? Is there a kind of aesthetic taboo there about photographic representations of the divine? 

MS: I don't believe there is a taboo. But there is responsibility to treat a subject matter with respect and accuracy. There is little tolerance for mockery and inaccurate depictions are just not accepted and are poorly received in the culture. For example, Lord Ganesh shown in a painting or a sculpture or in any medium without the presence of his devotee the mouse will be considered a fault of the artist's rendering. Some may even go to the level of not keeping such a piece of art in their home and considering it a bad omen. There is no restriction of medium as such in Hindusim but the subject matter should be treated in the revered manner it deserves to be. In terms of names also people are often named after the name of gods and goddesses. Laxmi, Krishna, Ram are all commonly used names in India. In fact a child named after a God is done with puprose in order to imbibe the values of that God into the child.

A Team member working on  the set for the Maa Laxmi photograph

PM: Your work is painstaking in its accuracy. Each aspect of the photo must be correct to the tradition of the God it depicts. Is your work a kind of devotional? Is it a way for you, through your careful and creative actions to live out your relationship to these Gods? 

MS: The creation of the image independently of any organized religion is a very spiritual process for me. Painstaking accuracy drives human beings to raise the bar on performance. Spirituality and accuracy both require one to get into a zone of concentration, hence the result mirrors both those concepts soundingly. I have always been drawn to mythology and creative moral based stories. Hinduism is full of them. As I delve deeper into each mythological character, my awe continues grow by leaps and bounds. It makes me respect the tradition I come from extensively. The process of then photographically depicting these characters in the most convincing, accurate and spiritual manner, poses it's own technical challenges. Carrying out photographic process of course pleases a totally different / technical aspect of my mind. So to answer your question, Darshan is my act of devotion to art and to religion. Two aspects of my life that I will continue to be a student of.

An image from Ms. Sharma's Anastasia series

PM: It seems that you operate in this project under a strict set of rules as to what is allowed and what should not be allowed. Do you engage in any post production manipulation of your images? What are the rules under which you operate? 

MS: I try to keep the post production to a bare minimum. One reason why it is being shot on film is that it raises the bar on production from everyone in the team. It's not digital and I say that to crew members very explicitly. I want the colors to be as accurate and the proportions to be perfect. We are in the age and time where everything I am shooting in camera in this project  could be created in Photoshop... then why have a crew and why have people construct from scratch? I am not interested in changing the size of the elephants in my post production. Also I feel it's in tune with the concept. To be dedicated to the process and not give up, whether art or spirituality is a big part of pushing oneself to the next level. By shooting on film which is a more unforgiving format than digital, we all have to leave aside any sloppy post production dependency and spend more time pre visualizing. 

Manjari Sharma

PM: You mention that your parents are members of the extensive team of contributors on this project. What has this experience been like? Do you find that it is difficult to fulfill the roles of daughter and project director? How has ther involvement shaped your experience and the end result? 

MS:  Yes they are certainly heavy contributors. I am in the process of planning compositions and stories for the rest of the shots as I type. I find it is very rewarding or them to see me in the role of a director and realize what magnitude of involvement photo creation entails. It's great for them to learn of the intricacies of my process as I've been learning theirs my whole life. What their involvement has greatly influenced is my approach toward the subjects that play the role of the deities. Trusting that I may control all the aspects as much as I want, but to remember that the piece will still be need the universe's blessing to succeed is the greatest contribution from my parents. My parents have a way of saying things at the height of my most challenging moments that can put me at ease. Having perspective that if you have faith, you will receive the grace you need to complete something of this stature is an important one... and they do a fantastic job of reminding me of the humility a project like this needs. 

An image from Ms. Sharma's Homeland series

PM: One of the most fascinating comments you made in your Kickstarter video was a comparison between temples and art museums. Certainly those interested in art can visit temples to appreciate the artwork present there, and the spiritual can visit galleries to experience the variety and wonder of representations of this and other worlds. I have never really heard the comparison made as you have, but it rings so true to my own experience. What do we have to gain spiritually through a relationship with art? 

MS: It's a matter of context. When you isolate something and change the context you are studying it in, you learn about it from an angle you perhaps ignored or didn't pay as much attention to before. You have very accurately picked up on my intention, Patrick. I am looking for people who may not otherwise enter a Hindu temple to maybe go into a museum and get to study these images in a place that won't have the baggage that a house of worship or religion does. To look at spirituality, photography and mythology and study it's interrelation can be it's own subject for a PHD.  But to answer you succinctly, in my opinion, our reason to respond favorably to piece of art is not something we always sit and dissect,  but it's because the art invokes an emotional response of some sort within us. Art has a way to find a passage to our souls. The art we are drawn to is one way to learn about our what what our mind is composed of. In my opinion, our choices in life certainly define our character, so in a sense studying our relationship with a piece of art and what we get from it is also a self study. And a study of our selves is what ultimately leads to being a truer, more spiritually aware artist and/or appreciator. 

An image from Ms. Sharma's Haridwar series

PM: The art that has become cultural treasure throughout the world, was often financed by patrons who sought glory for themselves or some way to get closer to the divine. In your case, there is an opportunity for people on a grass roots level to underwrite a significant part of your cost through your involvement with kickstart. What does this kind of potential patronage bring to your expression? 

MS: Kickstarter or other crowdfunding websites give an artist access to reaching out the public at large. The crowd comes away with something of value in exchange for their pledge besides feeling good about funding a project they believe should lead to fruition. The same prints being offered on Kickstarter will have a different value once the project is funded so the rewards have an element of collect-ability. The greatest thing about a big crowd backing your effort is that it reinforces the power of the universe. This project as opposed to others I have previously worked on takes a team to create, as you know. Similar to what my parents remind me as I mentioned above, is the fact that it takes the universe, meaning a lot more than what one person can give from within themselves, for an event to occur. The energy of the building press and backers for this project is testimonial to that. Going back to create a project like this with this endorsement is extremely invigorating.

Darshan from Manjari Sharma on Vimeo.

PM: What do you think that art and ritual expression can bring to the experience of death and memorialization? 

MS:  The common thread between all of the above is the study of the human mind. Good art besides evoking a response in a viewer has the ability to become memorable. Art and rituals have a repetitive pattern.  Rituals become memorable through action, and art subjectively becomes memorable for a variety of reasons that are reflective of our nostalgia, memory, emotion and our sense of belonging and relativity to a subject matter. Art and rituals with their sense of repetition certainly contribute to memorialization.  As far as death is concerned, in Hinduism, death is looked upon as regeneration of energy. Some lead their lives believing that certain ritual expression can bring them closer to a desired after life of Nirvana. The study of how various people approach rituals is a fascinating study of the human mind, which is our common thread here. Exposure to Art brings us to decode, appreciate, evaluate and bring humor and reason to life from multiple perspectives. Darshan is about art and ritual expression, but to me it's just as much a study of the human mind and how we correlate and isolate a subject like spirituality. And spirituality undoubtedly is tied to life and death and everything else in between.

Another image from the Haridwar series
My Thanks to Manjari Sharma for sharing her work and thoughts.  to expereince more of her work and to learn how you can help to underwrite this project, visit her site:

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