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Faith, practice and devotion with artist Manjari Sharma


Brooklyn-based artist Manjari Sharma chats with editor Cynthia Sciberras about how her Indian mothers devotion and prayer impacted her splendid unique Darshan series, and the how The Shower Series became a journey for connection and collaboration.


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We were lucky enough to have your stunning series in Issue #1.  Could you share the uniqueness of Darshan and where it’s at now?

I think that it’s always tricky to speak about the uniqueness of something. But I can definitely start by saying that it was unique to me in that I was creating a rendering that wasn’t a painting or a sculpture of these Hindu gods and goddesses, which is what I had growing up seeing. Photography as a medium is a form of representation very unique in that it was known to the world as a medium of record. The way that people understood a photograph was that it was proof. You see a photograph of a coffee cup and you know that it actually happened. A photo is here to tell you that it really was. So that puts it in a very interesting place when you are doing fictive narrative. It’s proof of my imagination. It’s proof that someone created it. But it’s no proof that it actually was there. I feel like that is where the whole idea of these paintings and sculptures of them being the dominant way of experiencing these Hindu renderings. It is that somebody saw or read something from the scripture or saw their mothers or their aunts and created what we have come to accept as representation of Hindu gods. This is a photograph and if there is a person in there, it is a person that you are looking at in the photograph. A person was actually there. And that person is playing the part of god. And it’s done with as much spiritual entity as you can assign to it, in the sense that detail is not ignored.


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Can you share the process and  logistics in bringing this to life  – with so many people taking part in the actual building of each of these deities?

It started of with me wanting to create my first image in January 2011. It was conceptualised in the fall of 2010. I remember running it by a friend of mine and asking  “Why isn’t there an actual photograph?” And he was like, “I don’t know, maybe you should create one”, and I was like “Well that’s what I’m thinking of doing.“

I mean my first attempt was literally me, by myself on my rooftop with a lot of rental objects and it to be honest the proportions were off  and totally funny looking, and you know I still have those outfits and I look at them and think ‘Oh my god, I had no idea what I was doing.’

Basically my first was Lakshmi, and it had to be created three times over. The very first attempt was me going to all these places where they actually have props that are rented to these television crews and to theatre, and I went to get rental elephants and rental lotus flower. I went to this fabric shop and it was a very weird clash,.it actually looked very amusing quite honestly and it was because it really wasn’t given the detail it needs in order to really look larger than life.  I was like ‘I have so much work to do.’ So I went back to the drawing board. First of all I cannot use rental elephants. It became clear that if I really want to create this appropriately I will really need to work in proportion, and I will need to work with object creators, with people who actually fashion props in proportion to a preplanned composition. So everything kind of broke to everything being in proportion to the actual Lakshmi , which is important because she is the dominant. Here is my Lakshmi and she is six feet, seven, sorry five feet seven inches tall.

And we are talking about India?

Yeah India, all of these were made in India. It was easier for me to be like where am I making my Lakshmi. An instant image came to everyone’s head. We were all starting on the same page of knowing exactly who Lakshmi is and how many times we’d seen her – going to the bank, crossing the street – she’s everywhere in India. I mean all of these guys are everywhere. I wouldn’t say there’s no escape but they are so interwoven.  A packet of chai will have a photograph of her. The name of these gods are the names of the people. Their stories inspire every facet of Indian life. To have those workers as a part of the project was very important because they knew Lakshmi enough visually. So we weren’t starting with “Let me tell you who Lakshmi is”, which made a big difference to my process because there was a lot of explaining, a lot of break down weeks and weeks of preparation.

It was obviously definitely more affordable in India too. It was also conceptually way more appropriate because a lot of people were like “Oh, I love Ma Lakshmi.” That sense of devotion made it a lot easier and a lot more passionate. It also made it a little bit easier to get discounts.  I hate to say this but it’s very true. A lot of these people were like: “I’d do this at a different price if you weren’t doing Ma Lakshmi.” There was definitely that sense of honour to be on the project..

So the first image was successful to me. Finally after all those repeats I came back to New York and I was like “Wow, I’ve taken on something that is going to need a lot of people, a lot of money and if I want to succeed..” I went on Kickstarter and I raised some money and I went back to India, and the crew got bigger, and this time the crew was around 35 people, generously all of the people I needed to have. The interesting thing that I learned with making the next four images with a larger crew, was that a larger crew didn’t mean better functionality or faster work, sometimes only meant money can buy you more people but not necessarily more brain power or efficiency. So for my last four, my team got a little bit smaller, it got down to around 30 again and there was a few extra people that were there, its easier to get labor but its harder to get labor that knows what its doing. And so my last batch of people I was very happy with, my creative director on the job had to be someone who really had a good crew of painters, sculptors and so I finally found that person, I found someone who really had brilliance. I definitely had a lot of help when the going got tough and the project had to be completed.


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What is interesting about that is the fact you stuck to your original need and desire for it to be as authentically done in the camera,  is that what people resonate with in this work?

I hoped that would be the case and I’m glad to hear that you feel that way because definitely there were a lot of shorter cuts that could have been taken, you know a lot of shorter cuts that make everything better time wise, money wise, life wise.  like my first half of Darshan was during pregnancy my second half of Darshan was with a six month old so it definitely complicated life, but I think anything good has to complicate life somehow.

So how long was that then from conception to the completion of the ninth image?

I’d say it was mentally started in 2010 fall and finished in 2013 fall. So three years.  Actually when I think about it I’m surprised that I got it done in three years because it’s a pretty big project but I also couldn’t believe how long it took. When I got to image number five, and it had been two years, I was like: “five images in two years? I’m never going to finish this project. I’m never going to get to number nine.” It felt so long. But now I look back and think for how much that had to be organised that wasn’t a terrible amount of time. I definitely get asked if I’m going to do more. I set out to do nine and I’ve done nine, and if I’m doing more I would need a partner who feels the need for more to be made. Sometimes I do feel I would love to see a book of 80 but I would need to have a Darshan factory. I’d have to have people on pay roll, I’d have to be officially funded by someone who felt the need, and you know perhaps there will be another point in my life to return to that but for right now, I’m in a satisfied place with nine.

So you grew up a Hindu in Mumbai, wondering was it important for you to go back to India in a way, I mean apart from all the obvious things like labor is cheaper and ultimately this is where the gods come from, but you talked about faith, practice and devotion in a way that was almost like what was guiding you?

Yes, oh definitely and towards my last trip I was going to the temples and recording the ambient sound of those temples. When the show debuted it, debuted with a complete installation of sight, sound  and smell because that is what a Darshan is. So you walked into the space and you can smell incense and you can see lamps and you could hear sounds of the temples from water flowing to distant chants to my mothers voice, whose chants I really grew up hearing. There was definitely a combination of all of this memory that formed, that behooved me to do the project in the first place. In English Darshan translates into “a glimpse of something”. But the glimpse is not just a visual glimpse, it’s auditory, it’s visual, it’s sensory, it’s smell, it’s moving, it’s glimmering. There’s many things that combine and form a Darshan that opens up your path, that is transcendental for sure.

There’s a lot of Darshans in India that you can go to. If you go to Indian temples, not everyone one of them you are open enough. The visual is not always in sync with your sense of transcendental reality. However whatever that magic mix is that takes you to a magic place is different. That’s why everyone’s Darshan is different. That’s why my Darshan might not be someone else’s Darshan. I thought it was very important for me to be in India because it did take me back. It did allow me to reconnect with that archive and create that fictive narrative rooted in the archive. The archive was all these temples that my parents took me to, or the land itself – its noise, its sounds, what it took to get to the temple, or the lines you stood in, or the people trying to sell you flowers on the way – everything that makes up that experience. If I didn’t immerse myself in it, I would be like – I could definitely clinically create these anywhere else, but you know it would not feel right.

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Can we talk about the shower series.  I was totally captivated by this series and I wanted to know how did you step into that project by asking people into your world, into the unknown collaboration and creating together, and into your home?

I think these projects are helping me to understand myself better, but you know I’m definitely a bubble piercer. If I had encountered somebody who’s not letting me in, I’m more interested in that person than I would ever be.  I want to be let in – in whatever fashion. Maybe it’s a way of letting myself feel. I come from a country where you feel welcome almost everywhere. People open their hearts easily and looking to connect. I feel like that’s a reason why Indians go into adventures at different parts of the world, and find a way to have a sense of belonging into the different countries that they travel to because Indian culture is very,“Hi, how are you are? Are you married? Where do you live? Have you had lunch? What do you want to eat?” What may be considered intrusive somewhere else is just making small talk in India. So as an Indian I got primed to get to the heart of whatever matter concerns me. This still happens to me. When I got to India and I’m like:  “I don’t want to talk about my life right now”, but somebody is interested about asking, I feel like I’ve learned to temper myself in this culture, where you take your time. You study this person, you go out for a few drinks, you don’t like open up and you don’t ask many questions either, you maintain this mystery and distance and if you still find yourself without accepting or asking someone out for drinks, you think. “Maybe I am entering into a friendship with this person. Maybe something is keeping me here.” Then at some point an invitation for a dinner party may come and then you know its serious. So, maybe I’m exaggerating because I’m not here to stereotype all Americans, but because that was exceptionally new for me when I came to New York. Maybe I was just searching for a meaningful conversation, and that I like to share. If I make a good cup of tea, I don’t feel my experience is complete until I’m drinking it with someone, so I was really thinking that that shower was a special little space.

The shower had something and everyone who showered in that ended up saying that. It wasn’t the pressure. There was something in that space that made me go there to think.  I just internally knew there was something special about it and started to bring others and was like: “Can we think together?” The hope is that you never truly figure out why you’ve done something. That’s how it should stay too. These are all hypothetical guesses for why. But bringing someone in there is the beginning.  It wasn’t like: “Come in here lets talk about something mind blowing.” The purpose was to take a photograph. Just like the purpose was to take a photograph for Darshan. But hopefully again the photography is the gateway to something bigger.  I feel like if a photograph helps you to open the doors of your exploration, then to me its doing its job.


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More on Manjari Sharma and her work

Images courtesy and copyright by the artist.




Art directed by God

Jen Lynch on India, self-realisation and her true love – filmmaking

Excerpt from Issue 1 of YOKE


“You know, it only takes one person to make pasta. And it’s nice to have other people around… But if everybody wants to stir it with the same spoon at the same time, it’s kind of a pasta cluster-fuck.”



Despite the Gods opens on filmmaker Jen Lynch perched in her director’s chair wryly surveying her Bollywood film set. It’s hot and dusty and there’s a background babble of car horns and scavenger birds fighting over scraps. A bored clapper loader strolls into shot and kicks at the dirt. Jen leans in towards us as if gossiping over a ciggie, “This is my pasta cluster-fuck.”

In the 1990s Jen Lynch made her mark penning The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, a spin-off from her father’s hit TV series Twin Peaks. At the ripe old age of 19, she directed her first screenplay, Boxing Helena. Shaken by the vicious critical reception to her “crazy fairytale” and spinal injuries sustained from a car accident, Jen did what she felt society wanted her to do – she became a mother.

Her desire to tell stories still burned.

In 2008, Jen made a splash with the successful indie psychological thriller Surveillance, and soon after formed a Bollywood/Hollywood alliance with producer Govind Menon to write and direct Hisss.

The plan was to modernise the ancient Indian legend of the Nagin, a powerful snake/woman, played by Bollywood star Mallika Sherawat. Jen uprooted her then 12-year-old daughter, Sydney, and relocated to India, where things didn’t quite go to plan.

Little did Jen know that she had signed up to explore her inner demons in a very public way. Australian director Penny Vozniak’s 2012 behind-the-scenes documentary Despite the Gods is the result. It’s a fascinating exploration of one woman’s struggle to do what she loves against all odds.

It’s early evening in LA when I Skype Jen at home. She finishes her cigarette, yanks the window closed as helicopters circle overhead, and apologises for rescheduling our chat after an unexpected 19-hour day shooting her new thriller, A Fall from Grace.

Jen has spoken about filmmaking doubling as a crash course in acceptance and self-realisation. In terms of Bollywood, I can see what she means about acceptance; union strikes, monsoons, artistic differences, scheduling delays, language barriers and heat waves appear par for the course. What I want to understand is why filmmaking for her is a course in self-realisation.

Jen pauses, her face framed by a melee of bleached dreadlocks. She furrows her brow then laughs. Jen Lynch laughs a lot.

“Wow. I love that you did this. Quoted me like that. I love it.”

Her large blue eyes search the ceiling for answers.

“In order to write a character and then help an actor fill the skin of that character, I sort of have to have been there myself. I have to learn about myself, where my soft spots and hard spots are. When I was writing Boxing Helena, Surveillance, Hisss, I asked myself, ‘What would it be like not being in the normal world, but to be you?’ I love to study people who are trapped somewhere or hobbled in some way, physically or emotionally.”

It seems apt that Jen found herself in a situation that was far from average – the unwitting hero of her own documentary/disaster movie.

“There were moments of joyous and hideous absurdity,” she smirks.

Many artists would have you believe the creative process is effortless. Those midnight doubts, external blocks and moments of deep despair are tucked safely behind the smoke and mirrors of the finished work. Yet on and off screen, Jen is willing to reveal all.

“My whole play on Hisss was Nagin, a strong woman who wasn’t going to take any crap. A woman who swallows men whole. I think they thought I was there to do one thing and I set out to do another. In the end it was a grand experiment in conquering my own inner demons – how do you express yourself when ultimately, that’s not what people are there to let you do?”

Pushing beyond exhaustion and frustration and making light of extremely trying circumstances, Jen exposes thoughts and emotions most of us would be terrified to share in real life, let alone on film.

I’m curious to know when Penny knew she had a documentary on her hands.

“After spending a week with Jen, I felt that she was a completely misunderstood filmmaker … complex, intelligent, often comedic … totally worth filming. She’s brave in her craft and these artists are ultimately crucified but they expand the genre, and we need them now more than ever. It was probably several months in that I really began to see the big picture …”

In the documentary, Jen is dogged in her conviction that she will survive the nightmarish shoot with a film – it just wasn’t the one she thought she was making.


Excerpt from Issue 1 of YOKE – Love /Loss



Despite the Gods is a feature documentary about Hollywood’s prodigal daughter. Jennifer Lynch is well known for making bold, if not ill-fated, choices in her filmmaking career. But nothing could prepare her for the unmapped territory of Bollywood-Hollywood movie making, where chaos is the process and filmmaking doubles as a crash course in acceptance and self-realization. Director: Penny Vozniak, Producer: Karina Astrup, Editor: Melanie Annan, Music: Jessica Chapnik Kahn & Nadav Kahn

Melita Rowston is a writer, director and sometime performer, and our fabulous regular contributor to YOKE.


Vaidyagrama: A true Ayurveda healing community

Dr. Ramkumar, Co-founder and Ayurveda Vaidya at Vaidyagrama, in conversation with Cynthia Sciberras, Editor of YOKE magazine. Dr. Ramkumar talks about the spirit of this unique healing village and the importance of creating community and wellbeing for all.


After a seven-hour train journey from Bangalore, and a few too many greasy samosas and cups of sweet chai, my partner and I arrive at grand wooden double doors, the entrance of Vaidyagrama, to be greeted by a Dr Ramadas. Delightfully, he turns out to be our consulting doctor for the next 14 days of gentle panchakarma treatment (the ultimate mind-body healing experience for detoxifying the body, strengthening the immune system, and restoring balance and wellbeing).

There aren’t too many places on this planet that manifest and physically bring to life a community that inspires, teaches, heals and transforms. In my opinion, Vaidyagrama is one of these places, a necessary retreat, critical for our over-stimulated 21st Century lives.

Bringing to life the authentic principles of Ayurveda, Vaidyagrama is an eco-village of a refreshingly genuine kind. About an hour out of Coimbatore, South India, its main concern is to help heal and improve your health, whilst caring about the environment and in turn, creating real community.

It really does make my heart and soul sing knowing this place exists. I am grateful to the visionary founders, and all the practicing doctors here at Vaidyagrama including: Dr. Ramkumar, Dr. Harikrishnan, Dr. Ramadas, Dr. Om Prakash and Dr. Aruna, as well as all who are working in and behind the scenes.


For anyone interested in the ancient science of Ayurveda, I certainly hope this interview with Dr. Ramkumar will delight you. We sat in conversation about how this village come about and what he thinks it means to be in ‘balance’. Dur 27.32 min


5th International Conference on Ayurveda ~ Where Science Meets Consciousness
Exploring Interconnectedness of Man and Nature
December 11-18, 2015 ~ Vaidyagrama – Ayurveda Healing Village, Coimbatore, India