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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Images courtesy and copyright by the artist.