As part of the global consumer culture, we rarely replace our traditional beliefs with more rational ones. But we do put them forward with a contemporary pitch.
There is something about Lakshmi we may not have noticed. Over the last few years, goddess Lakshmi — especially during the Diwali season when she dominates the idol market alongside Ganesha — has a changed look about her. While we were busy shopping for crystal-encrusted saris with brocade blouses, costume jewellery, floral hair accessories from Bangkok and neon eye shadows, artists who interpret goddess Lakshmi for calendars and effigies changed her appearance too. We were looking at bling and they were looking at us.
The goddess of wealth today reflects the preoccupations of the wealthy. Her visage is a continuum of the shop fronts and bazaars that line our cities. Ostentation is the complement of new wealth and it suits her. What’s fascinating, however, is the underlying market forces causing the change, making Lakshmi a little more plastic, a little more designer, if you will.
Times past, she looked like a goddess. As a multi-limbed, multi-tasker, with gold coins slipping off one of her palms; she emerged from a blooming lotus with powerful grace. She underlined shubh-laabh (auspicious gain). Even when she wore gold border saris and bright silken blouses with heavy gold jewellery (remember the Raja Ravi Varma interpretations?), she had a “divine” persona ¯ she came from another world. Was it the pleasant, balanced, transcendental gaze that calendar artists are known to give to images of gods? Probably. In a collection edited by social anthropologist Richard Davis titled Picturing The Nation: Iconographies of Modern India, Kajri Jain writes: “It’s (the deity’s) power and efficacy are primarily seen in terms of a supra-personal gaze, that of a celestial being…”
Now, that distinction between the goddess and the devotee is blurred. So even if the sari is a creamy saffron crepe with tassels on it and the blouse a deep wine red, she looks more like a wealthy woman dressed up for a festival, with a distracted gaze. The hyper decoration may be missing in mud and terracotta interpretations sold on the roadsides, but it is full-blown in new-age stores in posh markets. Clearly, there are market forces at work, even in bazaar art. It’s a class thing, directly influenced by what the prosperous classes favour.
The bazaar was never a benign force even