Sanjay Patel arrives at the entrance of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, breathless. His vahana, or vehicle, is a silver mountain bike; his white helmet is festooned with multicolored stickers of bugs and goddesses.
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Though we’ve barely met, Patel takes my arm. He propels me through dimly lit halls, past austere displays of Korean vases and Japanese armor, until we arrive at a brightly lit gallery. This room is as colorful as a candy store, its walls plastered with vivid, playful graphics of Hindu gods, demons and fantastic beasts.
“This is awesome.” Patel spins through the gallery, as giddy as a first-time tourist in Times Square. “It’s a dream come true. I mean, who gets the opportunity to be in a freakin’ major museum while they still have like all their hair? Let alone their hair still being black? To have created this pop-culture interpretation of South Asian mythology—and to have it championed by a major museum—is insane.”
The name of the show—Deities, Demons and Dudes with ‘Staches—is as quirky and upbeat as the 36-year-old artist himself. It’s a lighthearted foil to the museum’s current exhibition, Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts. Patel, who created the bold banners and graphics for Maharaja, was given this one-room fiefdom to showcase his own career: a varied thali (plate) of the animated arts.
“I’ve known of Sanjay’s work for a while,” says Qamar Adamjee, the museum’s associate curator of South Asian Art, ducking briefly into the gallery. At first, she wanted to scatter examples of Patel’s work throughout the museum; the notion of giving him a solo show evolved later.
“[Hindu] stories are parts of a living tradition, and change with each retelling,” Adamjee observes. “Sanjay tells these stories with a vibrant visual style—it’s so sweet and so charming, yet very respectful. He’s inspired by the past, but has reformulated it in the visual language of the present.”
For those unfamiliar with Hindu iconography, the pantheon can be overwhelming. In Patel’s show, and in his illustrated books—The Little Book of Hindu Deities (2006) and Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010)—he distills the gods and goddesses down to their essentials. Now he wheels through the room, pointing to the cartoon-like images and offering clipped descriptions: There’s Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, with his cherished stash of sweets; Saraswati, the goddess of learning and music, strumming on a vina; the fearsome Shiva, whose cosmic dance simultaneously creates and destroys the universe.
“And Vishnu,” Patel adds, indicating a huge blue-and-yellow figure. His multiple hands hold a flaming wheel, a conch shell, a flowering lotus and a mace. “Vishnu is, like, the cosmic referee. He makes sure that everything is in harmony.”
Vishnu, I’m familiar with. He’s one of the main Hindu deities, and often comes up in Patel’s work. Vishnu is the great preserver. According to the ancient Vedic texts, he will reappear throughout history to save the world from menace. Each time, he returns as an “avatar,” a word that derives from the Sanskrit avatara, meaning “descent.”
“An avatar is a reincarnation of a deity,” Patel explains, “taking human form here on earth. Vishnu, for instance, has ten avatars. Whenever something’s wrong in the universe, some imbalance, he returns to preserve the order of the universe.”