Sanjay Patel: A Hipster’s Guide to Hinduism

The 36-year-old pop artist and Pixar veteran brings a modern twist to the gods and demons of Hindu mythology

In his illustrated books, Patel distills the gods and goddesses down to their essentials as shown in this illustration from Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010). (From Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel, published by Chronicle Books)

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One might think, from Patel’s enthusiasm, that he grew up steeped in Hindu celebrations.

“Never. Not one.” We’ve relocated to Patel’s sunny apartment, on a hill overlooking Oakland’s historic Grand Lake Theater. He reclines in an easy chair; his hands are wrapped around a mug created by his partner Emily Haynes, a potter. “Growing up in L.A., we went to run-down little temples for certain festivals. But the kids would just play in the parking lot while our parents chanted inside. I learned about Hinduism much later.”

Patel, 36, was born in England. When he was a boy his family relocated to southern California. His parents have run the Lido Motel, along Route 66, for more than 30 years. They never had much money, but through the perseverance of a devoted high-school art teacher—Julie Tabler, whom Sanjay considers almost a surrogate mother—Patel won scholarships first to the Cleveland Institute of Art and then to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

It was while Patel was at CalArts that representatives from Pixar, which has a close relationship with the prestigious school, saw Patel’s animated student film, Cactus Cooler.

“It’s about a cactus going through puberty,” explains Patel. “At a certain point, his needles start coming in—but because of the needles, he inadvertently chases away his only friend.

“Pixar loved it, and they recruited me.” Patel was hesitant at first. “I was in love with hand drawing, and the job involved a computer. But after getting some good advice, I did join the studio.” Despite his initial misgivings, taking classes at “Pixar University” gave him a real respect for CAD (computer assisted design). “The computer is just a great big box of pens, pencils and colors,” he concedes. “It’s another fantastic tool.”

Patel has been at Pixar since 1996. He’s done art and animation for A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, Cars and the Toy Story films. The relationship works both ways. Pixar’s luminous palette and engaging, heroic characters ultimately inspired his own artwork.

Patel didn’t grow up enthralled with Hindu imagery, but the seeds were there. Six years into his Pixar career, he opened an art book and came across paintings from India. “The more I read,” he recalls, “the more I was drawn into a world of imagery that had always surrounded me. Before, it was just part of my family’s daily routine. Now I saw it in the realm of art.”

While Pixar is a team effort, Patel’s books are his personal passion. In The Little Book of Hindu Deities, he unpacks the mythic universe of ancient South Asia with bold, vibrant illustrations. A computer program massages his sketches into clean, geometric figures. It’s a cunning blend of East meets West, at a time when both cultures venerate the microprocessor.

Patel’s most ambitious book, so far, is Ramayana: Divine Loophole. A five-year effort, it’s a colorful retelling of India’s most beloved epic.

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