Sunday, February 12, 2017

On Karan Acharya's Saffron Hanuman Stickers

Angry is a word I am right now. The final edits to this piece when it was published in Scroll was very, very different from what the piece was intended to be. Much to my chagrin, it was trending on the website too for a few days. I shall refrain from saying more because I am certain I will only say too much. 

Posting only the original piece here below.

We have famous standstill traffic problems in Bengaluru here. Occasions when engines are killed and drivers look around to vaguely nod at neighbours in mutual irritation and exasperation has slipped from rush hour routine to all day mundanity now. There are, thus, plenty of minutes for me to mentally count the number of large saffron and black images of Hanuman that are pasted proudly on motorbikes and cars – both private and cabs – these days. The ‘angry Hanuman’ stickers are everywhere - viral, if you should want to use the new technical term – on watch dials, t-shirts, as laptop skins and other whatnots.

The image, vector style, is positively angry, or so I choose to read it. It feels appropriate to invoke John Berger here now, a paying homage too in a sense, after his recent passing. The art critic and thinker spoke of seeing that comes before words, of images that surround and engulf us in the same way that a language surrounds us. The new ‘language of images’ that he wrote about in the seminal text Ways of Seeing is as necessary in the age of viral images as it was in the quieter 1970s that he wrote his work in.

The way I see this new popular Hanuman image – angry, confrontational, on the offensive - is not in tandem with what its creator Karan Acharya says it should be read as. Acharya is a designer and graphic artist from Kumble village in Kasaragod, the northernmost district in Kerala. “In 2015 a group of boys called Aryan boys in my village asked me to design something different to put on the flag for Ganesh Chaturthi festival,” Acharya begins, speaking to me over the phone from Mangaluru, where he works. Every year the flag they hoisted in the village had the Om symbol. Acharya kept putting off creating something, busy that he was at work, until they insisted he give them something the very next day. “It was around 11.30-12 in the night when I designed this face,” he tells me. He could finish only the face, though he is working on designing the full body for Hanuman at the moment. Up went the image on the flag and very soon his friends began to put it up as their display and profile pictures on social media accounts and chatting apps.

Over the next year it snowballed into a fully democratized image and began to adorn the rear windows of vehicles in Bengaluru, its ubiquity coming as a great surprise to Acharya on his last visit to the capital. “Since I designed this image for friends, I hadn’t put any watermark on it,” Acharya said, explaining that he was deriving absolutely no royalty from its use in different merchandise. He was approached by a US-based company to sign away exclusive right of use, he says, but did not feel right to do that, more so because so many people were already using it.

Did you intend the Hanuman to be angry, I ask him. “It is not angry at all. My friends had told me to design something with an attitude, a Hanuman without a smile. My Hanuman is not angry, it is just attitude Hanuman,” Acharya insists.

Deities with such an attitude are more common than one would think; such visual language older. Philip Lutgendorf is Professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at University of Iowa’s Department of Asian and Slavic Languages and Literature, and the author of Hanuman’s Tale, The Messages of a Divine Monkey. Hanuman, the “default deity”, has for long taken the das and the veer forms. “Hanuman is an inclusive god, and is worshipped by both the Shaivas and the Vaishnavas. To the Shaivas, he is the 11th avatar of Rudra with the Raudra roopa (angry or aggressive face). This too is an old idea, and goes back at least a thousand years in as far as textual sources are concerned,” he explains, over a video call from somewhere in Maharashtra.

Acharya’s Hanuman has been embraced with open arms by those leaning right. He has told me earlier that some Hindutva groups have appreciated the image. Is the flaunting of it easier, more defiant and more representative of unexpressed sentiments in a political ecology that is as charged as it is, I have been curious. Prof Lutgendorf will tell me towards the end of our conversation that he tries very hard not to be reductive. “Not to reduce an image like that to a very simple message. We are living in the age, unfortunately, of simple messages when prime ministers and presidents communicate by tweets….Images can carry a lot of different messages to different people,” he says.

Images are text. And they can a history narrate. Prof Lutgendorf tells me, “The rise in devotion for Hanuman has been going on for quite a few centuries and has gotten intensified in the 20th century probably in the same way that just about all religious activity in India has gotten intensified. But none of this (is) specifically tied to a kind of Hindutva or anti-minority message. But it can easily be. I don’t argue with the possibility that it gets interpreted that way.”

Acharya’s image seems aimed at the youth and has a graphic novel look to it, he adds. Girish Kumar, whose cab I got into the other day on the way to somewhere, seemed to be in about his mid-20s. He sported the Hanuman on the back of his car and I asked him why he was attracted to it. “It is now in fashion, medam,” he told me, adding, “It is a strong, powerful look too.” The popularity of this image is what Srinath, who owns a shop that sells stickers in my neighbourhood, is cashing in on; politics are not really on his mind. “A lot of youth started asking for this sticker, and I have it in different sizes now. Maybe it is a fashion now, maybe something else will be in fashion in a few months, I don’t know. I have to keep things that are in demand, it is good for business,” he says. The vinyl stickers sell for anywhere between Rs 100 and Rs 300, depending on size, while tees can go for up to Rs 900 a pop online.

Images of deities, what can be classified as calendar art, have had a long history, starting with the works of Raja Ravi Varma in the late 19th century, and moving along with images from S S Brijbasi & Sons which continue to be copied. Some early muscular images of Hanuman were influenced by the pehelwans, like Gama the Great in pre-independent India, who won several international competitions and “was an expression of Indian strength and masculinity,” Prof Lutgendorf says. The ‘H H Hanuman’ or ‘Hairless Humanised Hanuman,’ as he calls these images, begin to appear in the 1930s and 40s, the only signs of his kapitva, or monkeyhood being his lower simian face and the tail. Post-liberalisation, with body-building and gyms replacing the akhadas, “you begin to see Hanuman that looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, (with) really exaggerated muscle. Is it connected with Hindutva macho? It can be, if you want to read it that way,” he says.

Referring to bhoodevis and village guardian deities that require alcohol, blood sacrifice, Prof Lutgendorf talked of folk gods, adding, “There is a huge tradition of violent and angry deities.”

“Images of deities change, conceptions of deities change with changing popular culture, changing popular political developments…Deities have lives, they have biographies. Images are hard to read. What you see as angry, someone else may not see that way. It is in the eye of the beholder. Darshan is in the eye of the beholder,” he explains to me.

The designer Karan Acharya is working on a comic book, the story set 10,000 years from now, with his now famous Hanuman and other characters, old and new. There just might be an animation movie as well. Maybe, no, most likely this is another passing fad. There will, undoubtedly, be others.

In this post-truth environment, it is tempting to be reductive of such fads, by choosing to read them alongside the politics of the day. Some would argue that post-truth is another fad that is also passing us by. But that is another story for another day, like they say. And then I turn to John Berger again - “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” In a politically charged society, it is tempting to try to find easy answers to complexities, you know?

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