Sonal Motla talks about Goddess Lakshmi and her various artistic interpretations

One of the most famous festivals, Deepawali, is around the corner. Indians celebrate more festivals than any other culture.

The festivities are our cultural antidote to depression and loneliness. With 33 million gods and goddesses to choose from and follow, each idol is a metaphor for various aspects of wisdom and ideal.

As children, we were excited to celebrate by wearing new clothes, sharing food, participating in rituals, lighting diyas, and celebrating with family and friends.

My father used to tell stories of Goddess Lakshmi who, being the wife of one of the three main gods, Vishnu, the nurturer of life, she was his Shakti (force). She is depicted wearing a red sari, the color of Rajas, which signifies creative activity. The golden embroidery on her saree indicates abundance, as she is the goddess of prosperity. His four arms and four hands symbolize Dharma (duty), Artha (material wealth), Kama (desire) and Moksha (salvation).

She is sitting on a lotus almost as if to say “Live in the world, but be not possessed by the world”…just as the lotus is beautiful, untouched by the muddy water in which it blooms. Detachment and evolution are the message of this poetic symbol. The owl is her vehicle, symbolizing the need for wisdom to travel with her. The four elephants around her, pouring water which suggests the flow of Purushartha (striving), to be continually strengthened by wisdom, purity and charity. We were fascinated by his explanation.

As teenagers, we were then explained the three paths of a truth seeker in Hinduism:

Tantra: “Tan”-tra, using the body/physicality to create energy

Mantra: A set of syllables or sacred sounds with correct pronunciation that generate a certain energy.

Yantra: Sacred geometry with mystical diagrams acts as visual energy centers, aids in meditation practice.

Lakshmi yantra | Photo Courtesy: Sonal Motla

The influence of this rich visual iconography and symbolism is found in the history of Indian art. Lakshmi’s artistic interpretation ranges from popular lithographs by Raja Ravi Verma and Mulgaonkar who found their way to altars, to a group of artists known as Neo-Tantrics like Ghulam Rasool, Santosh, Biren De, KV Haridasan, Sohan Qadri, and, of course, Raza.

Raza did not see his work as a religious experience, but as a “meaningful form”. The visual idiom drawn from mandalas and yantras is clearly visible in his work.

While collaborating with Raza for my show “State of the Art” in 1990, I remember discussing how he was inspired and fascinated by the shapes of yantras and mandalas as pure spiritual geometry. “Immense energy and potential was released through a simple yet essential form. It opens up a new vocabulary that somehow corresponds to my Parisian training in formalism. He had connected to the energy center of the sacred diagrams, and they have long inspired artists of every generation.

The word Lakshmi comes from ‘Lakshya’ which means ‘purpose’, its purpose will decide the manifestation of the goddess and your life. My father was asking us to establish our relationship with Lakshmi. Are you a “bhogi” (consumer oriented) to use it? Or are you a tutor and treat her like a nurturing daughter and, when mature, lovingly offer her for another. Mindless consumption and pride does not appeal to her, she needs to be respected, and her power should be used to feed society as a whole.

Living in luxury is a blessing, but it’s important to have a balance that comes from empathy and caring for those around you.

That balance is where she smiles.

Happy Deepawali world! Let the inner light shine!

(Sonal Motla organized Kala Ghoda 2020 with development and art as the theme and is currently working on arts, crafts and design education issues with a few educational institutions. Please send your comments to: [email protected])

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