Giving faces to a deityArtist depicts on canvas Gayatri Devi, the goddess of the most revered mantra
ॐ भूर्भुवः स्वः तत्सवितुर्वरेण्यं भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि धियो यो नः प्रचोदयात्
Most Hindus wake up to this mantra in the morning as it is chanted over the tv, radio or in a neighbourhood temple. It is only the most popular and powerful Vedic chant, the Gayatri Mantra.
But most have never even visualised the face that goes with the goddess. Gayatri Devi is the wife of Brahma, the mother of the Vedas, the female deity who encompasses the divine trinity - creator, sustainer and destroyer.
Hindus have been worshipping Gayatri Devi for millennia. Now, through his devotional art, Uday Charan Shrestha has depicted this powerful deity and her mantra that calls to invoke the divine energy in us.
The work itself took 20 years to complete, and is a masterpiece of Nepali neo-traditional paubha, a labour of love and life-long devotion.
The immaculate beauty of Nepal’s gods and goddesses has been depicted and enhanced in every period of the country’s cultural history. But in the 1990s, Shrestha attempted something groundbreaking. He introduced a genre of paubha art that was three-dimensional, energetic, vibrant and filled with emotion and passion.
For centuries, we have seen the divinity of our deities with straight faces and no emotive expressions. Paubha art evolved in Kathmandu Valley over the centuries with stylistic changes in techniques, motifs, background, and colour, but it took a while for a revolutionised look depicting goddesses with feminine beauty to come about.
At first, the change caused some uproar in traditional sects because the new genre focused more on sensuality than saintliness. But Shrestha was eventually applauded for daring to embark on a non-traditional depiction of female beauty, and proving that exquisiteness is next to godliness.
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Besides the humanely expressive looks, Shrestha also added further value to paubha highlighting the jewellery with meticulous detail. Sacred jewellery is a captivating feature of many paubhas and Shrestha magnified its importance by painting it intricately.
The jewellery of Gayatri Devi is considered to be one of the most elaborate ever in Nepali paubha art history. Goddess Gayatri has five faces representing the five fundamental elements, ten hands carrying several attributes of cosmic and spiritual powers, but it is the central face that is overwhelming in its sheer mesmerising perfection.
Many have drawn comparisons with Bollywood actresses like Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, Rekha, or Hema Malini. But perhaps it is Bollywood actresses who try to look like our goddesses.
Shrestha explains that he was inspired by women with the perfect features, and let his subconscious guide him to create these divine faces. “For me, it was a spiritual calling that made me craft faces that would be etched in people’s minds forever,” he says.
On closer inspection, the Gayatri Devi has a soul-piercing spark in her eye that hints at a mysterious smirk. The artist has actually managed to instill an emotion in her eyes which in turn makes viewers feel her existence.
Over two decades, Shrestha has nurtured this sacred portraiture, raising it like a child, and is so immensely attached to it that he does not want to ever totally complete it. He fears that completing it would mean he would have to let go. Like the journey of parenthood is never complete, Shrestha feels he wants to be attached to his artistic work for the rest of his life.
When an artist has such immense attachment to their art, the devotion deserves even greater value and respect. In a world of superficiality, impermanence and ever-changing social media trends, genuine art in any form is becoming rarer.
Shrestha’s personal and professional struggle is no less than some of the European masters who worked for decades on their art. He carefully studied religious texts of Gayatri Devi to understand and capture the true essence of what made her such a powerful female deity.
Documentation that explained her physical aspects was not available. An old Indian poster gave him some reference to the five faces and colours, but he kept re-reading religious scripts to be inspired by her greatness.
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The final work emanates from the artist’s devout subconscious state, evolving from his learnings and inner awakenings that came from worshipping the goddess. We have the faces of many deities etched in our minds, the Buddha, Shiva, Krishna, Ram, Sita. But finding a visual portrayal of Gayatri Devi is rare.
Shrestha says he wishes his painting would put a face to the hymn that so many Hindus the world over chant every day. When devotees close their eyes in prayer while chanting the Gayatri mantra, this may be the divine face that will bless them. Art lives, if we give it life.
The painting is on public display at the Museum of Nepali Arts during the solo exhibition of Uday Charan Shrestha from 18 November 2023 to 1 January 2024
Shaguni Singh Sakya is the director of the Kathmandu Guest House Group and Museum of Nepali Arts (MoNA).