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India's Spiritual Art For The Masses

In the year 2000, before most New Yorkers were toting yoga mats and the sound of Om seemed omnipresent, Manhattan art dealers Mark Baron and Elise Boisanté had to close their gallery on 57th Street, and decided to take a deep breath and find a more ancient vibe. India.

Starting with the long ride from the airport into downtown Mumbai, they immediately began noticing color-saturated prints of sacred Hindu deities, captured in fantastical forms and settings.

Taped up or hung in frames, these ubiquitous images of Shiva, Krishna, Ganesh, and Lakshmi, to name a few, blessed humble shops, homes, restaurants, buses, taxis, and rickshaws. The art dealers soon were on an unplanned and serendipitous treasure hunt into India’s dustiest corners-- to learn more about this spiritual art for the masses--and to find it.

This first immersion lasted two months, but they returned nine more times. The results were meticulously restored and reproduced in a beautiful book: Gods In Print: Masterpieces of India’s Mythological Art.

The next trip Mark and Elise take will be documented in an upcoming film, now in early fundraising stages, called Five Faces of Shiva. Director R. A. Fedde has worked on several Emmy Award-winning projects, and intends to capture the whole experience in late December, with the viewer along for the ride.

Mark and Elise don't have any money for advertising their incredible collection of prints, which they sell for very reasonable prices, and so they make little typed notices about them and put them up on bulletin boards on the LES. One of these small signs first connected Fedde to their collection and an alchemy of interests brought Mark and Elise and Fedde together for their next venture.

Mark and Elise are passionate dealers, but what always resonates with them is art with heart and soul. Tired of what Mark refers to as “smarty pants art” that seems to never quite go away in cosmopolitan circles, he found himself basking in the spiritual glow of these god prints. The great love and faith-based sincerity of the artists who created these works reached out and seduced the couple.

It is easy to see why people like Fedde are fascinated. “These are not just images of gods,” Mark points out. “They are gods--gods incarnate in their printed image. During puja (worship) the gods are invited to actually descend into their images and are treated as guests. Puja is something a practicing Hindu does every day. It's as much a part of a normal daily routine as getting up, brushing your teeth, and making your morning tea or coffee.”

Neither Mark nor Elise had any prior knowledge of Hinduism before they went to India.

“On the first day we went to Chore Bazar (Thieves Market). I went into the food market, which was empty because it was Sunday, got lost, and wound up in a room with a long table of goat heads. At one end was a cat trying to eat one, pulling meat off it. Totally freaked, I couldn't find my way out. It was really Kafkaesque,” Mark recalls.

Taking turns at the wheel as they navigated the cultural learning curve, Elise made phone calls with startled dealers not used to doing business with women, while Mark’s attention to detail was laser-focused on the entire enterprise, down to making carrying cases for their fragile, beautiful finds. Following leads to god prints in both cities and remote villages of South India, they would eventually accumulate over 300, and their collection became a first of its kind, with some of their prints now at home at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Two things might overwhelm a reader paging through a copy of Gods In Print: the enchanting and mesmerizing detail of imagery reflecting these shape-shiftings of stories and beliefs passed down through the centuries, and the complexity of the Hindu religion itself.

All were made from 1870-1970, mostly at Calcutta Art Studio and other litho presses that were pioneering a new industry and a new way to bring the deities to the masses. These woodblocks, lithographs, and offset presses captured a panorama of Hindu spiritual lore while reflecting the various cultural influences of their times, not least being the British Raj rule that lasted from 1858-1947. Text by Bard Professor Richard H. Davis further illuminates the mind-boggling art.

In one print, Kali is a blue-hued, red-tongued, wild-haired scene stealer, with her garland of severed heads and belt of detached arms, yet she also turns up in less fearful forms, depending on the story depicted. There seem to be as many incarnations of each mythology as there are appendages attached to bodies.

Mark pointed out the continuation of an ancient woodblock with a ragged edge that indicates another image of Kali, is very rare, and still missing. Elise’s voice lingers over her own desire to locate more work of an artist from the 1900-era Hemchander Bhargava press. Holy Grails do hover in India, providing the couple with more reasons to return.

There is some apprehension that the dark corners once yielding these treasures might now have been swept clean, but a certain reflective calm has settled over the couple regarding what they’ve discovered. Along with the trove of once unknown prints, now safely archived, there is India itself. Mark notes: “According to Hindu thought, we're all family, and you really feel that there. People tend to have a more open heart. I do feel really at home in India.”

Elise adds: “We have so many great prints now; I am content with the depth and size of the collection. I feel we are really blessed. It is the journey, not the destination that we love. I do feel that in many ways, India is the "mother land" and I am going back home.”

She also adds a new twist to the dusty trail: “I would not mind if we could also take some time off to go to a yoga retreat, and an ayurvedic institute, too.”

They both deserve it.

To help with crowdfunding for the film of their next trip, which begins August 19 on Indiegogo click here. See Faces of Shiva for updates.

To buy a print from Mark and Elise, click here.

--Sharon Watts, to see more of Sharon's work, click here.

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