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Friday Spotlight: Manjari Sharma Photographs Gods, Finds Fame

By David Schonauer   Friday May 4, 2012

Photographer Manjari Sharma’s Darshan project is only a little more than half finished, but it has already earned her a following, as well as some adoring media attention. Last December, for instance, the New York Times’s“Lens” photo blog described the considerable scope of the project, noting that some three dozen craftsmen and artisans are required to create the Hindu deities that Sharma later photographs with a large-format camera. The project also impressed NPR’s photo blog, which rightly noted that what Sharma was attempting—the construction of the sets, the detailed costuming, the printing of the finished six-feet-high images—was “no easy feat.”

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      This week the project gets a fuller exposure in the just-released second edition Huffington, the new iPad magazine from the Huffington Post. One of the images will also be on view at the Pulse New York art fair through May 6, where it is being shown by the Richard Levy Gallery.

      Sharma, 32, lives in Brooklyn, where she maintains a busy schedule working on commercial and personal projects, including an ongoing series of deliriously sensuous photographs of friends and acquaintances showering in her apartment. Another personal project is her three-month-old daughter, who interrupted our conversation at one point, as three-month-olds will.

       Born in Mumbai, India, Sharma moved to Ohio in 2001 to study fine-art photography at the Columbus College of Art and Design. It will come as no surprise that she found Columbus to be a vastly different cultural landscape from Mumbai. “I told my friends, ‘Why move to a foreign land if you’re not going to have some culture shock,’” she said.

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         The Darshan project began in 2010 after Sharma, by then a New Yorker, visited Mumbai and saw the city and its abundant religious iconography with fresh eyes. “In India, religion is sprawled all around you,” she said. “There are sculptures and paintings of deities almost everywhere. They’re so common that I didn’t really notice them when I was growing up.” Darshan—a Sanskrit word that means “view,” “sight,” or “vision”—was born when Sharma began to think about constructing and photographing her own versions of Hindu gods. “I wanted to find out if a really carefully constructed photograph could kindle that same kind of spirituality in you that the painting and sculpture do,” she said.

        Sharma’s first Darsham image, depicting Maa Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and fortune, was completed early in 2011. She then began campaigning for funds to continue the project on Kickstarter.She has since completed four more pieces, each costing several thousand dollars to produce, and plans to create four more.

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        When we spoke, Sharma mused about some of the metaphysical implications of her project. The “crazed dedication and perfectionism” of her collaborators is what imbues the finished images with a kind of spiritual power, she said. “Ultimately,” said Sharma, “the end result becomes god.”

       She also drew an equivalency between art and religion: “I began to see that there were great similarities between the experience of going to a temple and standing before these gods, and going to a museum and standing before an artwork,” she told me. “In a temple, you place your aspirations before the deity, and sometimes your wishes come true. Sometimes they don’t, but that doesn’t mean you stop going to the temple. At a museum you come to the art with hopes as well, and sometimes the art disappoints. But that doesn’t mean you stop going to museums.”

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