Your Next Global Adventure

“Expanding Darshan” at Birmingham Museum of Art Promises a Colorful Journey

Article by Denise K. James

Photography by Courtesy of Birmingham Museum of Art

Originally published in Birmingham Lifestyle

When Global Photographer Manjari Sharma ventured to the United States from her native India, the absence of certain rituals inspired her to create art. Her nine digitally unaltered photographs, known as “Darshan,” are the results of diligent research, artistic vision and the skill and talent of many other artists and craftsmen. This spring, our own Magic City has the distinct honor of hosting an incredible exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art — “Expanding Darshan: Manjari Sharma, To See and Be Seen” –  featuring Sharma’s series in conversation with older masterworks of the deities from the museum’s collection. One look at these nine images, and their meaning, precision and sheer luminosity are certain to inspire awe. 

Katherine Anne Paul, the Birmingham Museum of Art’s curator of Asian art, is confident that “Expanding Darshan'' will fit in well with patrons. A resident of the city since 2019 and a former curator at the Newark Museum of Art, Katherine Anne said she was drawn to the Birmingham Museum of Art because of the spectacular Asian collections and the museum’s own Indian Cultural Society. A lifelong lover of art and artistic spaces thanks to her culturally savvy parents, Katherine Anne moved to D.C. after college and worked at The Textile Museum. In 1995, she journeyed for her first time to South and Southeast Asia, visiting Bhutan, Cambodia and Thailand and solidifying her intention to continue a career exploring the arts of Asia. “The trip blew my mind,” she explained. “I knew I’d never be bored for the rest of my life, and I would be able to expand my understanding of our planet and connect to people.”

Fast-forward to right before the pandemic in early 2020, when Katherine Anne, along with Museum Director Graham Boettcher and several members of the Indian Cultural Society, including Founder Sanjay Singh, made a trip to Atlanta to view the exhibit, “Transcendent Deities of India.” Displayed in Emory University’s Michael Carlos Museum, this exhibit also featured Sharma’s “Darshan” series and had traveled to Atlanta from the Asia Society Texas Center in Houston, thanks to Ingram Senior Director of Education Elizabeth Hornor, whom Katherine Anne knew and respected. 

The nine near-life-sized photographs, which “absolutely sing” in person, contain a number of familiar elements that the members of the Indian Cultural Society easily recognized, said Katherine Anne. For example, the model posing for the Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom, photograph is a well-known broadcaster in India; the Goddess of Wealth and Abundance, Lakshmi, was crowned Miss India in 2012; and the Strong Monkey God, Hanuman, was a champion weightlifter. 

“There is a layered story here that people who know South Asia, are expatriates or immigrants to the United States can recognize,” Katherine Anne pointed out. “Also, our director didn’t know the background but loved them too; it was equally loved by both groups. Of course I love them, but I was thrilled to see the others’ reactions. With the full support of the Indian Cultural Society and our director, we decided to bring all nine to Birmingham. We’re the only institution to have all nine of this limited edition in our permanent collection.”

The term darshan — derived from the Sanskrit word for vision or sighting — refers to a human witnessing a revered spiritual figure in the Hindu religion and receiving a blessing through sight. In Hindu tradition, art that acknowledges and honors Hindu gods and these special sightings can range from sculpture to paintings to live street festivals. Growing up in a Hindu family, Manjari Sharma was lucky to attend many of these festivals and have shrines to these very gods around her childhood home. When she left India to attend graduate school in Ohio – with nothing to remind her of her heritage except her own in-house shrines —she sought to use photography and create a new medium which would honor the gods and “construct and deconstruct the mythologies of [her] land,” according to her website. 

“The darshan series is so rich because she wanted to pack as much as possible into each photo,” Katherine Anne noted. “These are real moments without digital editing, something concrete.”

Indeed, all nine of the amazing images showcase exquisite costuming, lighting design and set design; the artist hired various specialists who work in India’s famous Bollywood industry to assist in creating her vision. Everything in these stunning photos, from the costumes and masks to the jewelry, was made especially for the model who portrays the god or goddess and their special environment. For viewers who are fortunate to see these works, they will appear not quite life-size but very close, according to Katherine Anne, who said the image sizing speaks to darshan itself – the privilege of witnessing a god or goddess from a short distance away. 

Viewers and enthusiasts of “Expanding Darshan,” will be delighted to hear that many other artworks displayed at the BMA and included in the exhibition contribute to a wider landscape of Indian and Hindu culture. 

“I wanted to get all nine photographs because they make such a statement all together,” Katherine Anne said.  “I also knew how well they would converse with the other historic works in our collection. It was a way to bring a through-line for Indian art and highlight how these nine deities are found in other religious traditions, including Buddhism and Jainsim, and regions like Southeast Asia.”

Along with the rest of the staff at the Birmingham Museum of Art and members of the Indian Cultural Society, Katherine Anne is passionate about how art can transfer us to another place and another culture without need for travel  – a concept which, of course, has been more important in recent years. 

“Museums were conceived so you can virtually travel, and the pandemic has made that more meaningful,” she mused.  “I love having this in our backyard — the more we learn about each other, the better the planet is.”

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