BILL MAYBLIN > Two Items from the Museum of Belief

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Poseable figure of Hanuman

unnamedIn 2007 Mahender Nathan, an American of Asian Indian heritage, decided to design, manufacture and try to market modern toys with a Hindu cultural theme. Along with his partner he created Kridana (Sanskrit for ‘Toys’) with the specific aim of providing toys for children of the Indian diaspora living in the West who would otherwise be in danger of losing their cultural roots. The way he put it at the time was that it was for kids “who don’t have, say, my grandmother, to tell them the stories. It’s all about taking these thousand-year old fantastic myths, legends, epics, and bringing them up-to-date for today.”

The company produced two initial products, poseable figures of the Hindu gods Rama and Hanuman. Both were beautifully designed and manufactured. This one is Hanuman, the monkey god, complete with detachable crown, battle mace, and ‘mountain’ (for the significance of which you will need to read the epic Ramayana).

The interesting thing about the whole enterprise was that it was an attempt to marry the very Western aesthetic of the Marvel Comic superhero with traditional Indian stories and depictions of the Hindu gods. The underlying rational being that the traditional Indian ‘look’ would not be able to compete with the pervasive, ‘macho’ design of Western boys’ action toys. Rama, Hanuman et.al. would have to look more ‘hip’.

When checked on the internet, ten years on these models are no longer available, and there are no new additions to the product range. So it is my guess that, sadly, the enterprise was not a success.

It raises an interesting point about the difference between traditional and commercial culture. And even about Mahender Nathan’s original concerns. Do the Hindu epics (or even the Christian Bible stories for that matter) benefit from being updated into current commercial styles? Or does that bring them down to the more transitory level of a commercial culture, but with marketing budgets that cannot hope to compete.

Maybe the oral tradition of Nathan’s grandmother is the best bet after all. Or in a world of so many overlapping diasporas, maybe it’s not something to worry too much about anyway.

Devil on a night chair

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Hieronymus Bosch was a painter from the Netherlands born in 1450 whose life and work spanned the slow change in northern Europe from the medieval worldview to that of the Renaissance. By far his most famous work is a elaborate triptych called The Garden of Earthly Delights which is a surreal phantasmagoria – a comment perhaps on the sinful debauchery of humankind, and the punishments awaiting us in hell. The combination of its bizarre flights of imagination, its elaborate hyperrealism, its eroticism and sado-masochistic detail has kept it ever the centre of interest.

The right hand panel of the triptych details the torments of Hell as the artist imagines it, and in the lower right of the panel is a depiction of a devil with the head of a bird crowned with an upturned cooking cauldron, and with its feet encased in two beer flasks. Its clawed right hand is feeding a naked human body into its open beak. The creature is sitting on a high comode or ‘night chair’ through the seat hole of which it is defecating human bodies that it has already consumed.

That’s the original context for this image. But what we are looking at here is an exquisitely detailed three-dimensional model of the same thing. The model is one of a series produced by a Dutch-based fine art repro company called Parastone which also produces other 3D versions of details from the same painting. The retail outlets for these items are mainly online or in the more upmarket art gallery and museum shops of Europe and America.

Clearly the meaning of this image has changed dramatically over the last five hundred years. What started out as a highly gothic and fevered warning of the real consequences of earthly sin, has ended up here as a distinctly ironic, desk or shelf decoration for a savvy clientele with cultural capital to spare.

Ferdinand Saussure, the father of semiotics, defined the sign as a unit of meaning. But for a sign to exist it had to have two elements of its own – a signifier (the actual mark, sound, image or whatever) and the signified (the generally agreed meaning of said signifier). Once both were in place, we have a sign.

In this case the signifier has changed medium, from two to three dimensions, and the signified has undergone half a millenium of sociocultural change – through the renaissance, modernism, surrealism, and out the other side into postmodernism. It’s still a sign though. A sign of our times rather than Bosch’s.

Poseable figure of Hanuman

In 2007 Mahender Nathan, an American of Asian Indian heritage, decided to design, manufacture and try to market modern toys with a Hindu cultural theme. Along with his partner he created Kridana (Sanskrit for ‘Toys’) with the specific aim of providing toys for children of the Indian diaspora living in the West who would otherwise be in danger of losing their cultural roots. The way he put it at the time was that it was for kids “who don’t have, say, my grandmother, to tell them the stories. It’s all about taking these thousand-year old fantastic myths, legends, epics, and bringing them up-to-date for today.”

The company produced two initial products, poseable figures of the Hindu gods Rama and Hanuman. Both were beautifully designed and manufactured. This one is Hanuman, the monkey god, complete with detachable crown, battle mace, and ‘mountain’ (for the significance of which you will need to read the epic Ramayana).

The interesting thing about the whole enterprise was that it was an attempt to marry the very Western aesthetic of the Marvel Comic superhero with traditional Indian stories and depictions of the Hindu gods. The underlying rational being that the traditional Indian ‘look’ would not be able to compete with the pervasive, ‘macho’ design of Western boys’ action toys. Rama, Hanuman et.al. would have to look more ‘hip’.

When checked on the internet, ten years on these models are no longer available, and there are no new additions to the product range. So it is my guess that, sadly, the enterprise was not a success.

It raises an interesting point about the difference between traditional and commercial culture. And even about Mahender Nathan’s original concerns. Do the Hindu epics (or even the Christian Bible stories for that matter) benefit from being updated into current commercial styles? Or does that bring them down to the more transitory level of a commercial culture, but with marketing budgets that cannot hope to compete.

Maybe the oral tradition of Nathan’s grandmother is the best bet after all. Or in a world of so many overlapping diasporas, maybe it’s not something to worry too much about anyway.

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