Book Review by Giraj M. Sharma (Business World Books)
Shiva is a God; he is not God. The emphasis on the singular means there are other Gods. And most of these Gods feature in Calendars that adorn Hindu homes, corner shops and business premises. There are too many Hindu Gods and they are celebrated in a unique art form – Calendar Art. Gaudy and kitsch but art nevertheless! The author sees it as an expression that is democratic and devotes this book to unscramble the mythic illustrations for the reader.
7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art is perhaps the first organised attempt to catalogue this art form and to decipher an extremely popular expression that is indifferent to rationality. Thus the book is not just about the visual expression – it is much beyond. It uses the art as a metaphor to unveil myths, tales, logic and the irrational.
Divinity is formless but we require forms to comprehend it. The author argues that though every form is incomplete and no single form is capable of encompassing totality – through these several incomplete forms of Gods and Goddesses we at least get a sense of the entire notion of divine. The book features many or most of such forms. For instance, the book is not just about the ‘usual suspects’ — Shiva, Ganesha, Vishnu or Shakti in the book. You will also find vivid description of lesser known deities such as Khandoba, the turmeric loving multi-faceted God much revered in Maharashtra or of Bahuchara whose devotees not only include men and women but eunuchs too.
The book has little gems scattered all over within its narrative. At one place it comments on the hierarchy of Gods and at another it goes on to offer logic on why Brahma, the creator, is not mass worshiped. It explains how Brahma forgot the reason of his creation and that made him unworthy of worship in relative context to the other two Gods in the Trinity – Shiva and Vishnu. The book is full of tales within tales. Sample this: Vishnu is in debt and he can not return to his heavenly abode till he is debt free. And why did Vishnu need to borrow? He, in his earthly avatar, was wooing Padmavati who asked for a huge bridal price that led Vishnu to take a huge loan from Kubera, the treasurer of Goddess Shri. Devotees offer him wealth to help him repay his debt in the serene setting atop the seven hills where he stays in the form of Tirupati Balaji.
The explanation of each element of the visuals – and book has a picture plate on every even-numbered page – is another high point of the book. Some of these pictures are the ones that most Hindus have grown with and to discover so much more about the same pictures gives one a feeling which is a strange mix of nostalgia, intrigue and bewilderment. The author first states the obvious as to who is who in the picture and then goes about expanding the symbolism. This is the high-point of this truly amazing book. It is here one gets Hindu mythology insights in a manner that is enchanting and the experience is truly enriching. The author calls these insights as ‘secrets’ and classifies them in seven chapters as secrets of the more popular or one should say ‘lead-Gods’. You have chapters such as Ganesha’s Secrets where all his family members and their avatars are dealt with. Then there is Devi’s Secrets, Narayan’s Secrets and so on. So the next time you want to know why Goddess Kamakshi is surrounded by sugarcane or why Hindus believe that the human society is an artificial construct – refer to this book.
Devdutt Pattanaik has been writing on mythology for a while now. Other than his regular newspaper columns he has penned books such as The Pregnant King, The Book of Ram and The Book of Kali among others.7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art is arguably the most well-researched book of this medico. The book has a user-friendly layout and Pattanaik consciously uses black and white renditions of calendar art for he is apprehensive that the colours may distract the reader. This is a debatable claim for by the time you finish reading the book you realize that the narrative is so over-powering that it could have easily withstood the threat from the use of colour.