Look up, Waaay Up!
Professor Kajri Jain’s gaze is focused towards the skies for her research, but she is not an astronomer. What has grabbed her attention are the gargantuan religious statues – some upwards of 80 feet high – that have materialized in India since the 1990s, and the blend of art, religion, politics and commerce these iconic figures connote.
“I have always been attuned to what is going on in the visual culture of religion, and what new forms are being thrown up as part of popular religiosity in India,” says Jain, who is building on her earlier work in contemporary religious culture and its imagery. “That’s when I started realizing that there are all these big statues of Hindu icons coming up, and that this was very new.”
Jain’s work is based primarily in India, but she is also looking to other areas, such as the Himalayan region of Sikkim, where she travelled last year to survey vast Hindu and Buddhist statues. Since there has been a significant revival in Buddhism in India over the past decade and there is a more contemporary category of followers referred to as “neo-Buddhists,” many of them part of a politicized movement of Dalits (formerly referred to as ‘untouchables’), Jain is interested in examining the budding visual culture that has emerged as a result of this reinvention. The financial origins of these monuments also inform her project, considering that since economic reforms occurred in India in the 1990s some sculptures have been privately funded while others have been state sponsored, and Jain is curious about how the material economy dovetails with the symbolic.
Jain feels her research contemplates Art (with a capital “A,” she emphasizes) and how it relates to religion since imagery is a common thread for both, yet their discourses are so different. “There is a history to that, and the ways in which in the post-Enlightenment era art was supposed to have come along and more or less replaced religion in the secular world,” says Jain. “However, for many people in many parts of the world, religious images still do another kind of work that has very little to do with a narrow modernist understanding of the aesthetic, and much more to do with efficacy and affect and ecstasy – and now also with spectacle.”
- By Carla DeMarco