Published: Verve Magazine, Nerve, September 2010
When Pixar animator and storyboard artist, Sanjay Patel, takes a break, he sketches Hindu deities. Check out his pop-culture illustrations of traditional Hindu marriages
You see The Little Book of Hindu Deities and inevitably think kitsch, mired in the nostalgia of tradition and…cute. Flipping through it, you find yourself amused by artwork that is fresh, appealing and inoffensive; and fascinated by the information that you are, in all likelihood, quite unaware of. And of course, the illustrator’s repertoire is impressive – he is a supervising animator and storyboard artist for Pixar Animation Studios, where he has worked for the last 14 years on features that include Monsters, Inc., A Bugs Life, Toy Story 2, Ratatouille, WALL-E, The Incredibles, Toy Story 3 and CARS. He has worked on The Simpsons for Fox and also with legendary cartoonist John K. California-based Sanjay Patel sends us an illustrative self-portrait, while replying to our questions via email:
What brings about the interest in Hindu deities?
For a very long time I had zero interest in anything Indian. Growing up in LA with devout Hindu parents, I desperately just wanted to fit in. It was only until I felt comfortable being myself, did I begin to explore Hindu iconography.
Why do you illustrate deities in an irreverent pop-culture format?
To show people a contemporary view of Hindu iconography and their legends. By that I mean, a view from the perspective of someone born between two cultures – the US and India; through the lens of modernism, graphic design, and animation. And from a voice that is rooted in the pop culture of the US and is acutely aware of the relevance of Hinduism and its devotees. This is just a means of communicating with people in my age group, who are culturally disconnected, who love design and animation, who are curious about Hinduism and spirituality, and who just can’t resist something cute.
Do you feel nostalgia about tradition creeping in?
I can’t speak to the sense of nostalgia. For me, having an Indian name, background and face, and yet not ever having set foot on Indian soil, can lead to different longings: to have all the things that make me up coexist in creative space. So it’s been incredibly gratifying to finally bring together my passion for Disney animation with the roots of my parents’ traditions and to forge a new cultural symbol in the form of my books.
Is pop culture the way of life today, or is it a way to subconsciously subvert culture and tradition?
I’ve definitely used the tropes of pop culture to get a message across that culture is changing: that a person that looks Indian could be American, or that a book that looks like cartoon could actually be a visual temple. The Hindu Deities book looks like pure pop-culture candy, but will hopefully enlighten you without giving you a cavity.
What’s your verdict on India’s animation scene?
There is lots of animation work being done in India these days. Most of it is derivative and lacking in its inspiration. But as artists gain confidence, they will undoubtedly begin to create content that is unique. My hope is just as the animation master Hayao Miyazaki manages to tell stories that feel uniquely Japanese, maybe one day there will be Indian animators that will tell tales that feel uniquely rooted to their soil.