Bengaluru has an undeniable traffic problem. During the hours spent in its standstill traffic, when engines are killed and drivers look around to acknowledge mutual irritation, there is plenty of time to count the saffron and black images of Hanuman pasted proudly on motorbikes and cars.
The image, vector-style, is everywhere in Bengaluru and in several other parts of Karnataka. You can see them on public and private vehicles, on watch dials, on T-shirts, as laptop skins and other accessories – and everywhere it feels positively angry, almost confrontational, on the offensive.
That is not how it was meant to be seen though, according to Karan Acharya who created the vector-style figure. Acharya, a designer and graphic artist from Kumble village in Kasaragod, the northernmost district in Kerala, said he created the figure in 2015, when boys from a youth club in his village asked him to design something different to put on the flags for Ganesh Chaturthi.
Every year until then, the flag hoisted in the village had borne the symbol of Om.
Acharya, busy with work, put off the request until the children insisted he give them something the very next day. “It was around 11.30 or 12 at night when I designed this face,” he said over the phone from Mangaluru, where he works. Acharya was only able to finish the face when he sent the image to his village, although he is working on designing the rest of vector-Hanuman’s body next. Once the image appeared on a flag, it began to appear on his friends’ display and profile pictures across social media platforms.
In the course of the past few months, that image has shown up in the most unexpected of places, including the rear windows of vehicles in Bengaluru. Its ubiquitousness came as a great surprise to Acharya on his last visit to the city.
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“Since I designed this image for friends, I hadn’t put a watermark on it,” Acharya said. He has derived absolutely no royalty from the image, which frequently appears on merchandise as well. He was approached by a US-based company to sign away exclusive right of use, he said, but that did not feel right because so many people were already using it.
According to Acharya, vector-Hanuman is not angry at all. “My friends had told me to design something with an attitude, a Hanuman without a smile,” he said. “My Hanuman is not angry, he is just attitude Hanuman.”
Hanuman, frequently thought of as a lovable God, unswerving in his devotion to Rama, has always been depicted with attitude in calendar art.
Philip Lutgendorf, Professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at University of Iowa’s Department of Asian and Slavic Languages and Literature, is the author of Hanuman’s Tale, The Messages of a Divine Monkey. He said Hanuman, the “default deity”, had for long taken the forms of the das or servant and the veer, or the brave one.
“Hanuman is an inclusive god, and is worshipped by both the Shaivas and the Vaishnavas,” he said over the phone from central Maharashtra. “To the Shaivas, he is the eleventh avatar of Rudra with the Raudra roopa (angry or aggressive face). This too is an old idea, and goes back at least a thousand years in as far as textual sources are concerned.”
Acharya’s Hanuman has been especially popular with those who lean towards the Hindu right, its saffron colour contributing to the political hue. But Professor Lutgendorf does not see it this way alone. He said he tries hard not to be reductive: “We are living in the age, unfortunately, of simple messages when prime ministers and presidents communicate by tweets,” he said. “Images can carry a lot of different messages to different people.”
“The rise in devotion for Hanuman has been going on for quite a few centuries and has gotten intensified in the 20th century, probably in the same way that just about all religious activity in India has gotten intensified,” he added. “None of this [is] specifically tied to a kind of Hindutva or anti-minority message, but it can easily be. I don’t argue with the possibility that it gets interpreted that way.”
Acharya’s image was always intended for the youth – it has a graphic novel-like appeal. Girish Kumar, a taxi-driver who sported the Hanuman on the back of his car, said: “It is now in fashion, medam. It is a strong, powerful look too.”
Srinath, a shopkeeper who sells stickers, is cashing in on the popularity of the image too – politics is not really on his mind. “A lot of the youth started asking for this sticker, and I have it in different sizes now,” he said. “Maybe it is a fashion now, maybe something else will be in fashion in a few months, I don’t know. I have to keep things that are in demand, it is good for business.” The vinyl stickers of vector-Hanuman sell for anywhere between Rs 100 and Rs 300 depending on size, while T-shirts can sell for up to Rs 900.
Images of deities which can be classified as calendar art, have had a long history in India, beginning with the works of Raja Ravi Varma in the late 19th century and moving on to images from SS Brijbasi and Sons, which continue to be reproduced even today. Some early muscular images of Hanuman were influenced by pehelwans or body-builders like Gama the Great, in pre-independent India, who won several international competitions and “was an expression of Indian strength and masculinity,” according to Professor Lutgendorf.
The H H Hanuman or Hairless Humanised Hanuman, as Lutgendorf calls these images, begin to appear only in the 1930s and 1940s, by which time the only signs of his kapitva, or monkeyhood are his lower simian face and tail. Post-liberalisation, with body-building and gyms replacing akhadas, Lutgendorf said, “You begin to see Hanuman that looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger [with] really exaggerated muscle. Is this connected with Hindutva machismo? It can be, if you want to read it that way.”
Referring to bhoodevis, or village guardian deities, that require alcohol and blood sacrifice, Lutgendorf said India has always had a huge tradition of violent and angry deities. “Images of deities, conceptions of deities change with changing popular culture, changing popular political developments… Deities have lives, they have biographies,” he said. “Images are hard to read. What you see as angry, someone else may not see that way. Darshan, or seeing a deity, is in the eye of the beholder.”
Meanwhile, Acharya is working on a comic book, the story set 10,000 years from now, featuring Hanuman in his latest avatar along with other characters, old and new. There might just be an animation movie in the making as well.
The vector-Hanuman may be just another passing fad. There will, undoubtedly, be others.