Twelve Shatki Paintings from Everyday America

“Know yourself, love yourself…be yourself."
-- Anonymous wall graffiti
Sepulveda Basin, CA. circa 1993.

Gallery I
Five Mahavidyas
Images of Social Pressure & Supreme Insight

One of the things I enjoy most about South-Asian thought is its hierarchy of priorities. Name and fame, riches and beauty, these things certainly make the list. But, in the end, what outplays all superficial reveries such as these is the act of realization; that “Ah Ha” moment which Nauman so ambiguously referenced way back in 1975.

As a matter of fact, the act of realization holds such a high place in Indian culture that there is whole set of goddesses (ten to be exact)  who represent the importance of this event. They are known as the Maha-vidyas. [1]

As most of us are aware the act of realization is not always a painless one. And though a few of the Mahavidyas are depicted as somewhat innocent and alluring, most of them possess some extremely wrathful and terrifying qualities. However, their fury should not be interpreted as ordinary self-serving anger. Or, more specifically, anger which scares away ignorance. It is their purpose to make sure we all realize that which we need to know in order to be truly free and alive, even if it means being forced out of our immediate comfort zones. [2]

There are several  accounts of how these goddesses came into being, all of which feature a wide cast of deities and characters including: Shiva (God of generation & transformation), Sati (Shiva’s wife aka: Parvati) and Daksha (Sati’s father). For those of you who are unfamiliar with these stories, my favorite telling goes a little something like this:

Once upon a time, King Daksha decides to throw a big party and invite all of high-society, but intentionally leaves his own daughter Sati and her newlywed husband Shiva off the invitation list. Daksha does not like his son-in-law and is resentful that his daughter chose to marry him. This is partly because of Shiva’s disheveled appearance, rambunctious ways and the uncivilized company he keeps. Moreover though, it’s really because Shiva is way more popular and well respected than Daksha -- a fact which Daksha is well aware of and terribly envious about.

Shiva, in a rare display of form, is not offended by his father-in law’s social slight. Rather in this instance, it is Sati who is furious with her father for being uninvited. She announces to Shiva that she will go to the party and disrupt it by publically displaying her free and wild side. Shiva is not sympathetic and further pressures Sati by forcibly forbidding her to attend.

Being leaned on by both her father and her husband proves to be too much for Sati though  and, in a Sammy Davis Jr. “I’ve Got to Be Me” like moment, she transforms into her ferocious form anyway and then proceeds to emanate from herself ten fearsome, alluring and dynamic goddesses. Swiftly overpowering Shiva with the prowess of her integral counterparts, Sati breaks free and makes off to the party while these ten goddesses (the Maha-vidyas) hold her husband in check.

When Sati arrives at the party though, still in her ferocious wild form, she is unrecognized and ridiculed by everyone including her own father. These existential challenges prove once again to be all too irksome for her, so she decides to end her material existence by publicly jumping into a blazing fire-pit right in the middle of her father’s big soirée.

Meanwhile back at home, still in the company of the ten Maha-vidyas, Shiva realizes the error of his ways and vows to also crash his father-in-law’s party to defend the honor of his wife. Of course he arrives too late only to find his wife has already burned to death and in a fit of rage Shiva picks up the corpse of his bride and begins a rampage which includes ripping the head off his father-in-law and replacing it with that of a goat.

Terrified of Shiva, and with no end of his destruction in sight, everyone in town organizes an emergency meeting to decide on how to manage his tantrum. But, since no one at this meeting felt qualified to challenge him personally and since Sati is no longer materialized, the Nobles adopt to call upon the Mayavidyas as a last ditch option to quell Shiva’s rage.

Answering this call, Shiva once again finds himself in the company of these ten magnificent goddesses. Coming to his senses he stops his destructive dance to ponder the compounded folly of the situation.

Realizing whole heartedly that he and Daksha should had simply let Sati be herself, Shiva hands his wife’s outer remains over to the Maha-vidyas. They return the favor by dividing Sati’s body into separate pieces and then, in a supernatural petrosomatoglyphic act of poetic justice, disperse them over numerous areas of the earth; which helps to ease Shiva’s suffering by camouflaging his wife’s more recognizable form until she felt it suitable to fully re-manifest herself again, this time as Parvati. [3]

This story of the Mahavidyas’ origins is undeniably one of complex social undertones, undertones which coincidentally bear uncanny contextual likenesses to some of the societal situations of 19th century America described in the novel "Kings Row" (i.e. cultures and civilizations change while human personalities tend to remain invariant.) [4]

Regardless of where (or when) you come from managing social circles is rarely ever easy and can even be downright mortifying. Yet, if one pays attention to the two stories I’ve referenced for the this series I believe one cannot help but find the most outstanding parallel issue to be this:

No matter how difficult the road ahead may seem, does giving in to the demands of social pressure -- as an artificial attempt to appease others or (even worse) ourselves -- decrease or only intensify the strife?

That’s not to imply though that social circles don't have their positive aspects. On the contrary, these paintings are just as much about affirmative human interaction and cooperation as they are about individualistic resistance. But, it’s clearly a cooperation based on the notion that societies likely function best when we accept and allow each other to develop and flourish in accordance with our own unique designs; rather than urging one another to be something we are not.

With these ideas in mind, it’s hard to argue that the legendary wisdom and dynamism of the Mahavidyas doesn’t exhibit universal merits… affording audacity to those who have the sense to stare toxic conformity in the face and offering realization, however uncomfortable the process may seem at times, to those who have fallen into the bottomless pit of compromise. For if freedom and acumen are worthwhile ends, then it would seem that *Parris should be encouraged to decide for himself what's right. [5]

* * *

Titles & Descriptions
The bulk of this series focuses on situations of marginalized persons from American history who stood true to themselves in the face of society’s pull, often to the forbearance of crippling challenges and consequences.

They feature the contrasts of the four seasons (each conceived in 2009 during the corresponding time of year). Wasps are used to symbolize the pestilence of our social situations, and moths (in pupa, caterpillar and full form) to symbolize evolution and our abilities to rise above our limitations. There are also televisions featured throughout, to draw attention to the vicarious multifaceted persistence of social pressure by assorted audio/visual media. Finally, I’ve included cakes which represent the tradition of Prasad, an offering to the deity which in turn becomes an offering for us all.

Again, the events alluded to in these images are ones of tremendous difficulty, even horror. Like one of my middle-school councilors once said, “Living a genuine life is the hardest thing you could ever possibly do, unless of course you try to live a disingenuous one.” What’s more, these are episodes from the lives of real people. Being well aware of this, it has never been my intention to belittle or trivialize them.

However, these are Tantric paintings; which, if I’ve understood things right, doesn’t mean that they should necessarily revel in the hardship of others. But, it certainly doesn’t mean they should make-believe troubling occurrences don’t happen. This work was created in a spirit of empathy and insight. With the idea that all we encounter (tribulations included) are active opportunities for our own realization, growth and independence.


1) The Denial of Winter, Dasa Dhumavati & The Deposing of Alisha Owen.
(2009, 33x48 in. -- Oil on Canvas)

Description: The Mahavidya featured here is named Dhumavati and these particular events of social pressure revolve around the story of Alisha Owen. Miss Owen is a Nebraska woman who courageously came forward with tales of being abused and molested in her youth. However, since her accusations included prominent members of Nebraskan society, it was seriously suggested by the authorities that she recant and keep her mouth shut. She didn’t, and received a hefty prison sentence for perjury.

2) The Nuisance of Spring, Dasa Tara & The Marketing of Don Vliet (2009).
Dimensions & Medium: 33x48 in. -- Oil on Canvas.

Description: The Mahavidya featured here is named Tara and theses particular events of social pressure revolve around the musician Captain Beefheart; a colorful performer who eventually rose up to swim against the current of an industry that suppresses creativity and evolution by valuing investment-return and culture control over artistic expression.

3) The Destruction of Summer, Dasa Kali & The Eviction of Aurora Vargas (2009).
Dimensions & Medium: 33x48 in. -- Oil on Canvas.

Description: The Mahavidya featured here is named Kali, and these particular events of social pressure revolve around Aurora Vargas, one of the very last evictees from Chavez Ravine – a section of Los Angeles real estate that city officials felt would better serve as land for a baseball stadium and police academy rather than remain neighborhoods for some their city’s longest living ancestry.

4) The Disregard of Fall, Dasa Bhairavi & The Conformance of Geronimo (2009).
Dimensions & Medium: 33x48 in. -- Oil on Canvas.

Description: The Mahavidya featured here is named Bhairavi and these particular events of social pressure revolve around the famous Amerindian Geronimo and his grapple to temper the infusion of Christianity with his own indigenous beliefs.

5) Ontological Insecurity, Sati’s Combustion and the Frustration of Karthik Rajaram (2012).
Dimensions & Medium: 27x38 in. -- Oil on Canvas.

Description: This painting features Sati (Shiva’s wife and the progenitor of all ten Mahavidyas) and uses most of the same symbolism as the others. However it moves away from the exterior, seasonal scenes to one of an “intra-psychi” interior. This is because this piece expresses a situation in American History where an individual would finally succumb to his own internal demons of status and material wealth, eventually taking his own life along with the lives of his family. This is undoubtedly a painting about socially induced suicide but at separate ends of the pole. Sati chose to end her life because she refused to spend one minute playing a role unbefitting to her; while it would seem Mr. Rajaram chose to do so because he had spent way too many minutes doing the exact opposite (i.e. Sati refused to pay charades, while Mr. Rajajram was no longer able to keep the charade up).

6) Season Number Five, Dasa Chinnamasta, & The Pardoning of Authenticity (2012).
Dimensions & Medium: 47x66 in. -- Oil on Canvas.

Description: The Mahavidya featured here is named Chinnamasta and this piece symbolizes a fifth and heightened season of release… an afterworld where the battles of social pressure are transcended by honesty, esteem and self-discovery, letting the flowers and moths of unfettered self-expression bloom and fly… regardless of the outer world’s temperament and decree. Chinnamasta is symbolic of tremendous sacrifice, in this case sacrificing the illusion of security (via absolute social acceptance) for the reality of security (via absolute self-fulfillment).

1) Snowflake (Accompanies the painting: The Denial of Winter).
2) Sunflower (Accompanies the painting: The Nuisance of Spring).
3) Pumpkin (Accompanies the painting: The Destruction of Summer).
4) Cocoon (Accompanies the painting: The Disregard of Fall).
5) Vise (Accompanies the painting: Ontological Insecurity).
6) Cake (Accompanies the painting: Season Number Five).

All 11x16 in. Graphite, Ink & Watercolor on Paper, 2009.

* * *

[1] “Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions,” Oxford University Press, 2000, page: 352. Mahavidyas (Sanskrit: great + divine-realization) Ten South-Asian goddesses who represent ten forms of transcendental realization/knowledge and tantric power. Aspectual emanations of Devi (the feminine half of Brahman) they are as follows: 1) Kali, 2) Tara 3) Sodasi (sixteen, the number of perfection and cosmic totality) 4) Bhukaneshvari (realization of the merits and snares of the material world) 5) Bhairavi (realization of the infinite variety of desires and death) 6) Chinnamasta (realization of the eternal night, depicted drinking blood from her own self severed head) 7) Dhumavati (realization of the destruction of the cosmos, when only smoke remains) 8) Bagala (realization of the weight of negative emotional forces, hate, jealousy, etc.) 9) Matangi (power and dominion) 10) Kamala (the girl of the lotus and right consciousness).
[2,3] “Hindu Goddesses,” Kinsley, University of California Press/Berkley/Los Angeles, 1997, page: 162. “Bhagavata-Purana,” medieval Hindu mythology, circa 3rd century CE. “Guhyatiguhya-Tantra,” circa 8th century CE.
[4] This refers to the triangular situation set around the three characters: Dr.Henry Gordon, Louise Gordon, & Drake McHugh, from the novel: “Kings Row,” 1940, Kingdom House Publishing.
[5] This declaration is in reference to a climactic scene from the film: “Kings Row,” wherein *Parris, the protagonist, is challenged to cast aside social pressure and manifest his own resolutions single-mindedly.
[6] “Grant Wood,” Dennis, University of Missouri Press/Columbia/Missouri, 1985 , pages: 201-255.
[7] “Hindu Goddesses,” Kinsley, University of California Press/Berkley/Los Angeles, 1997, pages: 151-155 & 165-172.
[8] “Tantra, The Path of Ecstasy,” Feurerstein, Shamballa Publications/Boston/Massachusetts, 1998, pages: 70-85.

 Copyright 2009 Charles Wish

Copyright 2009
Charles Wish