For more than a thousand years in Nepal, gods and goddesses were always depicted in exactly the same style. Known as thangka, these traditional images painted on silk had a flat, two-dimensional quality and followed a geometric formula, with body parts, implements, and symbols plotted on a grid.
But while leafing through a catalog one day in the 1930s, a young Nepali artist named Anandamuni Sakya saw, for the first time ever, Botticelli's Birth of Venus. Awestruck, he took up his brush and painted a lithe, supple, unprecedentedly lifelike Bodhisattva of Compassion on the half-shell, floating in the sea.
It was revolutionary. "Before that, traditional religious art from that region would not have had much shading or movement. You might have a scarf around a figure's neck, floating in the wind, but you'd never have a body twisting on the axis," explained art historian Siddhartha V. Shah, a leading expert on the Newar art renaissance that Sakya started, a modern Tantric movement in which contemporary Nepalis recast Buddhist and Hindu iconography with a dazzling blend of Renaissance, Baroque, and Bollywood sensibilities.
In these rhapsodic, spellbinding works, familiar motifs such as flames, lotuses, dragons, drums, sandals, and serene seated Buddhas come alive with electric colors, clearly delineated abs, and flexed fingers — even if the deity in question has eighty to flex.
Traditionally depicted as a woman in a hot-pink sari astride a crocodile, river-goddess Ganga appears in one Newar painting completely submerged, encircled by a rainbow and flanked by bubble-blowing fantail fish. Her smile and rampant hair evoke Stevie Nicks.
"It's a whole new way of representing her," Shah said. But it's still spiritual and useful as a meditation tool. As part of a benefit for the nonprofit Trika Institute that begins with a wine-and-food reception, Shah will auction off modern Tantric works at Pizzaiolo (5008 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) on Sunday, March 21. The paintings are on display at the restaurant until then.
Raised in a traditional Hindu household in Chicago, "I was supposed to be a doctor," Shah reflected. "My father's a doctor. My brother's a doctor. But I was always really, really interested in mythology." So he earned a degree in art history at Johns Hopkins University before moving to the Bay Area. These days, he visits Nepal frequently and tours the world exhibiting and lecturing on modern Tantric art.
Tantric art, he explained, is characterized by "a lot of wrathful, bizarre, and esoteric deities" such as Kalmakhya, "who represents the sexual organs of the great goddess," and fearsome but compassionate Vajrayogini: "She's sixteen years old, her nipples are erect, and her skin is the color of menstrual blood."
Shah relishes the effect of Newar paintings on viewers who "suddenly have a relationship with these images, even if they're not Hindu or Buddhist," he said. "They start out thinking they want a nice little Buddha, but they go home with a four-headed goddess." 6 p.m., $25. TrikaInstitute.org