Sanjay Patel just opened his exhibition at the Asian Art Museum; DreamWorks has optioned his book, Ramayana: Divine Loophole; and he has another wildly successful book under his belt, The Little Book of Hindu Deities. For a 37-year-old supervising animator and storyboard artist at Pixar, Patel is doing pretty well. But his perspective is a little different. “My work is in no way museum worthy or museum quality—it’s not!” he says.
Walking into Sanjay Patel’s exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, “Deities, Demons, and Dudes with ‘Staches,” is like entering a visual explosion. Color is everywhere in wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor excitement. It’s the visual cacophony of India neatly rendered by an American artist. I watched a group of gay men pose for pictures in front of a gigantic Vishnu. Opposite is Patel’s favorite wall in the exhibit, covered with sketches.
“I never intended the sketches to be this giant,” says Patel.
But Qamar Adamjee, associate curator of South Asian Art at the museum, stresses that the “sketches reveal Patel’s process, showing us something we don’t get to see in a finished project.”
Adamjee originally tapped Patel to “activate” the current exhibit at the museum, “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts,” that runs through April 8 (Pate’s exhibit is through April 22). Patel’s iconic image of a maharaja in profile graces the banners on the front of the museum. Broad-shouldered, bejeweled, and majestically grasping a sword in his right hand with a falcon clasping his left gloved hand, Patel’s maharaja is the epitome of rule in India. He wears a beautifully plumed turban and sports a luxurious moustache. Patel explains, “Moustaches are one of the iconic things about the maharajas. Moustaches also speak to my ‘lowbrowness.’”
“Lowbrowness” is one of the most attractive features of Patel’s art. “One of my pet peeves is that there’s so much art in a museum—then you go to a BART station and there’s nothing. This stuff is pedestrian (in India). It’s on matchboxes and taxi cabs.”
Patel first went to India after his first book was published. “That was a life-changing experience. Being in America I never feel American, being brown and named Sanjay. But in India, I only felt American.”
He fell in love with the caves at Ajanta and Ellora, developed a special fondness for village life in Kutch, and started putting his parents’ life in context. “Being in India explained things that I grew up with and never understood.”
Later, Patel fusses over my buying him a latte at the cafe Boot and Shoe Service in Oakland, and launches into the interview— with questions for me: “Are you an extrovert or an introvert? Why do writers write about other people and not themselves?”
We Myers-Briggs me, looking up my four letters on his iPhone and talking through the pros and cons of my personality, only then able to talk about what makes Patel tick. He says considers himself an illustrator, not an artist, and that it took a long time and many influences to develop his style. He looked at Picasso’s shifting style and Matisse “painting with scissors,” and added years of playing with white-out pens at Pixar, “the only thing resembling paint at the office,” before ever starting to sketch Hindu deities.
Mallika Prakash, an artist based in San Francisco, commented on Patel’s work. “When I saw Sanjay Patel’s Hindu Deities in a bookstore in New Delhi, I knew right away that I had to buy it. I often flip through his book when I need to break down a complex shape and keep only what’s essential to it.”
Everyone I’ve talked with about Patel’s first book loves it. His response? “Oh, that was just a marketing ploy. I took a year off, didn’t let myself do any art, and just read business books. I read Rich Dad Poor Dad cover to cover, and it changed my life.” Hindu Deities was the result of his year-long business experiment.
Patel grew up outside of Los Angeles; his parents were hotel owners off Route 66. Every morning, he was sent out to gather marigold petals from the flowers around the hotel parking lot, then would accompany his father in puja. “Before anyone had tea, he attended to the deities,” Patel says. Patel showed pictures of his father’s altar, the image of the Indian saint his mother feeds regularly, and a picture of Jesus Christ on the wall of their hotel with a tilak. The deities and saints were clearly a major focus of Patel’s visual environment while growing up. But when asked about his father and his devotion, Patel says, “he’s more interested in lighting candles… he doesn’t talk about these things.”
When I ask about his family and their reaction to his art, Patel says, “My mother is mostly concerned about the children that I don’t yet have, and my father, well, he’s not a reader.”
But they’ve seen his art, seen his books?
“I’ve tried to show it to them, but they’re not really into it. My dad doesn’t do books.”
And your brother?
Sanjay brightens a bit.
“He’s pretty good—he’ll check up on me, ask me about what I’m doing. He’s seen my stuff.”
I ask about Ramayana: Divine Loophole. In length, style, depth of subject matter, and emotional range, it’s an entirely different work than Hindu Deities. I ask if Patel “grew up” between the two books. “Naw, I just knew how to use Adobe Illustrator better. That’s the only difference.”
Ramayana took Patel over a year to prepare for. The demons are graphically evil, with radioactively glowing eyes. His heroes are tortured by karmic twists and illusions. The stand-off between Rama and Ravana is epic. As Rama heroically eviscerates Ravana with a blinding arrow, “The universe was silenced as evil was brought to an end for an age.”
A docent trainee at the museum, Meena Vashee, gave her comments on Sanjay’s Ramayana. “He makes use of cutting-edge, 21st century artistic techniques to illustrate an ancient Hindu epic. The illustrations, superbly done, help transport the reader 2,500 years back in time to a distant land.”
The grim determination of Rama and the intoxicating portrayals of Ravana speak to Patel as both an artist and a person. He vacillates between amazing accomplishments and the demons in the edges of his thoughts, making light of his work and process.
Patel and I stop in Walden Pond Bookstore, next to Boot and Shoe Service, to locate a copy of his Ramayana. It’s been taken off the front display, but an employee helps us locate it on a table of “epic works.” He invites her to see his exhibit, stressing its smallness and the kindness of the museum in hosting it. Really? This from an artist deep in discussion with DreamWorks about the development of the book he’s downplaying?
Regardless, Patel’s busy. He’s proposing ideas to Pixar for a short film while finishing a children’s book, Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth, with his girlfriend Emily Haynes. He pulls up images from the book’s inside cover flap he was working on the day before. “Look, here’s Emily, working on her computer. Look at her kick-ass boots! I’m pretty pleased with those.”
I admire the kick-ass boots, then examine Patel drawn in his alcove in their apartment, working away on his Mac.
“I love these little details. I totally geek out on this stuff,” he says.
“Geeking out” about cover flaps is one very small part of Patel’s work. Adamjee explains, “He’s doing what artists have been doing for thousands of years before him. He looks at art and figures out how to reinterpret it for the present day.”
Patel responds, “Part of the job is to truly honor what’s come before you, (because) we’re all standing on each other’s shoulders. This stuff doesn’t come out of thin air.”
No, Patel’s work doesn’t come out of thin air. But his are the next set of shoulders future artists will be standing on.
Now through April 22. Tateuchi Thematic Gallery, second floor, Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco, 94102. $17 general; $13 seniors; $12 students; $7 children 13-17; members and SFUSD students free. Closed Mondays. (415) 581-3500. www.asianart.org.