The Goddess Lakshmi in Popular Culture

Descriptions of the Goddess of Wealth, whose name derives from the root word 'Laksh' which means 'pleasing', have existed since time immemorial. Take a look at how she has been portrayed in popular culture in the 20th century

By The Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

Ganesh V Shivaswamy

From time immemorial, the Goddess Lakshmi has been depicted with attributes which have remained unchanged. Elements of the padma (lotus), gaja (elephant), varada-hasta (a hand gesture of boon giving) are found. In some icons, she is seated while in others she stands upon a lotus. This depiction remained fairly unchanged till the advent of the Industrial revolution and the onset of the printing industry in India.

Shri Lakshmi Lustrated by Elephants (Gaja-Lakshmi), Unknown, 1st century B.C., From the collection of: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
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Shri Lakshmi Lustrated by Elephants (Gaja-Lakshmi) Shri Lakshmi Lustrated by Elephants (Gaja-Lakshmi), From the collection of: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
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The Hindu Goddess Shri Lakshmi The Hindu Goddess Shri Lakshmi, From the collection of: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
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Lakshmi, Raja Ravi Varma, Ravi Varma Press, 1930s, From the collection of: The Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation
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Gaja Gauri, Raja Ravi Varma, Ravi Varma Press, Karla Lonavala, Circa 1910, From the collection of: The Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation
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Although there were several Printing Presses which existed in India prior to the establishment of the Ravi Varma Press, none captivated the imagination of the common man as much as the prints from this Press. The Lakshmi on the left was first issued in September 1894 and with this print, a static representation would begin to change – and rapidly so. Radical change is brought about as these prints would destroy injunctions against religious access – making religion accessible to the masses.

Lakshmi Saraswati Sanyog by Ravi Varma PressOriginal Source: Hemamalini and Ganesh Shivaswamy Collection, Bengaluru

Access to religious imagery is amplified through the printing of 'Cheap Prints' as in the case of this print whereby a conglomerate representation of Lakshmi and Saraswati is made available even to the poorest man for a meagre consideration. 

Through the Ravi Varma Press, religious imagery is greatly democratized. 

Lakshmi Vinolia soap calendar (1930) by Attributed to the Ravi Varma PressThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

One needs no better proof of the immense popularity of these images than when commerce embraces religion – more so in a land of many religions. 

A strong brand begins to emerge which transcends preaching to something far more important – a conversation with the viewer, with the devotee. 

The art of the static Lakshmi image begins to change. With the desires of both the devotees and the merchants seeking her blessing to sell their products, the design of Lakshmi in popular art adjusts to the needs of the market. 

Gaja Lakshmi by M RamalingamOriginal Source: Hemamalini and Ganesh Shivaswamy Collection, Bengaluru

As if in answer to an obvious question by her devotee,"For if you are the Goddess of Wealth, where is the money?"  from her hand which confers a boon begins to flow gold and silver, for none of the earlier imagery depicted money.

The Birth of Lakshmi by Sapar BrothersOriginal Source: Hemamalini and Ganesh Shivaswamy Collection, Bengaluru

Satiation in matters of wealth is difficult to attain and, therefore, Lakshmi is now seen giving with both hands from a kalash (a pot if infinity). 

Lakshmi with a Kalasha by S MurugakanniOriginal Source: Hemamalini and Ganesh Shivaswamy Collection, Bengaluru

And what starts with a trickle ends in flood, to the point where every element of the image has now gained materialistic connotations.

Lakshmi by S MurugakanniOriginal Source: Hemamalini and Ganesh Shivaswamy Collection, Bengaluru

And then, to the point where the lotus is dispensed with and Lakshmi is made to sit on a gem-stone. 

In a painting by S Murugakanni, she glimmers and sparkles as even the halo is diamond studded!

Dhanya Lakshmi by Sapar BrothersOriginal Source: Hemamalini and Ganesh Shivaswamy Collection, Bengaluru

Perhaps commissioned by a merchant dealing in agriculture related products, this painting represents Lakshmi blessing the devotee with flourishing produce – for she has nourished the soil with gold and fruit.

Lakshmi by S MurugakanniOriginal Source: Hemamalini and Ganesh Shivaswamy Collection, Bengaluru

Here she is, the Goddess as the ambassador for textiles. 

Gold coin of Kumaragupta I (415/447)British Museum

Which image truly represent the Goddess? The unchanging or the fluid, the sublime or garish, the restrained or the popular? 

The answer is possibly all of them, for she is sought after by all. A Goddess who represents wealth, nutrition, fragrance, fertility and well-being – she is coveted by all!

A truly secular and all encompassing entity.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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