SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA, December 21, 2011 (Smithsonian Magazine): Sanjay Patel, 36-year-old pop artist and Pixar veteran, arrives at the entrance of San Francisco's Asian Art Museum, breathless. His vahana, or vehicle, is a silver mountain bike; his white helmet is festooned with multicolored stickers of bugs and goddesses.
The name of the show--Deities, Demons and Dudes with 'Staches--is as quirky and upbeat as the 36-year-old artist himself. It's a lighthearted foil to the museum's exhibition, Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts. Patel, who created the bold banners and graphics for Maharaja, was given this one-room fiefdom to showcase his own career: a varied thali (plate) of the animated arts.
"I've known of Sanjay's work for a while," says Qamar Adamjee, the museum's associate curator of South Asian Art. "[Hindu] stories are parts of a living tradition, and change with each retelling," Adamjee observes. "Sanjay tells these stories with a vibrant visual style--it's so sweet and so charming, yet very respectful. He's inspired by the past, but has reformulated it in the visual language of the present."
In Patel's show, and in his illustrated books--The Little Book of Hindu Deities (2006) and Ramayana: Divine Loophole (2010)--he distills the gods and goddesses down to their essentials. Now he wheels through the room, pointing to the cartoon-like images and offering clipped descriptions: There's Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, with his cherished stash of sweets; Saraswati, the goddess of learning and music, strumming on a vina; the fearsome Shiva, whose cosmic dance simultaneously creates and destroys the universe.
It was while Patel was at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) that representatives from Pixar, which has a close relationship with the prestigious school, saw Patel's animated student film, Cactus Cooler. "Pixar loved it, and they recruited me." Patel has been at Pixar since 1996.
Patel didn't grow up enthralled with Hindu imagery, but the seeds were there. Six years into his Pixar career, he opened an art book and came across paintings from India. "The more I read," he recalls, "the more I was drawn into a world of imagery that had always surrounded me. Before, it was just part of my family's daily routine. Now I saw it in the realm of art."