|Teresa Bergen's Z, Dancing on a Sunflower, Encounters a Swan.|
"I've come across this website...where you have shown our Gods & Goddesses in a pretty distasteful manner,'' Ajeya wrote from India. "Would you like it if others would've painted Lord Jesus in the same manner? Would you give Lord Jesus or your parents the face of a dog or cat?"
The writer was angry about Bergen's website (www.babylovecat.com/gallery/indian.html), which features paintings of cats—and in one case a dog—in poses inspired by traditional representations of Hindu gods. The animals repose on lotus flowers, or hold their many arms in graceful, questioning gestures.
Bergen, 38, also introduces less traditional elements, such as giant bugs and pterodactyls criss-crossing the sky.
Over the past two weeks, as her website traffic ballooned, Bergen got about 50 more emails from as far away as England and Qatar complaining about her artwork.
Many of the messages referred to recent riots among Muslims worldwide over a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed.
Some alluded to sinister consequences if Bergen kept the website up, although a direct threat from any of the emailers is hard to ascertain.
In a cryptic reference to Christian and Muslim responses to blasphemy, one emailer wrote in broken English: "If you will do such thing you will be hanged publicly or stoned or someone may kill you, or you shall be put to death.... We Hindus generally do not come on road and become violent.... Do you wish that we react to all of you, doing such denigration worldwide, in a way like Muslims are doing. Think twice my sister!"
Bergen traced the furor over her artwork to a website run by Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (www.hindujagruti.org), a group in the Indian city of Mumbai devoted to protecting the Hindu faith.
Bergen says she can understand why someone would get angry at her paintings but wishes her critics knew her imitations came out of respect.
"I think that people first think that it's a mockery—people who don't know me," says Bergen, who was raised Catholic but says she worships cat gods now. "I've been interested in Indian art for a long, long time. It's not like I just pulled this out of the air."
The Hindu theme came naturally to Bergen, who has long taken a special interest in Indian culture and art. She traveled to the country last year to study yoga.
"It hurts to be misunderstood by people whose culture has meant a lot to you," she says.
Bergen has sold only one of her Hindu-inspired paintings, for $300. The rest she has given to friends who let her use their pets as models.
She says she was attracted to Hindu art because of "the happy way the gods are depicted, unlike, say, hanging on a cross and dying. And the colors. They usually have a lot of very bright, happy colors."
Bergen does not plan to take her paintings offline.
"They think this is some mean thing I'm doing to offend them," she says. "I'm sorry for that, but I'm going to stand by my right for free expression."