Monday, October 1, 2007

Meditating on the Life of Jesus


In 1983, when I was setting up “INSCAPE” (Indian School of Art for Peace) as a registered society, and trying to build up the “Art Ashram”, I was asked to paint a long frieze in the refectory of the student’s home which had been set up by the Holy Cross Fathers in Katpadi, a village not far from the temple city of Udipi on the coast of Karnataka. Preparing for this, I went to visit Udipi, where there are eight monasteries, or Mathas, founded by the great Vaishnava theologian Madhva. Each Matha has its own temple shrine at the centre of the monastic cloisters, in a kind of courtyard with covered verandah walk going round the central open space. Along the walls of this walk, one can find a series of images painted on the walls, representing the life of Krishna. This is called the “Krishna Katha”, and is related to the whole Katha or Narrative tradition of theistic devotional story telling in India. Looking at this series of images telling the story, or Lila (play) of Krishna, I had the idea of preparing a similar series of images, all inter-connected like a series of windows, or covered walk, that would tell the story of Jesus. This could be my picturing of the Kristha Katha.

It is interesting to note, in this regard, that the very word “story” seems to originate in the idea that a series of window-openings were used to present “scenes” from a narrative sequence. Hence we talk of a “storey” of a building. This term applies to a level of a building, which has a series of windows. Out of each window, we can look to see a different view. Here the concept of built space is interwoven with the process of seeing, and also receiving light. The space of a building, and how spaces inter-relate is also understood as the “narrative” of architecture, and the way that living areas are “articulated”. The “Krishna Katha” is not simply an aid to the process of imagining the life of Krishna. It is also a way of directing the worshippers in their process of walking around the sacred space of the temple. We speak of “walking a person through a space”, and this is also sometimes referred to as “Talking one through a physical journey”. It is said that the ancient Sophists, who taught in the arcades of public spaces, were in the habit of walking as they talked. And in the process of developing their thought process, they would relate features of the walk to points in their talk. It is probable that St Paul when he visited Athens also spoke in this sophisticated way when he spoke to the philosophically minded Greeks. He used the idea of the shrine to an “Unknown god” as a point of departure, when speaking of the life of Jesus. It is not unlikely that he passed such a shrine on the way, as he spoke. Our process of remembering and articulating what we remember, is related to a journey through space, which is a mental, but also a physical walk. In this way the word “talk” and “walk”, are inter connected, and the interlinked terms “talk”, “tale” and “tell” all come from the same ancient root. To “tell” a story is to present a story in a “telling” way, which implies an active participation in the story process, or the process of remembering the story. It has been pointed out by various creative thinkers that one can say that we “tell” as story, but also that a story “tells” us.. In other words, we ourselves are in the process of being told by a story which lies beyond us in the space which determines our life, and movements. The story is not just something that the storyteller conceives of. Rather, the story tells itself. And in the process the storyteller becomes part of the story. This is very much what happened to Jesus the storyteller. The stories he told were in fact his own story; his narrative, in the form of a “gospel” came out of his life as a story. Here again I would like to refer to the interlinking words “tell” and “spell”. “Spell” in ancient thought is Mantra, it has a magical significance, in that a spell, has the power to bind—thus we speak of a story as being spellbinding. To tell a spell is to articulate the power of the word to create a world. The “gospel” was not just a good story; it was a good spell.

To return to the project that I took up in 1983 to gather together various biblical images in order to tell the story of Jesus, I decided to set these “windows” on the life of Christ, in an Indian landscape. I took the landscape of coastal Karnataka, as the setting for the telling of the story, and used the temple complex of the complex of temples at Udipi, as a built space around which to imagine the journey of Jesus who also often went to visit the temple and speak there. I now had to choose and arrange my pictures in a certain sequence. This I did by conceiving of two sets of images, one which dealt with the infancy narratives (the story of “bala Jesu) and subsequently his ministry of teaching (the guru Jesu). In this series the Temple plays a very important part. The second series, which in fact is on a wall opposite to the first series, starts with the last supper, and the passion of Jesus, concluding with the Resurrection and the final scenes of Ascension and Pentecost. Jesus is on the way to his death, but then continues that way with his disciples to Emmaus, where he explains to them the story of his life, and then on to the place where he ascended into heaven, and sent his disciples out to tell his story to the world.

The images can be arranged in the following way:
(a) The story of Mary, who has to take a journey with the child Jesus, concluding with the child Jesus coming to the Temple where he speaks to the elders.(Bala Jesus Marga)
(b) The story of the Baptism of Jesus, temptation, and finally his teaching his disciples by giving them a sermon on the mount. (Guru Jesus Marga)
(c) The story of the Passion, starting with his action of washing the feet of Peter, and concluding with his death on the Cross (Jesu Sanyasi Marga)
(d) The story of the Risen Christ sending out his disciples to tell his story, which concludes with the burning “seed” of the Pentecost. (Jesu Moksha Marga)

Finally I would like to make a few comments on the concept of “Marga” or “way” in relation to this process of telling the story. The story is itself a “way”, in that it also tells a way of being a disciple. To “tell” as earlier pointed out is to recount, but also to make accountable. The word “tell” also means to count, as we say that a man “tells the beads of the rosary”, In this connection, there is a link between the “way” and the “garland” or rosary. In fact later, I used this series of images to present a meditation on the mysteries of the rosary. The process of repeating a series of “mantras”, and linking these to a meditation on the life journey of the Lord, is a very ancient form of meditation. In the Buddhist tradition, telling a rosary of beads is combined with walking around the sacred space of the Stupa. Now the word becomes part of a process of “turning the wheel of the law”. It is in this sense also that I would like to understand the series of images that I present here as a way of meditating on the life of Jesus in the context of Asian forms of Spirituality.

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