PART III: INDIAN ART AND THE REPRESENTATION OF A SECULAR CHRIST
One can propose that the representation of Christ in Indian art goes hand in hand with a new spirit of secularization in Indian culture. This seems to be the basic thrust of M.M.Thomas’s work on the ‘Acknowledged Christ of the Hindu Renaissance’. The Christ figure is seen to represent a counter culture, which addresses the existential situation of a nation suffering from years of exploitation and colonial rule. It is the suffering Jesus that speaks to the heart of a suffering people. Walter Benjamin spoke of the “tradition of the oppressed”, and he saw in art an effort to discover a new and revolutionary freedom.
W.G.Archer discussing the work of Jamini Roy, claims that his distinctive style combining modernity with a tradition of folk art came from an intense sense of nationalism that was not just political, but imaginative. He comments:
By 1934....in his pictures of Santals dancing, drumming and making music, the stress is everywhere on the vertical and the rigid. An idiom similar to that employed by Picasso, but, in fact, in direct line with medieval Indian sculpture, the miniature paintings of Central India, and the village paintings of Bengal, converts the nose and forehead into a single straight line. Faces are shown in profile and eyes are not only enlarged but are given the same kind of arrogant sharpness noticeable in the earlier style of Indian painting, that of the Jains....
In 1937 Jamini Roy shed Santal subjects, he concentrated on a theme which was even more closely related to problems of independence and defiance—the career of Christ. Speaking much later, in 1943, he told Mary Milford:
‘This is my latest period. I am not a Christian. I do not read the New Testament or any other writing but I meditate on what I have heard or what I know. There have been few, if any, satisfactory paintings of Christ for expression of the significance of his life. This is a great theme and I shall continue to struggle to find a fitting expression in modern times’
“Art and the Primitive” in Modern Indian Art by W.G.Archer pp110-11
In the eighties Fr. Samuel Rayan sj drew my attention to a series of paintings by the important modern Indian artist Kishen Khanna many of which represented St. Thomas exploring the wounds of the Risen Christ. I went to meet Kishen Khanna in his studio, and asked him why he had been so interested in this theme. He began by answering my question in a rather aggressive way by stating “I am not a Christian”. However, he later explained to me that he was attracted to the figure of the Apostle Thomas because of his attitude of doubting. He said that he too was a doubter. Further he told me that the Christ of the Gospels was of interest to Indians because this Teacher was somehow between two opposing cultures. On the one hand there was the narrow religiosity of the traditional Jews, and on the other hand there was the Colonial power and wider global interests of the Romans. It was in relation to the conflict that existed between these two cultures that Jesus suffered, and was finally crucified. “We as modern Indians are in a similar position” Kishen Khanna told me. “On the one hand we have the narrow religiosity of communalism, and on the other hand the colonial powers that still dominate our economy. That is why we are fascinated by this figure of Jesus.”
In both the art of Jamini Roy, who in many ways was the Father of modern Indian art and Kishen Khanna, a post-independence art representative of progressive trends in modern India, led to an interest in themes that had engaged artists in the West, especially in modern German expressionism. It is the secular Christ who opposed political and religious oppression in his time, that spoke to modern secular minded Indians. One can relate this art to a movement in modern art opposing Fascism, as in the work of Emile Nolde or Barlach. It is the suffering Christ of history that makes a mark on Indian art, so that in the fifties and sixties, many important Indian artists painted Christian themes.
Christ and a counter culture: a secular encounter with the Other.
My own childhood was in the context of an encounter with the different Faith traditions of my parents. My Father came from a reformed Hindu tradition of the Radha Swami sect. My Mother was brought up in the Unitarian Church, and I was baptized as a baby into the Presbyterian Church. My Mother became a Catholic when I was about fourteen years old, and I followed her into the Catholic Church. But for me this diversity of Faiths remained an important dimension of my own spiritual life. I did not become a Catholic as a radical step away from either the Faith of my Father, or the form of Christian life that I was brought up to enjoy as a non conformist Protestant. I remember as precious the evenings when we had Bible study in the home, which my Father would join in with great interest. In fact my Father used to accompany my Mother and I to the local Presbyterian Church in Dehradun, and it was his expressed wish that I should be brought up a Christian, though he himself did not want to identify himself with the Church. At school, it was my Father who taught me the English metaphysical poets, and I remember my deep sense of respect for what I could recognize as his own spiritual understanding of their Christian mystical experience. It was this that led me, as an art student in London, to try and understand the spiritual roots of the Hindu tradition. When I heard of Dom Bede Griffiths, who was visiting England in 1963, I was delighted to find someone in the Catholic Church who was appreciative of the Hindu Faith, and felt that as a Christian, we could learn much from other Faiths. This is finally how I came to join his Ashram in 1967, after teaching in a Krishnamurthy inspired school. I might mention here also, that the final decision to give up my work as an art teacher, and go to Kurisumala Ashram came about after a long talk I had with Swamy Ranganath Ananda, who became the head of the Ramakrishna order. I had heard a series of lectures he gave on the Bhagavad Geetha, in which he made frequent references to the Bible, and I had been very much inspired by the evident spirituality of this Hindu Monk. So I went to him for advice in the nearby Ramakrishna Math. I told him about my own inner search, and the fact that I had a Hindu Father, but had been brought up as a Christian. I also told him about the Ashram of Dom Bede Griffiths. He listened attentively, and finally with the authority of a spiritual director, advised me to give up my teaching job, to go and find my spiritual journey in the Ashram of Dom Bede. Later, I heard with surprise from Swami Abhishiktananda, that this same Swami Ranganath Ananda had been less than sympathetic of a Christian monk’s attempt to live and dress like a Hindu Sanyasi. Swami Ranganath Ananda had, as far as I remember, asked Swami Abhishiktananda why he felt it necessary to wear the robes of a Hindu monk, and to follow Hindu practices. Why did he not simply remain a Christian monk, open to and respectful of the Truth underlying Hindu experience ? Ramakrishna monks in Rome do not try to wear cassocks, he had commented. We can respect the other, without trying to imitate the other.
In my work as an artist connected with what has been called the “inculturation process”, I have often faced this problem. By representing Jesus as an Indian Sanyassi, or by incorporating Indian forms of worship, or cultural practices into Christian liturgy, were we not appropriating what was distinctive of another Faith tradition ? I became increasingly aware, from what Hindus also communicated to me, that the efforts of inculturation were resented, as coming not from a real desire for religious dialogue, but from a hidden agenda to convert. I felt that this was really not fair on either Dom Bede Griffiths, or Swami Abhishiktananda. In fact there were many Christians who felt that Swami Abhishiktananda had gone too far. Was he still a Christian, or had he become a convert to Hinduism ? To those who might accuse me of appropriating Hindu symbols into my art, I had to say that these were as much my cultural heritage, as they were of any Hindu believer. A person in my position, like even Brahmobandab Upadhyaya, might claim to be a “Hindu Christian”. I have to say that I have never felt comfortable with this kind of dual identity. But I would say that though I am a Christian in all that I try to express through my art, the Hindu or Buddhist ‘Other’ is very important to me. This Otherness is not just outside of myself—it is part of my own self understanding. Here I would like to add that as an artist I would not like to be labelled as being just a “Christian artist”. As I have tried to explain in this essay, Art is essentially secular, in that it springs from a human rather than a religious identity. Art does not belong to any particular Faith. There is an independence in art practices that makes the imagination not subservient to religious or sectarian propaganda. Art, like the imagination, is an expression of what it is to be human, and the human longing for the Spiritual.
Recently I have become involved with a project at an art and design school where I have been teaching for the last thirteen years, which is called the “Kabir Project”. The school where I have been teaching is what might be called a “secular” school. The people who started this school of art and design did not want to be categorized as belonging to any particular Faith tradition. And yet there was an interest in exploring the way that spiritual traditions in India had influenced art. I was asked to teach because I was interested in religious symbols in art, and how these symbols could be interpreted in different ways, bringing Faiths together. My Mother had been very interested in the ideas of Carl Jung, the psychologist, and she had kept a diary of her dreams, and used to encourage me also to remember my dreams, which she tried to help me to understand. From an early age I became interested in symbols, and in the Mandala. I had myself dreams of the Mandala form. These, my Mother felt, indicated an inner search for wholeness. When I went to Kurisumala Ashram I painted a series of Christian Mandalas, which was something that I had thought about a great deal. These were, to begin with, not acceptable in the context of the Indian Church, where such designs were associated with esoteric schools such as Tantra. But later Missio in Aachen chose these Mandalas for a Calendar which they published in 1975. Later, Misereor also asked me to use Mandala designs for their first “Hunger Cloth” which came out in 1976. The tradition of using large hanging curtains over the Holy Images during the season of Lent, goes back to ancient liturgical practices in the Orthodox Churches, where the Veil of the Temple was incorporated into a ritual recognition that the Divine Mysteries lie beyond what can be represented. However these ancient liturgical cloths were also used for catechetical purposes, by incorporating symbols that helped the faithful to reflect on liturgical signs.
The work that I was doing relating liturgical symbols to forms that are used in the Hindu and Buddhist tradition for meditation, was of interest to Christians in the West. This was because the Church in Germany was very conscious of the ideas of Carl Jung about the archetypal symbols which cross over religious and cultural boundaries. In fact Carl Jung had himself done much research into the structure and symbolism of the Mandala. An early Christian mystic like Saint Nicholas of Flüe in Switzerland, had used a Mandala form for meditation, which was later also printed as a Hunger Veil for Lent by Misereor. Hildegard von Bingen had instructed her nuns to paint mandala pictures which she had experienced through her own mystical journey. So there was ample indication that Mandala forms were as much a part of the Christian tradition (as we see even in the great Rose windows of Gothic Cathedrals) as they have been important in Yoga, and Tantric art both in the Hindu and Buddhist tradition. Islamic art is also rich with these symbolic abstract patterns which have a mandala structure which are often found in the domes of Mosques. Kabir spoke of the “gagana mandala” or mandala of the sky dome.
Can these archetypal symbols be a bridge between different Faith traditions? After the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and Muslim reactions to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, many Indian artists felt that it was important to show that what we are calling Indian Culture and art is itself a product of the meeting between Hindu and Islamic art forms. It was for this reason that the poetic tradition of Kabir was chosen as representing this coming together of Hindu mystical experience, and the Sufi vision of Reality. All Faiths have reached towards a celebration of Unity. But this Unity cannot be found at the cost of diversity. In fact it has been pointed out that Kabir himself was very critical both of Hindu and Muslim orthodoxy. His distinctive message was that God is to be enshrined in the human heart. In one of his dohas he says that we can break the Mandir and the Masjid, but we should never break anyone’s heart. In a way one could say that Kabir belonged to the Prophetic tradition which insisted that God is not concerned with rituals, and sacrifices, but accepts the “offering of a humble and broken heart”. Listening to the songs of Kabir I felt I had found a spirituality which spoke to me at a very deep level. After all the Radha Swamy tradition of my own Grand Father, who became a Sanyasi in that mystical movement of Panjab which has much in common with Sikhism, is deeply enmeshed with the spiritual language which we find in the songs of Kabir. It was this coming together of Islamic and Hindu spiritual movements, which inspired Rabindranath Tagore, who was also in touch with a distinctively Bengali movement of inter-religious Faith through song, among the Bauls of Bengal. It was Rabindranath Tagore who attempted to translate some of the songs of Kabir into English, which I first encountered in Dom Bede’s Ashram. Later I was to find a similar bringing together of mystical insights in the Lingayat culture of Basavana in Karnataka. Here too a spirituality had emerged, coming out the insights of both Sufi Pirs, and Hindu Sants. It was from this faith-dialogue that a unique synthesis of a common search for the Divine found creative and poetic expression. This has been the contribution to Indian art through the Ashramic idea of the Sat-Sangh, where people of different Faiths come and share their common experience of God by living together in a natural environment. This was the distinctive idea behind Tagore’s educational experiment at Santiniketan, in Bengal, where he tried to reach towards the ideal of a “Viswa Bharati”, or Universal Culture.
Art Ashram. April 2010
(The following might provide a general overview of the thinkers on art, culture and secularism, that have influenced me.)
“Traces of the Other” by Michel Barnes. Satya Nilayam Endowment Lectures Series No. 3. 2000
“The Rupture with Memory: Derrida and the Specters that Haunt Marxism” by Nissim Mannathukkaren. Navayana Publishing Pondicherry, 2006
“The Great Transformation” by Karen Armstrong 2006.
“The Historical Jesus: The life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant” by John Dominic Crossan. Harper San Francisco 1991
“Tradition Modernity and Counterculture: An Asian Perspective.” By S. Kappen. Visthar 1994
“Man and the Universe of Faiths” by M.M.Thomas. C.L.S. 1975
“Christian Art in Asia” by Masao Takenaka. CCA 1975
“Jesus in Indian Painting” by Richard Taylor. CISRS 1976
“The Spirit of Man in Asian Art” by Laurence Binyon. 1935
“Christ the Form of Beauty” by Francesca Aran Murphy. Edinburgh 1995
“Time and Narrative.” Vol. 1. By Paul Ricoeur. Trans. Kathleen McLughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago Press. 1984
 Cf “The Rupture with Memory” by Nissim Mannathukaren op cit. Chapter IX “The Angel of History”
 WG Archer: India and Modern Art (George Allen, 1959).
 Kishen Khanna was born in 1925 in what is now Pakistan. He studied at the Forman Christian College in Lahore. He came to Mumbai to work in Grindlay’s bank, and joined the Progressive Artists' Group which was started just after the Independence of India by artists like M.F.Hussain, Francis Souza, Raza etc.
 The Patron saint of Switzerland, lived 1n the Fifteenth Cent. and was known for his political interventions. Though he was a hermit at the end of his life, he had been married, and had a large family. The Mandala form ascribed to him shows the face of Christ at the centre, with an abstract structure that leads the eye into the centre of the face, but also outwards to the world.