The art of following a spiritual quest
Priest hopes his Church will share his love of painting
Father Thottam says the role of Christian artists in India has changed
Jesuit Father Roy Mathew Thottam looks every inch an artist, from goatee beard to cream-colored kurta, the long shirt so beloved of poets and artists in India, and the jeans that complete the picture.
Balding and looking older than his 45 years, the priest from Kerala is a small figure in the corner of the big hall of the Kolkata Salesian center. But there is nothing diminutive about his work, or his ambition, as he captures yet another “innerscape” – a reflection of the socio-cultural political reality felt deep within his own heart, as he describes it – this time of Mother Teresa.
It is Father Thottam’s first visit to Kolkata, a guest of a three-day artists’ camp at Calcutta archdiocesan social center. He arrived armed with his favorite dark colors, eager to sample the air which Mother Teresa breathed for more than 60 years.
His eyes sparkle as he shares his convictions about Christian art in India, and his mission to proclaim the Word of God and evangelize through visual arts. “From the beginning, the Christian community has made use of art forms to propagate the faith and give expression to their belief in Christ,” he says.
“Many of the Christian symbols originated from the catacomb paintings. From the beginning, there was a lot of encouragement and dynamic progress in the Christian community as far as the visual arts were concerned.”
Father Thottam holds degrees in fine arts from Christ Church university in Canterbury, in the UK, and folklore from Palayamkottai. He spent a year with veteran Indian Christian artist Jyoti Sahi, learning from and working with him. He has had five solo exhibitions of his paintings and four group exhibitions. Based in the Jesuit Institute for Religion and Culture in Cochin in Kerala state, the priest has been prolific, producing some 600 paintings over the past 20 years.
He speaks passionately about the history of Christian art but points out that the Church in India only ever showed a lukewarm interest in it because the development of indigenous theology was more “verbal” than visual.
As we move from the hall to the lawns of the social center, Father Thottam turns his attention to the Church’s views on visual arts. Excitedly he cites a letter Pope John Paul II wrote to the artists of the world – a great inspiration to the priest – which he says speaks encouragingly about artists and their role.
This encouragement of the arts has continued under Pope Benedict XVI, who asserts that artists can see the inner life of the world and the Gospel, says Father Thottam.
He chooses his words carefully to summarize the theology of Christian art. “Every art work is an incarnation of the Word and the values of the Kingdom and we have a role to bring out these values for society, which can kindle the heart of many for Christ.”
The role of Christian artists in India has changed, he says. “There was a time in the Church when the written Bible was not available to the people. The themes were depicted through paintings, so that common people could understand the Bible and Church teachings.
“In modern times, artists deal not so much with the description of the Bible but are more concerned with the interpretation of the Word. They take the ‘word’, reflect and meditate on it, and explain or interpret according to the socio-cultural reality they live in, according to each one’s experience of God.”
He calls his artistic search a “pilgrimage, journeying through the interior world, lives of the people, and the reality I live in. It is to do with a spiritual quest. In fact, every art is spiritual; it is something like meditation.”
But the Christian community in India “does not have a system of educating our children and community about the arts. We need to educate the people, and teach them to savor the artistic sensibility in them.”
Tribal communities, many of them Christian, on the other hand have a deep and almost instinctive knowledge of the power of rich artistic life.
“Art is alive in communities such as the Madhubani and Warli. As a result visual arts, music and dance are part of their social life and their worship."
Father Thottam says he hopes the Church in India will soon see the sense in using visual arts in the fields of the catechism, spirituality and liturgy.
There are signs of stirrings of this understanding with some making use of art in retreats and many religious men and women taking up art courses.
“Slowly it is picking up momentum,” he says, but this must be a shared experience as, together, artists can contribute a lot to the movement.
“Artists can create awareness of ecology through visual arts, and challenge communities,” he says, but only if the official Church can learn to remember its rich artistic roots.