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The search for the Indian face of Jesus

Many of India's minority cultures and faiths refuse to accept the caste-riddled dominant culture as Indian culture

The search for the Indian face of Jesus

'Universal Christ' by Jyoti Sahi

Published: August 14, 2020 10:29 AM GMT

Updated: August 15, 2020 04:59 AM GMT

In a two-part series, Christian artist Jyoti Sahi reflects on the place of art in the process of "inculturation" in the Indian Church:

The relation between art and colonialism has always interested me. Portraits of former Portuguese governors and officials in Goa, western India, show a very close link to the depiction of Christ in the art of Goan Churches. Colonizers, whether Portuguese, French, or British, brought to India their cultural understanding of Christianity.

The connection between Christian art and the spread of colonial powers in Asia meant that colonial interests often compromised the Christian mission. The concept of "inculturation" can be interpreted as the effort of Indian Churches to come out of a colonial understanding of Christianity in Asia, to a new awakening in the universal Church.

However, "inculturation" has often been approached in two opposing ways: one as the dialogue with other faiths, and the other as a tool for evangelization. The difference has given rise to misunderstandings and confusion about inculturation itself.

A fundamental question confronts those searching for an "Indian face" of Christ: What is Indian? Indian culture is an amalgam of several cultures, varied characteristics, and diverse ethnicities. A form of Indian nationalism has tried to stress Indian culture as India's dominant culture.

Many of India's minority cultures and faiths refuse to accept the caste-riddled dominant culture as Indian culture. There are other cultures such as that of indigenous people, termed Adivasis, and of the Dalit people, who live outside the caste system. The question of what is Indian has troubled many who have reflected about the relation of Gospel to culture.

The Gospels do not describe the physical appearance of Jesus. However, each culture has presented Jesus in their own cultural forms. Since ancient times, Christianity wore different clothes, spoke varied languages, and followed diverse customs.

Indians of different cultural backgrounds responded to the Gospel narratives after learning them in their local languages, beginning with Tamil, the South Indian language. For centuries, the Indian depiction of Jesus has been linked to local cultures, until the arrival of colonialists.

The Moguls depicted Christian themes in their characteristic miniature style. Some Indians who read Christian literature began to visualize Biblical narratives in an Indian cultural setting. Much of what is termed "Christian art" in an Indian style, was done by non-Christian Indians, who found the Gospel of Jesus interesting and relevant to India’s search for freedom.

Twentieth century artists, such as Jamini Roy (1887-1972) and Nandalal Bose (1882-1966), who were not themselves Christian, represented Christian themes in an Indian idiom. This led other Indian artists including a few Christian artists to explore an Indian approach to the Gospel narratives. It was only after the Second Vatican Council that Catholics and the official Church began to accept this idea.

'Washing of the feet — Kashmiri Jesus' by Jyoti Sahi

Influence of Benedictine monk

In my works, I have tried to represent the universal teaching of Jesus using cosmic symbols. Efforts to show Jesus as an Indian have generally led to controversies. In the work that I did for the All Saint's Church in Srinagar, I tried to represent Jesus as a Kashmiri. It was often misunderstood. Later, I showed Jesus walking with the disciples to Emmaus after the Resurrection, as a Universal Cosmic Jesus of the Indian road.

I have painted Jesus as a Guru breaking bread with his disciples, who could be Tagore and Gandhi, which was how Angelo da Fonseca (1902-1967) depicted this scene. But that led to difficulties, as the Guru figure was identified with the priestly Hindu high caste.

I have been influenced by the life and ideas of the Benedictine monk, Dom Bede Griffiths (1906-1993), who lived as Swami Dayananda in Tamil Nadu. He was interested in depicting the Trinity in the light of the concept of the Trimurti, one of the great Hindu icons found in the Elephanta cave temple near Bombay.

In that representation of the Trimurthi, the central figure is Ishwara, the Lord, with two profile faces on either side the central full face, depicting the masculine aspect of god, Purush, and on the other side the feminine aspect of God, Shakti. A number of Indian theologians, including Dom Bede, understood this icon as representing the three Persons of the Trinity in which the feminine aspect could be seen as the Holy Spirit. However, this interpretation has been controversial from a theological point of view.

The issue of reinterpreting central icons of the Indian tradition has also been problematic when looking at the image of God as the divine dancer. In classical Hinduism, the Divine Dancer Shiva is referred to as Nataraja. However, it should be recognized that this concept of the sacred dance is found in many religious traditions including in Judeo-Christian spirituality. In the Old Testament, Wisdom is portrayed dancing, and in the literature of the Early Church, in the Apocryphal “Acts of John,” Jesus is described as inviting the Apostles to dance with Him at the Last Supper.

We need to find an authentic language to express an Indian Christian experience of the Divine. But it cannot be done by one individual. The image must evolve slowly out of collective creativity.

This article is an extract from an interview by Michael Gonsalves with Jyoti Sahi. You can read the second part here

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