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Veteran artist takes Jesus closer to non-Christians in India

Jyoti Sahi draws his inspiration from Indian cultures, mythologies and mysticism

Michael Gonsalves, Pune

Michael Gonsalves, Pune

Updated: September 11, 2020 04:36 AM GMT
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Veteran artist takes Jesus closer to non-Christians in India

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

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An artist's attempts to present Jesus Christ and Christian themes in Indian settings are helping convey Christian ideas to thousands of non-Christians in India.

Jyoti Sahi, 76, uses his paintings to blend biblical themes with his native symbols and pieces of folk, tribal and Vedic symbols to take Jesus closer to non-Christians in India.

"I have known Jyoti Sahi personally, and his creative paintings are path-breaking. They introduced a paradigm shift in art, using folk, tribal and Hindu cultural symbols," Bishop Thomas Dabre of Poona told UCA News.

Through his evocative art, Sahi attempted to make Jesus look like an Indian. He aimed to make Jesus accessible to a multicultural and multifaith Indian milieu, said the bishop, a former professor of Indian spirituality and traditions at Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, Papal Athenaeum, in Pune. 

Sahi, who once thought of becoming a Benedictine monk, took up a vocation of painting. With some others, he pioneered the Indian Christian Art Movement, encouraging artistic expressions of Christian themes.

As a graphic artist, he has churned out woodcut prints on the Psalms and Acts of Mercy. Along with his books on meditations on Christian themes, they are published in German and English.

Sahi studied art at the Camberwell School of Art and Craft in London (1959-63) and earned a diploma in design. He met Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths in London in 1963. The monk invited him to the Kurisumala Ashram, which he co-founded with another priest in southern India’s Kerala state 

Jesuit Father Roy M. Thottam said Sahi is known as a theologian with the brush. He draws his inspiration from Indian cultures, mythologies and mysticism as well as tribal and folk traditions.

"He has depicted Christ variously as 'the tree of life', 'Lord of Dance' and 'Christ the living water.' He combines Biblical symbols with cultural symbols,” said Father Thottam, who trained as a painter under Sahi.

The priest said that when the inculturation process happened widely in India some four decades ago, Indian artists responded to it. "Artists experimented with Christian themes in Indian style."

Sahi presented an "Indian Christ" with Indian biblical themes, but "I doubt if it has been accepted with openness by the Catholic Church and Christian community at large," Father Thottam said.

Catholic agencies such as Missio in Germany promoted his work. But in India Sahi's "art and his thoughts are not widely spread or appreciated except at a few Christian centers," he said. "One reason may be that his paintings are complex and are not easily grasped."

Father Thottam said that Sahi's artworks are explanatory rather than evocative and aesthetically experienced. But his contributions are great in blending Christian themes with native symbols.

Jyoti Sahi pushes at the traditional boundaries of faith and culture.

Search for an Indian Christian identity

Jesuit Father Francis Gonsalves, president at Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, said Sahi has successfully conveyed Jesus with an "Indian face."

"By this, I do not mean that he paints Jesus with a non-white, darkish face but that, with his use of symbols and images, the painter conveys ‘Indianness’," he said.

Moreover, his uses mudras (classical dance gestures) and the movement of hands and feet or enlarged eyes, signifying Darshana or vision or God encounter, Father Gonsalves said. 

Sahi's paintings also have Indian clothing — lungi, dhoti, kurta, shawl, etc. — which give Jesus an Indian identity, and overall his art is truly deeply theological, he told UCA News.

In 1970, Sahi started to work in association with Father Amalorpavadas in Bangalore to implement the ideas of the Second Vatican Council on inculturation.

Sahi has authored a few books: The Child and the Serpent: Reflections on Popular Indian Symbols; Stepping Stones: Reflections on the Theology of Indian Christian Culture; and Holy Ground: A New Approach to the Mission of the Church in India.

The artist married Jane in 1970 and they live in Silvepura, a village outside Bangalore where they moved to in 1972. He set up an art ashram in 1983. They have five children.

Sahi's education in art was influenced by the Bengal School approach to Indian art. In that way, Sahi continues the tradition of Indian Christian artists like Angelo da Fonseca and Frank Wesley, who were also grounded in the Bengal style.

Sahi stands "at an important threshold in the history of the Indian Church … at the point of transition from the traditional Indian Christian Ashram to its more modern manifestation,” said Jesuit Father Wendell D'Cruz, an expert on Warli tribal painting.

He said the search for an Indian Christian identity began in the 19th century with great thinkers like Keshub Chandra Sen and  Brahmabandhab Upadhyay in their ashrams. For many reasons, the second-generation leadership of these ashrams could not sustain the momentum. 

"His paintings are neither pretty nor popular, but by pushing at the traditional boundaries of faith and culture, he has from time to time pushed apart the cloud of unknowing, allowing a glimpse of deeper realities," Father D'Cruz said. 

"The old oak of classical Indian Christian Ashram may have fallen, but all this while Sahi has been busy planting acorns, in time nurturing new shoots and a new forest.

"Art, theology and spirituality are three distinct streams in the Church, each with its own degree of competency, and Sahi combines all three streams. For him, art is a sadhana, a discipline, a way of living, thinking and expression." 

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