The Christian Art of India Today

Where past meets present...

by Rev. John B. Chethimattam

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Seated cross-legged, with downcast eyes, the figure wears an expression of inner contemplation. The traditional symbols of light, life and truth surrounding him, as well as the way the hands are held, suggest that He is imparting wisdom and protecting from danger. He could be any Hindu guru…

But he is not just any guru. He is Christ, the “Divine Guru,” a figure having great importance for all those interested in Indian Christian art.

This Christ, a mosaic work executed by P. Balan for the front of the Dharmaram College Chapel in Bangalore, represents the spirit of the Christian art of India today. For, besides expressing the motto of the college – “Devotion to the Lord is supreme wisdom” – the “Divine Guru,” with its Hindu and Buddhist overtones, reflects the recent attempt of the Church of India to embrace and build upon the country’s artistic and cultural past.

In most countries Christianity was introduced into the genuine cultural tradition of the country. But India was an exception. When the Gospel was first preached there in the first century A.D., Indian art was too identified with Buddhism to adequately express the unique message of Christ.

And then, when the second spurt of Christian missionary work came in the 16th and 17th centuries, Mughul art with its Moslem emphases dominated the scene.

But since India’s political liberation in 1947, it has become evident that the Church of India, to be true to itself, must identify itself with the cultural and artistic heritage of India’s past.

In pre-historic times India had a highly developed form of art which thrived in urban centers like Harappa and Mohenjo Daro in the Punjab. But the Aryan race that entered India around 1500 B.C., supplanted the Indus Valley people and destroyed their art, did not have an artistic tradition of their own. And so, there was a gap of about a thousand years before the pre-Aryan art reemerged in Buddhist works.

Then, when Buddhist creative forces had spent themselves, Hinduism took over, creating an artistic explosion in temple architecture and decoration, as is evident in places like Khajurao, Ellora, and Puri.

In recent times, the art of India has been the last of the great artistic traditions of Asia to be recognized and appreciated. A total vision of Indian art was gained only through the excavations in the Punjab, and in several other parts of Northern India, in the 1920s – “digs” which brought to light the immense artistic wealth of the past.

Ever since that time – and especially since Indian independence – the Christian Church in India has endeavored to replace foreign-inspired religious works of art with genuine Indian creations.

Individual Christian artists began the effort to present Christian themes in traditionally Indian ways. Christ, the Blessed Virgin and other Biblical figures who were formerly pictured with European faces and Palestinian garb were now shown with Indian faces and adornments.

In answer to the objection that artistic realism demands the presentation of these figures as genuine Semites, it was pointed out that the ideal was not to reproduce a photograph of Middle Easterners, but rather, to express the true spirit of the Biblical people in a typically Indian style.

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Tags: India Christianity Art Reflections/Inspirational