Experiments in cross-communication: Jesus drums in yoga postures and Mary wears a sari; the cross becomes a lotus blossom and Christ is the colour of sky.
Indian Christianity has often remained a foreign import, like a stunted bonsai unable to grow beyond its western container. Today we met a theologian-artist who’s determined to change this. Born in the Punjab of north-west India to an Indian Hindu father and English Catholic mother, Jyoti Sahi grew up between two worlds. He studied art in London and once wanted to be a Benedictine monk, before meeting his Quaker wife. In his roles of artist, architect and theologian he seeks an authentically Indian, or even “Hindu”, Christianity. We piled into the bus and bumped through fields outside Bangalore to learn how he does it.
With a warm weathered face and flowing white beard, Jyoti Sahi met us in his village of Siluvepura. In his workshop, a clay crucifix lay by a pottery kiln. He had arranged prints of his work in a circle on the ground. We sat around them under the trees as he reflected on his experiments with Indian symbolism in Christian art, incorporating influences from Western thinkers like Jung to rural Indian mythology. (See my photos here.)
One series of paintings shows the familiar Stations of the Cross, but with a difference. The cross resembles a weeping willow, and Jesus is in yoga postures. In one he meditates in the lotus position; at the end he lays dead beside an uprooted leafless tree and overturned clay pot, apt symbols of desolation. Flanked by a pastel crescent moon and blazing sunflower, Mary sits cross-legged in an orange sari – wrists dangling bangles like most Indian women – embracing the baby Christ, whose hands are raised in a sign of blessing. Recalling Orthodox Christian icons, the Indian arts have a detailed set of stylised hand symbols. The fingertips of dancers are sometimes painted pink to make them stand out.
Jyoti Sahi likes numerical and geometrical patterns. In John’s Gospel, Peter has fished all night and caught nothing, but Jesus tells him to again let down his net, which then almost bursts with all the fish. There are exactly 153 – the sacred number of Pythagoras, which Jyoti Sahi painted in a triangle with 17 fish on each side. His work often makes a social statement as well. In an outdoor chapel hung a striking painting of Jesus in fiery orange-red as a village drummer leading a troupe of dancers. This is traditionally an outcaste occupation, as drums are made from dead animal hides, but drummers are needed to play at upper caste funerals.
Jyoti Sahi’s work is shocking to some, and deeply faith-enriching for others. I purchased his book The Child and the Serpent: Reflections on Popular Indian Symbols. In Western imagination, he says, snakes are mostly evil, from the tempting serpent in Eden to the satanic dragon of the Apocalypse, via all manner of chivalrous knights slaying the foul beasts to rescue fair virgins. In oriental culture the dragon is auspicious. Missionaries in Japan caused offence with a mosaic of the Angel Michael slaying the dragon.
For Jyoti Sahi, the serpent is ambiguous, bringer of both death and life. Some tribal people, he said, can smell snakes, which they catch and sell to hospitals where the venom is used to make medicine. Snakes killed Old Testament Israelites during their desert wanderings, but Moses raised a bronze snake on a pole for victims to see and be cured of their bites. Jesus used this bronze snake to illustrate his own healing death on the cross, reminiscent of the pole-snake in the sign of the Greek god of healing, Asclepius, and the medical profession ever since.
Jyoti has contributed work to the National Biblical, Catechetical, & Liturgical Center (NBCLC) back in the city, and we headed there after lunch. With the motto “Retelling the Story of Jesus: Widening the Horizons”, NBCLC also uses the arts to communicate Christianity in the local context, aiming to “animate, reshape and renew” Indian culture. Their model is the incarnation: Christ’s entry into human culture to promote what is life-giving and confront what is life-negating.
Far from mediaeval Latin, their Catholic Mass even uses some verses from Hindu scriptures about the fullness of God, in India’s ancient holy language of Sanskrit. Western-style singing from hymn books is both foreign and difficult for the poor and illiterate, so they’ve adopted the repetitive style of Hindu worship where a leader chants and congregation echoes. In place of a cross on the chapel roof, they placed a jar of the nectar of immortality atop a lotus flower. The lotus is revered in India as a blossom of beauty and purity that can grow up from the dirtiest swamp, a sign of pure spirit in a dark world. In the yard is a painted concrete Indian Madonna and child, Mary clad in a blue sari and sitting in a pink lotus.
Central to Hindu worship is aarti, the threefold circling of a plate with lamp and flowers before the idol. Jyoti told us the practice originated when three saints, spiritually “drowned in God”, were physically drowning in rain and sheltered in a shrine. It was so small there was only room for one to lie or two to sit, but all three could squeeze in when standing. In the pitch darkness, they sensed that more than three were present. Making a lamp, and circling it to look around, they found a fourth – the god.
For the poet Kabir, the sun and moon orbit in aarti to God, and on earth aarti often welcomes a guest to one’s home – people often travel during the cooler night, so might arrive unexpectedly at any time, as does God. NBCLC circles the lamp four times, to honour the priest, the congregation, the Bible, and the consecrated bread and wine. Where Hindu lamps are often crowned with the phallic lingam of the god Shiva, they have a cross, peacock, or symbol of the Trinity.
A major focus of NBCLC is dance and their team performed for us. Men in white singlets with a yellow sash pounded kettle drums, as dancers presented the gospel story and appealed for harmony between religions. Some dancers balanced a brass pot on their head, shifting it to rest on their forehead, then to the back, all without hands. In the booklet we received, one of the sisters leading the group described how she developed her love of dance, for her “the highest form of prayer”, and became not “a star but a candle” to dispel others’ darkness.
The “Lord of Dance”, she says, created the universe with the music of his breath. He painted a “tiny little brown dot”, and as she grew, “the Great Artist began to play the symphony and the little brown dot started to match steps with his music… The Eminent Choreographer plays various pieces of music to different people… even simplifies the modulation to match with our steps… takes delight in the rhythm of the dance of my life”.
Translating ancient truths into a new context is often helpful, giving the gospel new vitality, but it may be confusing. In Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children (which I briefly reviewed here), a woman asks a young priest at confession, what colour was Jesus’ skin? It’s a loaded question, because dark skin often signifies lower caste, while upper castes or the ruling British have fair skin. The Bishop had said it’s important to build bridges between faiths: God is love and the Hindu love-god Krishna is always depicted with a distinct hue that is neither black nor white nor in between, neatly avoiding such colour problems. The poor young chap can’t understand the woman’s bewilderment when he follows instructions and earnestly replies that “All available evidence, my daughter, suggests that our Lord Christ Jesus was the most beauteous, crystal shade of pale sky blue.”