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The Christian Art of India Today

Indian Christian art depicts not only the grace of the human body but also the presence of the divine.

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.

One crucial issue in the adoption of Indian forms for Christian art was what to do with the traditional symbols – the lotus, the peacock, the elephant, the Bodhi tree, and a host of others which figure prominently in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist art.

Since most of these symbols have a certain cultural polyvalence (having stood for different ideas in different places and at different times), some believed that they could without difficulty accommodate Christian meanings, too.

Another school of thinkers, though, held that since Indian symbols have through the centuries acquired meanings specific to the cult of other religions, their use in Christian life and worship could lead to serious misunderstanding.

And still others felt that the religious experience of man is basically one, and as such, traditional Indian symbols belong to the religious history of humanity.

The first and last groups aimed at adaptation of the symbols. Thus, for example, the Bodhi tree, under which Buddha attained illumination, and the Cross of Christ, which brought saving wisdom to mankind, have a certain affinity. Such accommodation was achieved with many of the other symbols as well.

In the midst of these ongoing discussions on the relevance of Indian art for expressing the Christian message, Christian art schools in different parts of India have been hard at work.

Under the leadership of such artists as De Fonseca, Sister Genevieve, and Sister Clair, Indians in the Stella Maris and the Poona Schools have been producing works which are both genuinely Christian and typically Indian.

One important Indian experiment has been to have deeply religious Hindu artists, trained in the Indian artistic tradition, give expression to their understanding of Christ and Christianity. R.M. Halapad of Bangalore and P. Balan of Madras are two such Hindu artists who have made significant contributions in this respect.

Two colored glass mosaic panels executed by Halapad have been acclaimed significant works of art, even by the Hindus. One panel, which is particularly significant for India’s concept of religious pluralism, depicts the Holy Spirit in the traditional form of a dove, inspiring and unifying the various symbols which stand for different world religions – the mosque, the church, the temple, and so forth. The other panel, also highly symbolic, pre-sents the praying Christ who unites all humanity in Himself.

It is Balan’s work which decorates the front of the Dharmaram College Chapel in Bangalore. Just as the ancient Buddhists drew inspiration from the images of Hindu deities, so Balan uses the artistic traditions and secrets his country has been guarding for centuries.

From the beginning, Indian Christian art has been a deeply religious art, having the rare capacity to express both the nobility of the human body and the transparent presence of the divine in all that is human.

But Indian Christian art is still in its initial stages. It has a long way to go before the Church of India can be fully at home in the genuine culture of India, and be recognized as a worthy heir to the country’s artistic past.

Born in Kerala, India, the author holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Gregorian University in Rome, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham University. Currently an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Fordham, Father Chethimattam is the author of “Patterns of Indian Thought,” a book published in the U.S., England and Poland.

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