Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Indian Church Art (or lack thereof)

Here are two paragraphs quoted from Jyoti Sahi's latest blog post at Jyoti Art Ashram. I have included some comments at the end.

“The joke that I heard once was that of a foreign tourist going to a Christian shop selling holy books and pictures, and asking for an Indian image of Jesus, to the mystification of the person at the shop counter. Finally when this shop assistant realized what the Foreigner wanted, he said “Oh we do not sell those pictures—you can find them in a tourist shop !!!” Well, that is more or less the Truth. Many Foreigners I meet ask me why it is that Indian representations of Jesus which they have heard about in Europe, are not to be found generally speaking, in Indian Churches.”
“The image, I have argued, represents a visual Theology. I believe that art is linked to what we are trying to articulate through a local, inculturated Theology, and also to ethical questions which we all face in the society in which we live. It is for this reason I am pained very often at the superficiality, and even un-theological nature of what is being put out as “Church art”, especially in India. ( I may point out that in Europe, where there has been much more thought given to this subject, the kind of sentimental Kitsch art which is so popular in India, is seen less and less in churches).”

Jyoti Sahi is an Indian Christian artist and teacher. I found his comments above on Christian art and its relation to the church in India to be sobering, but unfortunately not surprising. “Kitsch” art in the church is also a problem in many churches in America as well. But I suppose that in India the problem is also bound up in two centuries of colonialism and the caste system. Apparently, western forms of church art, liturgy, architecture, etc., have come to be considered the norm for Indian Christianity for so long now that not only is it unquestioned, but it is even rabidly defended by Indian Christians themselves! I'm not promoting the idea that western church art forms are inherently wrong (any more than are indigenous Indian church art forms), but simply that they deny the very ethnic identity that God Himself created within the people of India! How tragic! I believe this is what Sahi means when he states above that “image... represents a visual Theology.” If this is true, then what is the church art of India saying to Indians about God's opinion of them? 

This is the same theme that I have found recurring in the writings of Native American and Indigenous Australian Christian writings, yet they are at least aware of what this kind of theology is doing to their cultural identities. Perhaps in India because the cultural condemnation has been less overt from European and western powers and missionaries (and due in part to the caste system itself), the Christians there are not as aware of what it has done to them (?). In any event, I believe that God is calling all nations (ethnos) to follow his Son in the ways that are culturally natural to them, and God's Spirit will guide them in this process.

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