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The Indian Pieta

  • From showing Mother Mary clad in a sari to painting Jesus Christ in a rural setting, Indian artists over the years have interpreted Christian iconography in diverse ways
  • The enduring appeal of these iconographies has prompted curators and art historians to revisit them time and again through exhibitions

Madhvi Parekh’s interpretation of ‘The Last Supper’, 2017
Madhvi Parekh’s interpretation of ‘The Last Supper’, 2017 (Photo courtesy: Saffronart)

In a street near Delhi’s Khan Market, away from the hipster cafés and crowded stores, lies the shrine of Velankanni. On any given morning, a throng of devotees can be found lighting candles in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary. What takes one by surprise is that unlike the usual depictions across the country of a lady with heavy-lidded eyes clad in pristine white robes, she is shown dressed in a Kanjeevaram silk sari. In fact, right next to her stands a board which reads “Offerings accepted here: Sarees/Gold/Silver". There is a similar sari-clad statue in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Vailankanni, a Marian shrine located in the eponymous small town of Tamil Nadu, which was deemed a basilica by the Roman Catholic Church in 1962.

Ever since Christianity came to India in 52 AD, there have been interpretations of the iconography of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary—be it in the form of statues and murals in churches or in modernist and contemporary art. The Critical Collective’s Art History Project, Christianity—Art, Trade And Religion, creates a timeline of some of the most famous depictions, ranging from Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem from the Mir’at-al-Quds folios (Allahabad, 1602-04 AD) and the Adoration Of Mary, a mural from the St George Church of Paliekkara, Kerala (1815), to A Vaishnavaite Madonna by Sushil Banerjee (1920) and Jamini Roy’s Mother And Son (1930).

Many believe this iconography owes its presence to that of the colonial powers in India, but that isn’t true. “During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, painters in the imperial Mughal ateliers patronised by Akbar and Jehangir—such as Basawan, Manohar, Keshav Das and Ab’ul Hasan—had adapted Biblical figures and episodes, assimilating or improvising around paintings and engravings by Dutch and Danube school artists that had arrived in Agra and Lahore by way of the Antwerp-Surat international trade route," says Ranjit Hoskote in the book The Last Supper, published earlier this year by Saffronart and Aleph Book Company. It features interpretations of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic work by 35 Indian artists.

Over time, elements from folklore and regional myths fused with Western iconography. For instance, winged cherubs and angels appear as attendants to Hindu deities in popular prints. “Christian art in India can be traced back several centuries to St Thomas the Apostle, under whose patronage some of the first churches were built in the subcontinent. Although these structures were constructed and decorated as per Christian traditions, they were built by local labourers and artisans—perhaps the first instances of Christian iconography executed by Indians," says Nishad Avari, specialist, South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art, Christie’s.

‘The Birth Of Krishna’ printed by the Chore Bagan Art Studio
‘The Birth Of Krishna’ printed by the Chore Bagan Art Studio (Photo courtesy: Saffronart)

Jyotindra Jain, an art and cultural historian and museologist, adds that by the second half of the 19th century, there were cartloads of European Christian prints in India—this influenced Indian picture construction. In Bengal, home-grown prints were published primarily by three presses: the Calcutta Art Studio, Chore Bagan Art Studio and Kansaripara Art Studio. Various renderings of Christ influenced Indian artists as they conceptualized Hindu mythological themes in their visual art practices. “For example, the Chore Bagan Art Studio published a popular picture, titled Birth Of Krishna, which was almost entirely based on popular prints of The Birth Of Jesus Christ, to the extent that the presence of three wise men of the East was also literally imitated in this work,"says Jain. There are other examples of popular prints as well.

“The mentioned studios produced a series of images called Ganesh Janani, which is like the Madonna And Child, with a halo around the woman and a child Ganesha sitting on her lap," adds Jain.

He goes on to mention a mass-produced print from 1947 from yet another printing press, Brijbasi and Sons, based in Mathura, Delhi and Karachi, depicting the theme of Ascent Of Mahatma Gandhi, essentially imitating innumerable pictures of the ascension of Christ. In more recent art history, artists like Angela Trindade, who is from Goa, have showcased the story of Jesus, but within an Indian rural setting. In her works, Trindade has even shown Jesus clad in a dhoti and Mother Mary in a sari.

The enduring appeal of these iconographies prompts curators and art historians to revisit them time and again through exhibitions. Jain, for instance, is showing several of these mentioned prints as part of the exhibition Image Journeys: The Conquest Of The World As Picture, at the ongoing Serendipity Arts Festival (SAF) in Goa. Over the last two years, Christie’s has successfully offered several works at auction that have explored these subjects, including many by Roy, like Flight Into Egypt . Several works by Francis Newton Souza have also negotiated these subjects, like Head In A Landscape, and Still Life With Chalice And Host. And Saffronart will be hosting an exhibition of the works mentioned in The Last Supper at its gallery space in Mumbai a week before Easter next year (1-9 April).

In fact, Biblical themes and figures of Christ and the Virgin Mary have formed a major part of the oeuvres of the Progressives. Avari says the artist with perhaps the most complex relationship with Christianity was Goa-born Souza. The Roman Catholic Church had a huge influence on him, first inspiring admiration and later revulsion at the hypocrisy that he saw in its practices. Of course, one of the most well-known early Indian modern artists to work with this subject was Roy, who depicted Christian themes in his work in various styles—from early impressionist-inspired works to later stylized paintings that drew from the Kalighat tradition.

“Let’s not forget Nikhil Biswas and Rabin Mondal. They created crucifixion-like tableaux in which the figures may or may not be Christ. It was about the everyday man and the failure of society and authority. Also, S. Dhanpal’s sculptures of Christ are iconic," says Kishore Singh, head (exhibitions and publications), DAG.

Krishen Khanna shows 13 of his artist friends as Christ’s Apostles
Krishen Khanna shows 13 of his artist friends as Christ’s Apostles (Photo courtesy: Saffronart)

Among the moderns, Krishen Khanna too has had a long-term engagement with Biblical themes, particularly with The Last Supper, in which he has created a dhaba-like setting, showing 13 artist friends such as M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta and Bhupen Khakhar as disciples seated around the table. Also striking in the Saffronart book is Binoy Verghese’s work, which replaces the male participants in The Last Supper with female protagonists. “All the Apostles at his table are South Asian women, while curiously the Christ figure is replaced by a Caucasian woman, leaving one to decode the implied political asymmetry of empowerment between the global north and the global south," writes Hoskote.

Today, the subject forms an important part of the practices of many contemporary artists as well. Jagdip Jagpal, director, India Art Fair, cites the example of Benitha Perciyal, whose artwork clearly bears imprints of her Christian roots, or Sosa Joseph’s canvases, in which solitary female figures appear time and again, draped in nun’s robes. “In my work, Mother Mary is a symbolic interpretation of Mother Earth itself. Hence, I work with natural materials, which are ever-evolving. They react to the elements over time, and there is a change in the surface as a result of that. To me, that is about memory and transformation," says Perciyal.

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