It is commonly believed that Christianity first came to South Asia along with colonialism in the sixteenth century and that, therefore, Christian art began there at that time. But the fact is that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and, along with them, the Bible, arrived very early in South Asia and found expression in religious and secular representations. For that reason, this article will examine the Bible and the arts in this vast region in the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial periods.

The relative minority status of “the people of the Book” in South Asia has contributed to their marginalization or even invisibility in studies at the regional, let alone world, level. The theory that Christianity in South Asia is a colonial product also contributes to this predicament. Consequently art history books rarely, if ever, mention South Asian precolonial biblical or Christian art unless their titles explicitly state such a “narrow” focus. Unfortunately, even the most “student-friendly” and “inclusive” texts are guilty of this.

South Asian biblical art in the colonial and postcolonial periods expands to cover multiple regions, such as several states in India or the diaspora, communities including the Adivasis or indigenous “tribal” and Dalit peoples, and traditions and denominations. The article will provide brief studies on some prominent names and works but will also examine the significant productions of lesser known artists, whether from the mainstream or marginalized communities. Of particular interest in certain cases is the reception history of biblical art.

The Precolonial Period.

Communities of Jews settled on the famous Silk Trade Route in the regions of present-day Afghanistan, India, and Iran well before the middle of the second millennium. Other than trade and armed invasion, religious persecution, too, would have prompted these migrations. From the period of the Median Empire (ca. 600 B.C.E.) to the Parthian Empire (247 B.C.E.–244 C.E.), Greater Iran included West, Central, and South Asia. Ezra 6 mentions the ruler of Persia, in Greater Iran, ordering the Jewish Diaspora to reconstruct the Jerusalem Temple in the sixth century B.C.E. The Dura Europos synagogue in present-day Syria, which was part of Greater Iran, is considered one of the oldest synagogues. An Aramaic inscription dates its last phase of construction to be 244 C.E. The interior walls of this synagogue are decorated in tempera with symbols, animals, and human figures, many depicting scenes from the Bible. Although I begin with this western edge of South Asia, my purpose in referring to Greater Iran is to emphasize that people and products moved eastward.

It has been suggested that the place names mentioned in the late-third-century Apocryphal Acts of Thomas refer to the present-day regions of Afghanistan and India (van den Bosch, 2001, pp. 132–135). The discovery, in 2011, of about 150 documents, including biblical verses, inside a cave in Afghanistan proves that there existed a Jewish diaspora in the region in the eleventh century C.E. The International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM) does not record having come across any ancient Jewish art or architecture, let alone biblical art, in Afghanistan, although it is plausible that such art and architecture existed, considering the community’s cultural history in other locations.

India has had pockets of Jewish communities. Most of the Jewish diaspora in Cochin, Kerala, moved to India following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 72 C.E., although it is possible that settlements began as early as the fourth century B.C.E., with the destruction of the First Temple and the siege of Jerusalem. All that remains of a 1344 C.E. synagogue is a tablet installed now on the outer wall of the “Paradesi” (foreigners’) synagogue in Cochin. The tablet gives the date as 5105 according to the Hebrew calendar and states in Hebrew that it is “an abode for the spirit of God.” The community had fled to Cochin from Kodungallur to escape Muslim attacks.

According to Joseph Puthiakunnel, and as the descriptive title of his article argues, “Jewish Colonies of India Paved the Way of Thomas” (1970, pp. 187–191). The reference is to Doubting Thomas, the apostle of Jesus, who an 8-million-strong community of Christians in India claim had baptized their ancestors. The earliest recorded mention is by Eusebius (ca. 260–339), who in his Historia Ecclesiastica refers to the visit in 189 C.E. of Pantaenus of Alexandria to a community of Christians in India, finding there the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew. From about the fourth century to 1597, when the first bishop of the Portuguese Padroado (royal patronage) took over governance, the Thomas Christians of India were served by bishops who arrived from Persia. The community is concentrated in the state of Kerala, with diaspora in other parts of India and the world. The earliest examples of art and architecture in this community in South India are found in the form of crosses, doors, floors, decorations on the walls, vessels, processional umbrellas, baptismal fonts, and lampposts—of churches.

The Narratives of Joseph the Indian (1501) records that the Thomas Christian churches had only crosses. Antonio de Gouvea confirms this fact in his edition of the travels of Archbishop Alexis de Meneses, Jornada (1606), and so does Duarte Barbosa, who visited Kerala in 1519. Scholars refer to these as “Persian crosses” in recognition of the long-term collaboration of this church with the East Syrian (Persian) Church. But Gouvea mentions that the Christians themselves called it the “Cross of St. Thomas” (Malekandathil, 2003, p. 244). Gouvea further notes that the veneration of the cross was an age-old practice among these Christians, that their churches were “full of Crosses,” and that these crosses could be found in painting and in sculpture (pp. 244–245).

These are not crucifixes, but empty crosses. They have triple-petal blossoming ends. The foot of the cross rests in a lotus, a flower of significance within both Buddhist and Hindu contexts. The engravings vary in presenting a drooping lotus, a midway blossoming lotus, and a more upright fully blossomed lotus; invariably, the bottom half of the petals on both sides droop. A bird, interpreted variously as a dove or peacock (Lach and van Kley, 1993, p. 51), dives headlong, with its beak touching the head of the cross. On either side of the cross are two pillars on top of which is a fish-like creature out of whose mouth sprouts a decorated arch that embraces the top of the cross. The cross and the figures form a relief on a stone slab. The slab is arched on top, and Pahlavi (ancient Persian) writing appears above and at the bottom; a small cross separates two parts of the script. The script has not been entirely deciphered. The empty cross would signify the hope of the Resurrection that follows the Crucifixion. Joseph Vazhuthanappally comments on the niche effect of the overall design and observes that the style suggests “sacredness, reverence,” and so on (Mekkattukunnel, 2012, p. 362).

One of these crosses, found in Mylapore, the pilgrimage site of the martyrdom of St. Thomas, belongs to the eighth century (Lach and van Kley, 1993, p. 51). This particular cross, according to Jornada (1606), the travelogue of Archbishop Alexis de Meneses, was “miraculous” and used to sweat drops of blood (Malekandathil, 2003, p. 245). Bishop Francisco Ros, the first colonial Latin rite prelate of the Thomas Christians, comments on the community’s veneration of the cross as follows in his “Report on the Serra” (1603/1604; Serra is present-day Kerala): “In their sung Mass, according to the custom of the Greeks, they make much of the adoration of the cross. Soon after the beginning of the Mass the priest adores the cross, takes it into his hands and lets all the people kiss it. The same they do with the book of the Gospels before the celebrant himself reads the Gospel. Of the two ministers who assist him one reads the Epistle and the other a Lesson from the Old Testament” (Nedungatt, 2001, p. 335). Again, Ros wrote, “They are very pious and have great veneration for the Cross, which they make in the manner of the legacy of St Thomas, the ends of the four arms divided into three leaves of the lily” (Nedungatt, 2001, p. 327). Thus, both scripture and the veneration of the cross were essential characteristics of the faith life of these Indian Christians, the cross itself announcing a unique faith tradition through its singular design.

South Asian Art

Rock-carved St. Thomas Cross, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (ca. 500 C.E.).

Pictures From History/Bridgeman Images

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The crosses were made of gold, silver, wood, or granite. Jacob Kollaparambil notes that in 1503 the Thomas Christians gave a silver cross to Captain Albuquerque as a gift to King Manuel of Portugal (1994, p. 30). Today, there are six “Thomas Christian Crosses” in Kerala: one in Tamil Nadu, one in Goa, and one in Sri Lanka preserved in the Anuradhapura Archaeological Museum. It is likely that some of these crosses were originally tombstones. Vazhuthanappally writes that crosses similar to the St. Thomas Cross described above appear on the rocks of Ladakh in North India. These crosses come complete with lotus and script. Sadly, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)—the organization responsible for researching and protecting such heritages—continues to ignore this site (Mekkattukunnel, 2012, p. 363). The script on these crosses in Ladakh is in Sogdian (Baum and Winkler, 2003, p. 78), an Eastern Iranian language once spoken in the Uzbekistan and Tajikistan region of Central Asia. The St. Thomas Cross symbolizes the Indian Christians so that in 1964 and 1973 the government of India issued commemorative stamps bearing the image of this cross at the millennial anniversary of the arrival of St. Thomas in India. As Paul Pallath observes, “The St. Thomas Cross is the most Indianized Christian symbol, which testifies to the inculturation of the Christian faith on Indian soil” (Mekkattukunnel, 2012, p. 846). These crosses were replaced by Portuguese- and Latin-style crosses and crucifixes later on.

The Thomas Christian community also showcases open-air rock crosses that stand out like obelisks. George Menachery, who has done extensive research on the art and architecture of the Thomas Christians, claims: “The Roman obelisks, bearing crosses today, have been converted to Christianity, while Kerala’s cross-shaped obelisks were born Christian” (2004, p. 139). Unfortunately, none of the crosses of the period are dated; but, there is no doubt that they existed well before the advent of the Portuguese. The crosses are normally located west of the church and usually stand without support, even though some of them are more than 30 feet tall. Additionally, some of these crosses, in imitation of Hindu temple structures, had provision for oil lamps in their granite bases. In “The Cultural Heritage of the Thomas Christians and Our Efforts to Preserve It,” Menachery mentions his scripting and production of a documentary video in 2006 that is a three-hour presentation of the artworks now located in the St. Thomas Christian Museum at Mount St. Thomas, Kakkanad, Kerala (Menachery, 2012, p. 583).

Another granite artifact is the baptismal font, which was used for baptism by immersion by the Thomas Christians. Menachery presents several pictures of such fonts including one captioned, “a rock baptismal font of old used today to collect rain water” (2000, plate 54). Before the coming of the Portuguese, adult baptism was in practice; therefore, these fonts are large enough to hold a squatting adult. Several fonts exhibit floral, animal, and human engravings, biblical scenes, and the St. Thomas cross. Again, the items are not individually dated, but some of these have been found in the vicinity of ancient churches. The original Kadathuruthy Church, for example, was built in 400 C.E., and this is where one baptismal font and an open-air cross are located.

The Portuguese auto-da-fé, which committed entire libraries of written material of the Thomas Christians to bonfires in the late seventeenth century, was partly responsible for the absence of miniature iconography from the precolonial period. Their equivalent in Persia consists of paintings of characters from the Old and New Testaments. One rarely comes across larger statues or paintings from the precolonial period. The fifteenth-century wooden statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus, in Niranam, Kerala, is an exception. The triple-frame box in which the statues are displayed is likely much older (Menachery, 2000, p. 64). Inside the same church is also a silver casket of the same scene done with exquisite workmanship. In addition to Mary and Jesus, figures of the apostles Peter and Thomas (holding the spear that killed him) and of Paul, a Persian Cross, and angels worshipping the Holy Trinity are some of the engravings on the silver casket (see Menachery, 2000, p. 145).

The following captions appear in the Thomapedia (2000) of Menachery: “Many Christian paintings of Malabar (and at least one on the St. Thomas Mount) go back to a period prior to the Mughals. Some of these are mentioned in the 15th century and earlier,” and “Many paintings, old and new, have been spoilt or destroyed due to various factors including ignorance and carelessness” (p. 11). Time and again, parishes painted over earlier paintings on walls of churches so that precolonial murals have been lost. The ca. sixth-century engravings on rock pillars that support wooden beams and rafters of the ancient church of Chenganur, Kerala, include Adam, Eve, and Samson. These have been painted over so that the engravings are clearer and only the original color of the rock is lost.

To establish the presence of non-Nestorian precolonial Christians and the presence of images other than the cross in their communities, Andrew Athappilly quotes from the 29th decree of the 8th session of the Synod of Diamper (1599): “Many of the Churches in Kerala do not have statues. Normally there are only crosses in the Church. This is because the Nestorians who ruled this Church had a different faith. But from those Churches where there are images, one cannot understand the identity of the image because of the antiquity of the cloth on which it is found and the illegibility of the writing on it” (Athappilly, 1981, p. 78). The direction in the Synod of Diamper to populate churches with images and statues reflected the Council of Trent’s decree of 1563. Athappilly also refers to an interesting instance of two engravings on a beam in the St. Thomas Church at Kundara—“on one side there is Our Lady with child Jesus flanked by the angels: on the other side of the beam there is Kali with two Hanumans” (1981, pp. 78–79). But similarities between precolonial church architecture and temple architecture did much to confuse and alienate Portuguese Christians. The Portuguese also distanced themselves from stone statues, such as the Mother and Child of Kuravilangad (Athappilly, 1981, p. 78).

Finally, mention has to be made of Armenian Christians in India who contributed paintings of the apostle Thomas to the St. Thomas Mount church and the Luz church in Chennai in the eighteenth century. The Armenians arrived in India around the sixteenth century after experiencing political turmoil in their homeland. In The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple (2010), Ishwar Sharan points out the anachronisms in the Armenians’ paintings of early Christianity that represent, for example, an Iyengar Brahmin with post-eleventh-century ritual marks on the forehead.

The Colonial Period (ca. 1500–1950).

The arrival of Portuguese missionaries in India in the early part of the sixteenth century introduced Lusitanian and Latin forms of art and architecture. In his letter to the king of Portugal in 1516, the Jesuit Panteado writes about introducing images in those churches where there were until then only crosses (Mundadan, 2001, p. 195). The Synod of Diamper of 1599 convoked by Archbishop Meneses had a decree that ensured statues were placed inside the churches of the Thomas Christians. The Portuguese employed Indian artists who, of course, remained anonymous. The Portuguese Roman Catholic missionary leadership in South Asia undoubtedly gave new life and opportunities to Christian art and architecture in the region.

In spite of the fact that heat and moisture can do much harm to paintings, murals, especially in the sanctuary and on the ceiling of some of the churches, have survived from this period. “Heaven” and “Hell” from Last Judgment frescoes as well as a “David and Goliath” fresco, dating from about the seventeenth century, can be found in the St. Mary’s Jacobite Syrian Soonoro Cathedral in Angamaly, Kerala. There are frescoes of fast-fading biblical scenes in the Se Cathedral in Goa. The cathedral took close to a hundred years to build and was consecrated in 1640. In the words of the Portuguese Viceroy Redondo, this was to be “a grandiose church worthy of the wealth, power and fame of the Portuguese who dominated the seas from the Atlantic to the Pacific” (National Portal of India). It is the largest church in Asia and bigger than any church in Portugal. UNESCO has declared it a heritage site; however, complaints are not infrequent that frescoes and walls are damaged by water seepage.

At the Museum of the Pilar Fathers in Goa is an engraving on granite of Mary Magdalene from 1733. At the same location one can also see a painted wooden statue of a contemplative Child Jesus seated, his sandaled legs crossed at the ankles; his head rests on his right palm, the elbow in turn resting on a human skull (prophetically signifying the Passion), while his left palm cuddles the globe. In Christian Themes in Indian Art, Amaladass and Lowner present a variety of images of the Child Jesus, all with legs crossed as above (2012, pp. 22–23, 29–33). These include a sixteenth-century carving from rock crystal from either Goa or Sri Lanka, now located in the Wallace Museum in London. Some of the images are carved in ivory. These, as well as the crystal statue, have Jesus holding a lamb, and thus we have the Child Jesus as shepherd in these figures. At the bottom of the rockery on which the Child sits, Mary Magdalene appears with flowing hair, reading a book.

The beginning of Portuguese colonial rule coincided with Mughal colonial rule in South Asia. Under the patronage of Emperor Akbar, Jesuits frequented the Mughal palace, and with them the Bible and the related arts. Western originals were quickly imitated. The Chester Beatty Library, located in Dublin Castle, holds several engravings and paintings in this category. Adam at a Tree, painted in India sometime between 1630 and 1640, is based on a European engraving by Jan Sadeler, which was in turn based on the Flemish painter Crispijn van den Broeck. Joseph Telling His Dream to His Father, was painted by Kesu Das in 1590 and is based on an engraving of George Pencz. Linda Leach discusses these and others in Mughal and Other Indian Paintings from the Chester Beatty Library (1995). Milo Beach (1965) presents several biblical images of the period that show European influence, as does Som Prakash Verma. It may be, moreover, worthwhile to revisit Thomas Arnold’s thesis in The Old and New Testaments in Muslim Religious Art (1932) that Persian Jacobite and Nestorian Churches and not the Byzantine Church influenced and gave rise to Islamic religious art at a time when Orthodox Islam was hostile to paintings. Arnold, too, discusses imitations of biblical paintings or engravings by artists of the Mughal period in India.

Several of the paintings are miniatures that have been best preserved in albums, or as they are called in Persian, muraqqa. “The Inn at Bethlehem,” a miniature signed by Mas’ud Deccani (ca. 1600–1610), which appears in Susan Stronge’s Painting for the Mughal Emperor: The Art of the Book 1560–1660 (2002), shows a pregnant Mary sweeping the room in preparation for the birth of Jesus (p. 105). Mughal miniature has been influenced by Persian, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, and Christian traditions in style and themes. Amaladass and Lowner mention a seventeenth-century painting in which the Holy Family is seen worshipping a shivalingam. The painting apparently appeared at a recent Christie’s auction in London (2012, p. 86). Verma (2011) presents several miniatures in the order in which they appear in Akbar’s and Jehangir’s muraqqa. This allows for some insights into some of the themes that tended to dominate these muraqqa. Furthermore, just as it is impossible to ignore European colonial hegemonic strains in paintings that equate, for example, European queens with the Madonna, one cannot escape the Mughal colonial message about who is in control when one observes the placement of images in some of the miniature paintings. A haloed Jahangir sits above a haloed, light brown–haired Jesus in a seventeenth-century Jahangir and Jesus miniature (Leach, 1995, p. 396). A turbaned God appears in the seventeenth-century miniature The Sacrifice of Noah (in which Noah and company appear European), now located in the Golestan Palace in Teheran.

The time the Dutch made colonial inroads into South Asia was also the period known as the Golden Age (1615–1702) of Dutch painting. It was also marked by a dearth of paintings on biblical subjects. The entrance to the Dutch cemetery in Pulicat, Tamil Nadu, is decorated with carved skeletons, not crosses. According to Joseph Thekkedath, churches and religious houses in Kerala were destroyed by the Dutch in an attempt to establish a more effective security system that required fewer soldiers to defend the area. He also records that the church of the Franciscans in Cochin was converted into space for Protestant worship (Thekkedath, 2001, p. 119). In “Sri Lankan Christian Art,” Anslem de Croos writes that the iconoclasm of the Dutch who followed the Portuguese into Sri Lanka has made it difficult to authenticate paintings and sculptures. There are extant statues from the period of Portuguese colonialism, including the much revered statues of Mary at the pilgrimage centers of Madhu and Talawila, Sri Lanka. The Black Madonna statue at Palur in Goa was originally from Jaffna, Sri Lanka, likely transported for safekeeping in the context of Dutch colonialism. A line of tiles of the Dutch colonial period that portray the life of Christ appears on the flower stand of the Buddha at Ridhi Viharaya.

Danish and French colonialism shaped biblical missions in South Asia from the seventeenth century. Under the patronage of the Danish King Frederick IV, the Danish Halle Mission in 1706 dispatched Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau to the Danish colony of Tranquebar in Tamil Nadu. The missionaries made contributions to biblical studies and to the language and literature of the colonies, but their interest in the people and the mission unfortunately did not extend to the visual arts. In Serampore, the other Danish colony, biblical and secular education was (and continues to be) imparted at the famous Serampore College. The colonial mission did not encourage the fine arts but did promote church architecture, as it did in the south.

True to their Roman Catholic orientation, French colonial missions in South Asia, on the other hand, produced imposing churches and grand paintings, engravings, and sculptures. The Church of Our Lady of Good Health, Ariyankuppam, in the province of Puducherry (Pondicherry) was founded in 1690 and rebuilt several times in the context of volatile political situations. A freestanding crucifix near the altar is a product of that period. The Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges Church (built in 1855) holds a rare oil painting of Our Lady of the Assumption, a gift from Napoleon III. The church also has brilliant stained glass images, including one of Lazarus and the Rich Man, besides murals of the Assumption. Outside the Sacred Heart Church in Chandannagar (Puducherry), consecrated in 1884, there is a life-size statue of the full figure of Jesus with an exposed heart. Two rays emitting outward from the heart are carefully sculpted as an upside-down “V.” Inside, stained glass and colored reliefs of the Way of the Cross adorn the aging walls.

A reference to one of the earliest chapels of the English East India Company, in Surat, India, which appears in Eyre Chatterton’s A History of the Church of England in India (1924) is as follows: “The Chapel where they meet at prayers is within the Factory, decently embellished so as to render it both neat and solemn, without the figure of any living creature in it for avoiding all occasion of offence to the Moors, who are well pleased with the innocence of our worship” (p. 13). The factory itself was built in 1618 by “Prince Khurrum,” who was to later become Emperor Shahjahan. In the face of Portuguese and Dutch onslaughts, and the need to have the native rulers on their side, it is not surprising that the East India Company, whose members utilized the chapel, was at pains to please “the Moors” by keeping their prayer place emptied of religious art and artifact.

The first Anglican church in South Asia is St. Mary’s Church at Fort St. George, Chennai. Today it is referred to as the “Westminster Abbey of the East.” It was consecrated in 1680. Its altarpiece is a framed painting of the Last Supper done in the tradition of the Raphaelite school of painting. The baptismal font is made of black granite, and it has a lid made of intricately carved teak. An adjacent plaque states that the font is made of black pallava-ram granite (“charnockite” from Job Charnock’s use of that granite in Calcutta) and that the font cover was a gift received in 1885. The plaque also cites baptismal passages from the Gospels.

In An Account of the Question which has Arisen between the Bishop and the Church Missionary Society in the Diocese of Colombo (1876), Robert Moberly narrates an event that had the potential of a schism in the overseas Church of England. It had to do with the presence of images inside some of its churches in Sri Lanka. The attitude of newly converted Tamils of Sri Lanka toward images was mixed and sensitive: there were those who, as taught by iconoclastic missionaries, viewed the presence of any image whatsoever as idolatrous and thus a risky reminder of a now forsaken “pagan” tradition; there were also those who found a simple image, such as a cross, helpful to pray. A Tamil catechist by the name of Auchmuty placed a small wooden cross upon the altar in the church at Pusellawa in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He was at once reprimanded by Clark, the missionary in charge, and ordered to either remove the cross—“as the placing of a cross on the table was illegal” (Moberly, 1876, p. 60)—or to withdraw with his congregation. Auchmuty promptly escalated the issue to the bishop. The bishop advised Auchmuty to remove the cross in deference to the sentiments of the missionary but ordered the return of the congregation to the church as a measure against their separation for good. The bishop’s action was prompted also based on reports of two other similar events, one of these involving a Singhalese chaplain and a Tamil congregation. Matters then went from bad to worse. Clark, with unanimous support of the Church Missionary Society, challenged the bishop’s right to interfere in his church. The bishop responded by canceling the license of Clark and of those members of the Church Missionary Society who at a conference in Kotta, Sri Lanka, had opposed him. This was where matters stood when Moberly wrote his paper.

Outside the church, in India, world-class artists such as Jamini Roy, Arup Das, Nikhil Biswas, and Maqbool Fida Husain (popular as M. F. Husain) came out of the Bengal School at Shantiniketan in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Jesus as Guru (2008), Jan Schouten discusses several paintings from this school. Of particular interest is a painting by Nandalal Bose, the illustrious student of Abindranath Tagore. Jesus is carrying the cross and behind him is a helper—not Simon of Cyrene of Luke 23:26, but a young woman. Mahatma Gandhi, during his stay at Shantiniketan in 1945, saw the painting and was deeply touched by the figure of Jesus, and not necessarily the woman, in the painting. For Gandhi, the fact that Bose had painted Jesus wearing a poor man’s loincloth (lungi) signified Jesus’s concern for the poor and the marginalized in society (Schouten, 2008, pp. 160–161), a concern relevant not only for the colonial but also the postcolonial period.

The Postcolonial Period.

The older artists, most of them alumni of Shantiniketan, continued to be the big names in South Asian biblical art. These included the Anglican Alfred D. Thomas (1907–1989), the Roman Catholic Angelo da Fonseca (1902–1967), the Methodist Frank Wesley (1923–2002), and the Presbyterian Vinayak S. Masoji (1897–1977). Thomas’s biblical paintings are heavily influenced by Buddhist motifs; Jesus is presented with the conventional demeanor and figure of the Buddha. As such, critics have opined that it is difficult to come across a trace of suffering even on the crucified Christ. Thomas’s major paintings were published by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel as The Life of Christ by an Indian Artist in 1948. The peace-filled Christ is typical of the paintings of Fonseca, too, where the absence of a busy background makes the paintings helpful for meditation. Fonseca is best known for his Madonnas, their variety and appearance. His depiction of a brown-skinned Mary in a traditional Goan kunbi saree was perceived as highly controversial in a pre-independent Goa, forcing Fonseca to move.

Fonseca and Masoji were students of Shanti Niketan’s chief artist, Nandalal Bose (mentioned above). In The Bible through Asian Eyes (1991), Ron O’Grady and Masao Takenaka present a 1965 woodcut image titled The Child Jesus in the Temple (p. 87) by Masoji. A similar artwork appears in Arno Lehmann’s Christian Art in Africa and Asia (1969) as Masoji’s Jesus among the Teachers (plate 162). Both images present Jesus sitting cross-legged amid Hindu and, possibly, Muslim scholars. In the latter piece one can see a turbaned Joseph and a Mary in saree/shawl and wearing bangles on both her arms. The couple is standing on the side looking relieved at their discovery of the adolescent. In Jesus in Indian Paintings, Richard Taylor comments on the paintings of Masoji and mentions a pen-and-ink drawing in the same category, Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple, which was presented at an exhibition by the Board of World Missions of the Lutheran Church in America (Taylor, 1975, p. 140).

The other very important artist who in fact dedicated his life to biblical art was Wesley, whose paintings were reproduced as Christmas cards by the Indian Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (ISPCK). Amaladass and Lowner provide a comprehensive survey of Wesley’s life and paintings in Christian Themes in Indian Art (2012). Wesley lost his hearing as a result of contracting typhoid in his youth. Amaladass and Lowner suggest that the world of silence would have increased his dedication to the arts (2012, p. 236). One of Wesley’s most famous paintings is The Forgiving Father, which appears in Wray (1989, p. 44). It is an oil-on-canvas work and shows the figure of the brown-skinned elderly father embracing the darker-skinned, broken, exhausted son. What is peculiar about this scene is that the faces of both figures are revealed only to the other and are therefore hidden to the spectator, inviting the spectator to identify with the father and/or the son. Moreover, the brow and bald head of the father, whose face is sunk in the neck of his son, is a scene of vulnerability—the vulnerability of unconditional love. Such love makes space for the total surrender of the prodigal.

Among the older generation of painters still alive is Jyoti Sahi (b. 1944), who is known as “the theologian with the brush” (Amaladass and Lowner, 2012, p. 268). In his article, “Dialogue and the Imagination” (2010), Sahi reflects on the meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well as an instance of a cultural encounter where Jesus has to go beyond his Jewishness. The biblical passage provides Sahi a resonance or dhwani—“this response discovers implications, that resonate with past experiences that are now remembered” (2010, p. 62); it prompts artistic representation that has relevance for the modern world. Sahi has developed a Christian Art Ashram in Bangalore. His blog presents images of his paintings of the Samaritan woman at the well, as well as related reflections. Sahi also writes there: “I made a sketch of a mural which is in a Buddhist prayer hall, of Ananda the wandering pilgrim and ascetic monk, receiving water from the woman at the well. The same theme is also represented by a Buddhist monk artist in Sri Lanka who is here actually depicting not the Buddhist story, but his understanding, as a Buddhist, of the story of Jesus with the woman at the well” (Sahi, 2011). The Buddhist monk’s painting draws Sahi to realize that Jesus’s dialogue is not only with the woman but also with her community and with the nature around her.

The French Sister Genevieve (1919–1995) and her student, the Hindu convert Sister Claire (b. 1937), have their paintings appearing on Christmas cards. Not surprisingly, their paintings on biblical themes include several nativity scenes. Sister Genevieve’s paintings became an important aspect of intercultural dialogue at the Vatican (Amaladass and Lowner, 2012, p. 260). Genevieve, however, moved from the position of introducing an abundance of Hindu symbols in her art to becoming very cautious of such usage as she felt that Hindu symbols could not be extricated from their own religious context (Amaladass and Lowner, 2012, p. 261). Sister Claire’s most well-known contribution is a series of 150 biblical scenes that she painted for the National Biblical Catechetical Institute in Bangalore. Her paintings border on folk art and engage with traditional Hindu floor decorations (rangoli), auspicious strings of mango leaves, etc. in vibrant colors.

Nalini Jayasuriya of Sri Lanka is the only South Asian of the five “Asian” artists featured in The Christian Story: Five Asian Artists Today (2007) by Patricia C. Pongracz, Volker Kuster, and John W. Cook. Two paintings stand out: Not My Will but Thine (Pongracz et al., 2007, p. 55) is a Gethsemane scene in compelling close-set zebra stripes, where one can trace the head and torso of a crouching figure balancing precariously but deliberately on straining limbs. The figure is praying and surrendering, burdened yet determined. Black and orange horizon streaks surround this figure on every side, including below, suggesting the hope in Providence. The second painting, to which a companion can also perhaps be indicated, is Go Sin No More (mixed media on cloth; Pongracz et al., 2007, p. 118). Here, a female figure balances on a single foot and palm while crouching in a fetal position. The posture is heart-wrenching in its expression of immensity of guilt and shame, even as the scarlet hood and gown persist in advertising her crime. As in the Gethsemane scene, the figure is surrounded by an orange and black streaked background that suggests grace and hope. The Mother and Child (mixed media on canvas), which appears on the Overseas Ministry Study Center (OMSC) website, can be considered a contrasting companion piece. Here the color is dominantly white and blue, with variations of occasional stripes in shades of red and gray. Although in the fetal posture, the Mother sits a bit more securely on both feet and behind. Both her palms are visible in the vicinity of her Child. Two visiting peace doves hover just above her at the back.

Arfan Javed of Lahore, Pakistan, presented his Tajasim Kalma or Embodied Word series (2012) at the Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq Gallery of the National College of Art in Lahore. It is mixed media on aged paper or Wasli, a type of handmade paper (Asian Christian Art Association, 2013). Javed uses calligraphy and human images to show how words have consequences. The words make the body move, respond. Not surprisingly, one of the key Gospel passages he used in the exhibition was Matthew 15:11: “What enters the mouth does not pollute a person, but what comes out of the mouth pollutes a person.” The theme alludes to the ways in which one’s word can be misinterpreted or manipulated resulting in the death sentence, as it sometimes is in the application of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. It responds to the reality also of terrorist attacks on Christians in Pakistan, such as of the bombing of All Saints Church in Peshawar, a church built resembling an Islamic saracenic mosque with minarets and a dome, which had about 127 people in it. The series calls for understanding and forward movement.

Then there are the non-Christian or secular artists who produce a few biblical paintings as part of an oeuvre focused mainly on other themes. The Mother and Child of the Bengali artist Jamini Roy provides the cover design of Amaladass and Lowner’s Christian Themes in Indian Art (2012). It is an example of the several flat figures that he painted, including one exhibited in the National Gallery of Modern Art, in New Delhi, of the Last Supper with Christ and the apostles arrayed like figures on a playing card.

The reputed Gujarati artist Shanti Shah has created a mosaic mural of scenes pertaining to the birth, life, and death of Christ that covers almost 400 square feet. This piece appears in the Mandir of Unteshwari Matha (the Temple of Our Lady of the Camels), a Roman Catholic church in Rajkot, Gujarat, brought to my attention during a telephone interview with the vicar, Fr. Josy Kalathil, SJ. In a diocesan communication, Girish Santiago clarifies that Unteshwari Matha is considered by the larger community as the Kul-Mata or “ancestral mother of all Christians” of northern Gujarat. Two main figures of this Mother can be seen: one is a stained glass image of the Virgin Mary with Child on camelback (Joseph is missing), and the other is a marble statue of the Madonna and Child. According to Diaz Garriz (diocesan communication), the marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child is the creation of Mangaldas Sonpura, who otherwise works on Hindu idols. Diaz Garriz, who oversaw the construction of the Mandir, recollects how some religious “with a Western cultural background” were offended by the appearance of the Virgin slightly overweight and with large breasts, but how the new converts found the image “attractive and inspiring.”

M. F. Husain’s Mother Teresa paintings, some of which can be found in the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, have characters that are mostly faceless. These paintings resonate with representations of the Madonna and the Pietà: the babe or adult in the lap of the Sister might be Christ himself it seems. In fact, a painting titled simply Mother Teresa (Amaladass and Lowner, 2012, p. 145) shows the infant in her lap with the telling halo. A red mandorla, suggesting the life-giving love of God, encapsulates Teresa and the child.

South Asian Art

Mighty My Savior (2013) by Andrew Paul.

Courtesy Andrew Paul

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The oil on canvas of the young Bangalore resident Andrew Paul’s Mighty My Savior is also faceless. According to the artist, the painting was his attempt to capture the image that appeared to him in a dream-vision following a Charismatic retreat at Potta, Kerala. The hair tousled and the blood streaming profusely—this is all there is to the face that is hidden in agony. One palm disappears into this expression. The thorns in the crown are ominously dark and numerous. A blue cross appears at the lower edge, beckoning to the terrible reality but also suggesting the hope of the Resurrection. The glowing background communicates the proximity of Providence.

An important area of South Asian biblical art very difficult to access because of the extremely marginalized condition of the community is work by Dalit and Adivasi populations. Savindra Sawakar is from Nagpur. His Two Untouchables under the Black Sun depicts one of the Dalits sitting on the ground, wearing on his head the Cross, along with the Hindu flag, and the Muslim crescent (Dube, 2013). The scene is of the futility of religious identity in the face of the reality of societal rejection. Krishnaji Howlaji Ara was born in Secunderabad in Andhra Pradesh but lived in Mumbai since his childhood. Ara’s crucified Christ—“Lest We Forget His Sacrifice”—is an extension of the suffering of the Dalit peoples.

In “Adivasi Churches in South Gujarat: An Interplay between Inculturation and Syncretism” (2006), Jothi Xavier discusses different approaches to Adivasi art and culture by Christian missionaries in the twentieth century. One of the Adivasi artists he mentions is Harshingbhai Vasava (of the Vasava tribe), who carved intricate details of biblical and Adivasi stories on 14 panels in the corridor of the Param Krupa Mandir in Gujarat. Whereas the art is exquisite, irony sits at the heart of its reception: “the later missionaries who were not part of the production are not aware of what each panel denotes, while the people, who are not used to portraying themselves and their daily lives in the form of history panels, get confused by this representational practice which was produced by the missionaries” (Xavier, 2006, p. 65). Thus art is perceived to be a societal and cultural practice that relies on both for effect. Xavier contrasts the aforementioned instance with a statue at Korvi Matanu Mandir (Gujarat) of the Virgin Mary that resembles the dark goddess Kali, carved by (unnamed) Adivasi artists. This was the statue that the parishioners picked when they were shown a set of three statues of Mary. It has become “the most popular, attracting a large number of devotees” (2006, p. 67), writes Xavier.

An anonymous statue of an Adivasi Madonna with Child is currently the object of controversy in the Indian State of Jharkhand. The Virgin Mary bears the features of an Adivasi woman and dons a white saree with red borders, the traditional wear of women of the Sarna tribe. The Infant is secured by a cloth across the right shoulder of the Virgin. The Virgin wears glass bangles on both wrists. This scene of inculturation has in fact been the tradition of the Universal Church, even though the Europeanized Virgin and Child is more generally accepted as “universal” or “original” in South Asia as elsewhere. Many non-Christians in the Sarna community, however, insist that the statue is a tactic to confuse the tribe by suggesting that their Mother Sarna (Mother Nature) is the same as the Virgin and Child. They see this as a ploy to convert. The topic is highly sensitive, especially in the context of looming elections. The region has already witnessed several incidents of assaults on Christians.

It has also been next to impossible to come across sources on any South Asian diasporic biblical art. The reviews of a book such as of Knut Jacobsen’s and Selva Raj’s edition, South Asian Christian Diaspora: Invisible Diaspora in Europe and North America (2008), point to the dearth of study in this area in general, let alone in the arts. The extent to which this topic is marginalized is ironically also visible in the cover design of the same book, where a clean-shaven man and boy take fancy-dress pose: donning orange loincloths and wearing two (!) rosaries each on bare torsos (the boy can barely hide his smile). Within this general state of affairs, the biblical paintings of Siona Benjamin are very important.

Benjamin is an artist from Bombay (Mumbai), of Bene Israel Jewish descent, who is now living in the United States. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Boston Globe. “Repair” (Tikkun) and “dialogue” are key terms in her statement that appears on her website ( Benjamin combines Indian miniature paintings and Sephardic icons and works with layers—both in technique and theme. Her numerous paintings of female biblical characters adopt Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic motifs; they communicate contemporary social issues, challenging the theologian, the worshipper, and the spectator to wake up. Such is the impact of Rebecca, portraying an immigrant figure who dons the American flag–designed saree over Holocaust survivor pajamas and oriental shoes. The Star of David hangs from her ear. She can tell time by the watch on her right wrist and enamor with the glass bangles on her left. She is blue like the sky and thus a woman of all hues, according to the artist. She is waiting for Isaac. Reflective of the prayer at Rosh Hashanah that good deeds may abound like the seeds of the pomegranate, a pomegranate tree thrives in the background, while pink lilies appear ready for the rendezvous. In the meantime, Rebecca takes a handheld mirror to her face, only to see into the terrible future of bombs raining over the Middle East.

South Asian Art

Finding Home #67 “The Immigrants New Clothes” (Rebecca) (2004) by Siona Benjamin. Gouache on paper, 10 × 14 in. In this painting Rebecca waits for Jacob, dressed in a Holocaust survivor’s skirt and an American flag saree.

© Siona Benjamin

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This introduction to South Asian biblical arts has barely scratched the surface. Whereas it is possible to trace a movement of the arts within historical periods of the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial, this movement is neither monolithic nor linear. The historical approach facilitates an engagement with faiths, denominations, and regions, but not necessarily schools. Thus, warli, bastar, kalamkari, and such other styles or schools, in which one finds several pieces of art with biblical themes (see Amaladass and Lowner, 2012), are not introduced here. Similarly, the article does not mention the performance arts. Therefore, both the dancing Indian Jesuit, Saju George, and the Youmayam (the denomination dedicated to classical music) are left out. Further, the vastness of the region has made it impossible to include all areas. Regardless, this survey has attempted to introduce the long history and rich variety of the Bible and the arts in South Asia.



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Clara A. B. Joseph