by Kathleen Nicholls
The author, who has lived in India 28 years, appeals for communicating the gospel through traditional poetry, music, drama, puppetry, dance, and painting.
We who live in India live with the fact that art and spirituality are inseparably linked. We cannot be isolated from 5,000 years of the subcontinent’s history. The dominant religion, Hinduism, permeates the whole of society. We do not choose to be involved with India’s culture, her way of life and thought.
If we are committed to communicating the gospel, we are involved-involved with our Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, animist and secular neighbors, sharing with them their hopes and joys, their frustrations, their worries. We either identify with people or retreat from them into our comfortable communal ghettos. We either communicate and live, or withdraw and die. Many, especially in urban society, appear to be secular and materialistic; under the surface they are culturally Hindu, Muslim, Silkoh or Jain. The stream of culture runs very deep.
India is a mosaic of cultures, of many climates, many languages, religions and lifestyles. It is a glorious mosaic, held together only by a strong political leadership.
The crisis for Christians in India is one of identity. What does it mean to be both Christian and Indian? Many Christians, especially new converts, react against Indian culture and absorb more and more Western culture. We can sympathize with them because they have often found life to be harsh; they have often been rejected, deprived of their family inheritance. Translating the theology of the Great Commission into the practicalities of communicating with one’s neighbor involves great risk. In communicating in India, there is anguish as well as joy. All culture, whether Western or Asian, reflects something of the image of God in man and all of it reflects the impact of the Fall. The living Word judges everything in culture that is idolatrous, and demands its destruction. But the same Word recreates what is good, and true, and beautiful in every culture, and offers it in worship and service before a holy God. Let us remember how precious is the unity of the Body and trust the Holy Spirit to guide those who are agonizing over the possibilities of traditional media in communicating life and its meaning. They need time in assessing what must be rejected and what they can joyfully embrace. Let us turn now to some of India’s art forms and see what it means to bring them in both judgment and hope to the foot of the cross.
The art form that most deeply expresses the religious soul of the people of India is poetry. How much of our Hebrew Bible is composed in poetic form, which modern translations such as the New International Version seek to recover in English. In India poetry is part of life. For the adolescent lover, the nursing mother, the toothless grandfather it lifts life from the mundane to the interesting, from the secular to the spiritual.
Linked as it is with music, drama and dance, poetry is part of our lifeblood and not a cultural museum piece. Audiences will sit all night listening to a poetic symposium, as my husband and I experienced in the small town of Yavatmal where we lived for many years.
On Easter Sunday two years ago the TRACI community in New Delhi sponsored a program of poetry in a hall in the midst of the Muslim community in Nizammudin, New Delhi. Some 15 Christian poets for two hours recited their poems in praise of Jesus Christ in the Urdu language and the couplet form beloved in India. The hallfull of Muslim men listened attentively and many more stood outside. Afterwards, members of the audience talked to the poets about the content of the poems. Had these poets, instead of reciting Urdu poetry, preached in the logical prose of the evangelist, there might have been violence. One of the most moving experiences of my 28 years in India was in discussing a poem of Rabindranath Tagore with a grieving Sikh friend. (Sikhs share the heritage of both Hinduism and Islam.) The poem ends, "Let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure." This sensitive, deeply hurt woman is a musician and responded to the poetry in a way that led to our talking for an hour or so about the fact that God cares.
India has the most complete melodic system in the world. This is a much more natural and satisfying means of praising God than is the slow singing of Western hymns. Some Christians still prefer the Western music, considering it to be "safe." Others have been creative in their use of Indian music and have moved from the known to the unknown in the use of the traditional ballad forms-villa pattu of Tamil Nadu, kirtan of Maharashtra and hurra katha of Andhra Pradesh, among others-to sing of Jesus and his life and death and resurrection, of the wonder of creation and of fellowship with God. The results have shown that people do respond to a new message when it is clothed in familiar forms. There is nothing new in this. State governments, life insurance companies and family planning units have followed the principle for years.
There are some Christians trained in classical music who have demonstrated that the singing of devotional songs based on a known raga (melody based on a grouping of notes conducive to a certain emotion) at the beginning of a service of worship calms the mind and spirit and leads to a sense of worship and expectancy. There is no evidence that the religious origins of the raga-s which were originally dedicated to Hindu gods carries over into new interpretations of the raga-s. On the contrary, it is the emotion that carries over, whether it be that of surrender, repentance, beseeching, or delight. The singer/musician must be well trained and understand the nuances of melody and rhythm before he can hope to sing such music. Perhaps the somewhat Persianised Hindustani music of North India is a more neutral medium than is the pure Hindu Karnatic music of South India; some very fine Christian songs have, however, come from the Karnatic stream.
Drama is a natural way of communicating and teaching, and most Indians are superb actors. There have been many exciting Christian performances of plays in the form of epics, street drama and traditional katha (story telling), but we could do more. One mistake that enthusiastic Christians make is to take urbanized drama (which is basically Western) to rural areas and expect people to understand. Sometimes they do, mercifully, but not always. Discipline is needed in studying the dramatic forms of an area, using local actors and communicating new material in familiar forms. Again, state governments have done this successfully as have the Marxists. West Bengal became communist largely through the enthusiastic efforts of young Marxists using the traditional drama form, yatra and injecting their new material, including good slogans.
Puppetry is a much-loved art form that has been sadly neglected by Christian communicators. It has total communication. A puppeteer has only to pick up a glove puppet and beat a drum to acquire a captive audience. The Indian Institute of Mass Communications carried out some interesting experiments in villages near Delhi, using film and puppet shows. The village people enjoyed the shows equally, but remembered what they had seen in the puppet shows. Shadow puppets of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, glove puppets of Orissa, marionettes of Rajasthan and rod puppets of West Bengal- what a thrilling canvas! The potential is for much more than entertainment, as audiences react to the laughter at human foibles, as the puppets say things that a preacher might not be able to say. As teaching assistants, puppets are invaluable; in Taiwan puppet performances are used to teach theology!1 For urban audiences, very innovative and creative productions are available, thanks to the growing interest of various state arts academies. What a challenge all this is to Christians who have both enthusiasm to communicate and the modicum of artistic ability.
Discussion at the Jabalpur Festival of Performing Arts and Literature last October raised a problem that comes up every time Indian Christians discuss dance. Can or should a non-Christian artist effectively portray a Christian message? Does the message when presented by such a person lose authentically Christian content? The answer is not as simple as it seems.
The reader may ask, Why not use Christian artists ? The answer to that is simple. Many Christian parents will not allow their daughters to take part in classical or even folk dance performances. Why? Because traditionally classical dance has been about Hindu deities and dedicated to them. In the past, dance was related to temple prostitution. Prejudice dies hard. Christians who feel that this wonderfully communicative Indian art form should be being transformed to the glory of God need prayer, that they may be patient and wait for a softening of attitudes.
I found Father Barboza’s paper, "Dance in Christian Communication," given at the Jabalpur Festival very helpful. He said that he studied Bharatanatyam (a very highly respected classical dance form) for 10 years before he dared use it to portray stories of the Christian faith. He has replaced the hasta-s, that have definite Hindu connotations, with acceptable Christian alternatives. These he explains at every opportunity, in the hope that the new hand movements will become part of the vocabulary of Bharatanatyam. His efforts have been applauded by Hindu masters of the dance and by Christians. He is a man full of love for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Other Christians use Kathak, a Persianised dance form. This is notable for its fast, rhythmic footwork. To rest himself/herself, the dancer intersperses the rhythmic sections with danced stories that can be from Hindu mythology, or from folklore, or of completely new material.
The Mughal-style dress used in Kathak is very modest. I know two Christian women in Delhi who are studying Kathak privately. Their teacher is very sympathetic to their desire to choreograph dances on biblical themes, the miracles and parables, for instance.
Some of the most effective dances I have seen have been in folk dance idiom. There are many different kinds of folk dance; with these most Christians are comfortable. Whatever the form, classical, folk, Hebrew or modern, we cannot ignore dance and dance/drama, these most moving and effective media of communication. Rather, we should be praying for those creative Christians who are praying about and experimenting with this controversial but communicative medium. They, in turn, need to be careful to respect the consciences of others who are very uneasy about this particular art form.
In a country where symbols and pictorial expressions of deity are deep in the culture, many Christians feel the need to have a pictorial representation of their religious hope. Such representations are often in the form of bazaar art-good shepherds, a mother and child, a crucifixion that suggests despair (everything is finished; there is no hope), all very Caucasian. At the other side of the spectrum, some painters are trying so hard to be "Indian" as to be blatantly syncretistic, merging Christian and Hindu religious concepts.
Christian painters need to be encouraged to express their delight in every aspect of God’s creation, their concern at the desecration of some parts of creation, the wonders of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord. In other words, they need to portray without sentimentality, not only the realities of life, but also the hope that is to be found only in Christ Jesus.
Athough arts are part of life in India, we must not think that all Indians or dwellers in India . automatically love Indian art forms. Delhi alone has about 800 ethnic Chinese inhabitants, Calcutta many more. While the young people enjoy Hindi movies, the Chinese parents are distressed that they cannot communicate with their children in Mandarin.
India’s 80,000,000 Muslims are repelled by some aspects of Hindu culture, regarding it as blasphemous; they do appreciate communication in their own cultural forms- calligraphy, Urdu couplets and q’wwali singing.
Efforts to share the gospel with one particular Gypsy tribe were not very successful until a young Indian man married to one of these Gypsies started to really study their culture. He and two friends began to share the gospel with the tribe in the Bura Katha ballad style. Burra Katha uses jokes and jokers, stories, songs and teaching. What is more, the group did not use Hindi or Telegu, but the modified Romany that the tribe speaks. Several hundreds of these proud, colorful, interesting people understood the hope and joy to be found in Christ Jesus and were transformed by him.
Jews, Parsees, orthodox Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Tibetan and Iranian refugees, hill people of Mongolian heritage with their love of harmony in music, rickshaw pullers, street cleaners, the handicapped, the intelligensia, the bereaved, circus "artistes," journalists, teachers-a wonderful diversity of people. They are individuals who need to hear the good news that Christ lived and died and rose again, that he is relevant to the city dweller, the rural laborer, the lawyer. How will they hear? They will listen when the gospel is clothed in cultural forms that speak to their hearts and feelings, to their felt needs.
Very recently my husband and I, on entering a home on the rural outskirts of Delhi, automatically slipped off our shoes. We no longer do this in the more sophisticated Delhi homes, as no one else does, but out of the city it comes naturally. Who would wear dirty shoes into a house with a newly-swept and possibly cow-dunged floor? We were perplexed when our hosts begged us not to take our shoes off. Did they mean it? They told us almost in distress, "We are Christians; we don’t do that."
Admittedly, shoe leather is regarded as being religiously unclean by Hindus and this is one reason for their taking off their sandals. But the custom is a good one in a country with dusty roads and often messy footpaths. Wherever did these folk get the idea that it is Christian to wear sandals in the house? Let us pray that as Indian Christians struggle with this question of what is Indian and what is Hindu, a truly Christian culture will develop.
one area to which more thought needs to be given is that of festivals, so much a part of Indian life. Could we not have festivals for the fish harvest (South India has many Christian fishermen)? A thanksgiving service for city dwellers, that the shops are full of vegetables, that winter brings a riot of flowers, summer another burst of completely different flowers? Festivals of rejoicing at Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, festivals for every stage of the sowing, reaping and gleaning of crops?
We need symbols that speak not of idolatry but of a living, pulsating faith. Few churches show any evidence of the presence of the Creator-God. Banners made by families could be used in the churches at Christmas and Easter, Pentecost and harvest thanksgiving. Indigenous carvings, murals, wall and floor decorations could be used to beautify the churches, and, thank God, are being used in a few churches. Appropriate symbols could be changed periodically-the tablets of Moses, the fish, the dove, the ark.
christians are concerned to use the talents the Lord has given them, and many are wondering how to use them in a pluralistic, syncretistic society. Many are concerned to preserve the purity of their art forms and not think of them simply as tools for evangelism. They have on the whole, and I believe rightly, rejected the notion of "art for art’s sake."
In India, as indeed in the whole of Asia, theater, painting, poetry and dance are means of communication, not cultural manifestations to be objectively categorized. We must communicate or die. But how, when so much of art is inseparable with Hinduism, are artists to get training?
Facilities are improving all the time. Besides the National School of Drama, each state has its own drama institute. Most have developed puppetry institutes, art schools and music schools. The Lalit Kala Akademi (Fine Arts Academy) has some large, light studios in New Delhi where potters, sculptors of welded materials and of clay and stone, as well as silk screen artists, may use facilities that they would not be able to afford nor find space for at home. Other cities and towns are getting studios.
In Bombay a college has been established for the teaching of kirtan and harikatha, a popular oral discourse using elements of music, drama, song and humor. The aim is not only to present this art form, but "to foster its effectiveness as a purveyor of ethical values." Christians have used the kirtan and harikatha with marked success for years. Here is an opportunity for them to learn more of this centuries-old narrative form. Three other such colleges are planned. The students, even after completing their training, will be paid an honorarium while they are delivering kirtan-s and katha-s all over the country.
Musicians who are troubled at the prospect of studying music in a largely Hindu environment can take classes privately. All these artists, as well as poets, architects, and puppeteers need support and prayer, encouragement and advice and opportunity to display their work. Surely such encourgement and opportunity should be available in the fellowship of a body of caring believers.
Mime, painting, sculpture, traditional story telling with visual aids, ballad singing, architecture, drama, dance, design and crafts: India has a rich heritage from her Jain, Buddhist, Islamic, Sikh and Hindu past. What can a Christian artist learn from this heritage?
He can learn the need for integrity. Folk art belongs to the people of an area and has been influenced by geographical and historical factors. Let the city dweller not rush in and corrupt these art forms. Let him use them with sensitivity and prayer, trusting the Holy Spirit to show him what is appropriate to be introduced. Let him be simply a catalyst encouraging local Christians in communicating through their art forms.
He must, of course, be sensitive to the dangers of syncretism, to the long influence of Hinduism. He should not try new things just to be different. If he is sincere in his desire to bring glory to God, to share the riches that are available in Christ Jesus, and aware that the Holy Spirit is the communicator, he can be confident that the Lord will guide him and even overrule his mistakes.
In one particular area of Pakistan, there has been recent antagonism to Christians and Christian teaching. It was surprising to learn that the film "Jesus" had been shown there. Normally, one would not show such a film in a Muslim area, since the portraying of any prophet (among whom Jesus is numbered) is considered to be blasphemy. There have been near riots in India when "King of Kings" and "The Ten Commandments" were shown. But this film was carefully introduced and the people were deeply touched by the suffering of Jesus. Muslims are a suffering people and understand suffering.
I am not suggesting that there is no place for the electronic media. There certainly is. Broadcasting companies cannot keep up with the letters that come in from appreciative listeners. Cassettes and records go to areas where a preacher rarely visits. I am suggesting that there needs to be a marriage between the traditional and electronic media. Traditional ballads are very effective on radio; drama presentations are listened to eagerly. Films and video cassettes of puppet performances have proved very effective, in church education programs. Let us use what is appropriate to each situation and give much more thought to the content of radio programs, films and television programs for rural audiences. The electronic media are doubly effective when they harness the depths of the traditional media for communicating life and its meaning.
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