Cross-cultural communication of the Gospel is an exercise in “translation.” In principle, of course, it is no more difficult to translate the Gospel into an Asian culture than into American culture (indeed, the biblical world view is perhaps more Oriental than Western). But the problem becomes more acute for Christians working in countries with strong indigenous religious traditions—traditions that have developed without any influence of the Gospel. Although India contains a great variety of cultural traditions, perhaps we may note some of the general characteristics of its Hindu background in order to illustrate some of the problems of Asian Christian art.

Formally, the pictorial art of India is an art of line rather than form. Its line twists and swirls with an exuberant vitality. The bodies of figures are lithe and graceful; their movement seems fresh and spontaneous. This casual movement is incorporated into a composition that seems crowded and confused to Western eyes. Western logic wonders what is the “point” of the picture; Indian art seems to lack a “logic” of design.

The fullness gives a clue to the spiritual basis of Indian art—life as a continuum. That is to say, its stories stretch forward and backward in time apparently without origin or goal. The Indian epics—again to a Western reader—seem to meander along in a random fashion. Mircea Eliade sees this as a primary difference between Western and Eastern historiography; the latter is not historic at all in the Western sense but has as its function merely to provide exemplary models.

At the same time the continuum of life extends to all reality, sticks and stones as well as gods and goddesses. Life is one. Man sees himself not as standing apart from the world but as involved in the same reality. The Spirit of the world animates man as well as nature. So all of life is spiritual; even pictures of the reincarnation of Buddha are more like visions of the reincarnation of Spirit: gentle and selfless.

The central symbol in Indian art (which corresponds to the Dragon in Chinese art) is the dance of Shiva. This familiar dancing figure with four arms represents the impulse of primal energy. The dancer is the god of life and destruction, Shiva, but it represents in its movement all of life. We are invited to join in the dance:

The Spirit playing,

The Spirit longing,

The Spirit with fancy creating all

Surrenders himself to the bliss of love.…

Amid the flowers of his creation, he lingers in a kiss.…

Blinded by their beauty, He rushes, He frolics, He dances, He whirls.…

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The art object then is to be seen not as something separate but as a “symbol” that is to evoke relish (“rasa”) in the viewer. That is, art is to stimulate the physical/spiritual appetite which represents man’s quest for union with “Spirit.” As a result, much of Indian art is characterized by an approving eroticism and a blatant sensuousness.

The world view expressed in Indian art is obviously opposed to the Christian view of God and history. God has created the world as something apart from himself in which he works to bring about salvation. Life is found in creative involvement with the world, not in a mystical identification with it. The individual and his or her concrete development are valued for their own sake. Though of course Western art may include narrative elements, there is a point to the story (and not only a moral), and thus a focal point to the picture. The Indian tradition by contrast tends to disparage the individual and to look at nature—for all its vitality and movement—as essentially unchanging.

Christians living in India of course sense these contradictions and have often responded by rejecting Indian cultural values totally. But the question the Christian Indian artist needs to ask is whether stylistic elements necessarily express the world view that created them. In other words, can formal qualities of art—a lively line, a crowded composition—be separated from their whole cultural context? Put another way, how much of the culture can be “redeemed” and put to work in a Christian context?

Some would say that Indian culture as it stands is suitable to express Christian truth. For example, in this view the ideal male body, reserved in Hindu iconography for gods, is appropriate to portray the divinity of Christ. This has been the approach of one famous Christian artist, Alfred David Thomas.

But others have criticized this attitude. S. S. Bundellu says: “If such pictures should get into Christian literature, the Hindus would think that Christianity is nothing else than another sect of Hinduism.” His own “Ten Virgins” shows the use he would make of his Indian heritage. The soft twisting line seems to dance along with the figures, reinforcing the confusion below and the quiet order of the prepared virgins above. Although the movement is continuous across the picture, the impact (one could say the “point”) of the parable is “translated” into pictorial elements. Hand gestures, so important in Indian art, here reinforce the movement of the whole. The crowded composition and the lively filled space mark it as distinctly Indian. It is interesting, however, that Bundellu has chosen to interpret a parable where the narrative need not “focus” but can suggest.

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Angelo da Fonseca has drawn even more freely on his Indian heritage. In his “Last Supper” he uses a heavier line but one that expresses some of the same vitality. The regular rhythm of the figures directs the eye to Christ, who holds up the cup. We focus on the central figure; the picture is an obvious commemoration of this solemn moment of time. Certainly this artist has done much to realize his goal: “that we shall learn to treasure our birthright and welcome it into our homes.”

From this distance of course we cannot judge how successful these translations are; that must be done finally by Indian Christians themselves. But we can take the attempts as an encouragement to all of us. For being a Christian in a particular culture is a challenge not only for missionaries but for every Christian. It is not an option. Even if we wanted to, we could not escape giving expression to the cultures that formed us. But our cultures need to be reinterpreted in the light of God’s word.

On the one hand, our dance is before the Lord. He is watching us. So what we do has a focus and a meaning; it is decisive. On the other hand, God has marked history with his steps—exodus, Calvary, Pentecost, and the hope of his return. So we watch him. Here too is a focus on real events. So for the Christian life is found not in escaping but in remembering, and his art will serve this goal.

William A. Dyrness is professor of theology at Asian Theological Seminary, Manila, the Philippines.

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