Frank approach to stamps

02 November 2006

THE Royal Mail announced last week that it was withdrawing its 68p Christmas stamps from sale, to the extent that only those who requested them specially would be issued with them. The reason was that Hindu groups had objected to the depiction of people "who were clearly Hindu" in a nativity scene ( News, 11 November). The withdrawal could be seen as a sensitive response to the inadvertent causing of offence; or as the pusillanimous retreat of yet another organisation ill at ease with religion.

The objections to the 17th-century Mughal painting depicted in the stamp are curious. The figures are clearly not converts. The artist has portrayed members of the Holy Family with Hindu markings — the tilak and kumkum . The impression given is that the artist is honouring the Hindu traditions, not subverting them. On another day, with the wind in a different direction, it is possible to imagine conservative Christians objecting to such an obvious attempt to synthesise the two religions. Couldn’t the Post Office find another image that was properly "Christian"? Instead, the criticism has come from within the faith group that is most at ease with the religious trappings of others.

A moment’s reflection on everyone’s part might lead to the realisation that hardly any religious art depicts the Holy Family as it really was: a new-born infant in the arms of a plain young Jewish girl. All art interprets images in the light of the culture in which it is produced. It behoves us all to approach art in a spirit of generosity. After all, one of the most popular examples of Indian art on display in this country is Tipu’s Tiger, a late 18th-century musical sculpture portraying a British soldier being devoured by a tiger. It’s a gruesome object, but children are fascinated by it, and adults tend to think in terms of just deserts. It is regrettable, then, that the Post Office decided to apologise for something that was much more innocent and respectful. Christianity is a world religion, and the commendable spread of this year’s Christmas stamps was something to celebrate, not be ashamed of.

The stamp was a particular case, but it serves as another example of how secular organisations in this country appear to be increasingly wrong-footed by religion. Last week there was a spate of stories about clumsy attempts to make Christmas more inclusive of other faiths. As Dr Williams pointed out, the pressure for this has not come from the other faith communities in Britain: the rebranding of Christmas lights, and the concern about the religious content of carol services, comes from mistaken officials who, by attempting to avoid trouble, manage to cause it. The answer, though, is not to fulminate against people in this position (see Letters, page 15). Employing the art of gentle persuasion is likely to be more effective, and would prove to be a good example of the sort of generosity we’d like to see from other faith groups.

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