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Interview: Jyoti Sahi, artist

17 June 2022

‘Art can express Asia’s diversity, unlike creeds and dogmatic statements’

© Victoria Emily Jones/ArtandTheology.org

I was brought up in Dehradun, where my parents were teachers. In that school, there was an art teacher trained in the school founded by Rabindranath Tagore. I was very fond of him, and would spend hours in his studio, and, at the age of seven, I said I wanted to be an artist. At 15, I went to the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. The art of William Blake was, for me, a great inspiration.

In England, I read Ananda Coomaraswamy’s books, and heard Bede Griffiths talk about his ashram in Kerala. He told me that, in the old days, monks were closely associated with icon painters, who often lived near a monastery. He had the dream of setting up a community of artists and craftspeople, and I went to Kurisumala Ashram in 1964. The Second Vatican Council was encouraging approaching other religious and cultural traditions in a more positive way, and the Indian Church was concerned to free itself from its colonial past.

While I was there, I met Jane, who was a Quaker from Birmingham, and had come to India to learn about holistic education in Gandhi’s Basic Schools. We were married in 1970 by Bede Griffiths in Shantivanam Ashram.

In 1972, we settled in a Christian village near Bangalore, Silvepura — the Village of the Cross — and had five children. Jane started a school for local children in 1974, which developed into a learning centre.

Ashrams are places, communities, or a stage of life, defined by a spiritual search. They represent a stage of transition. They’re often situated on pilgrim routes, and offer hospitality to travellers.

Etymologically, an ashram implies a state where a special work — shram — is done, guided by a guru who teaches not so much by instruction as by living in that setting. There are dance and craft ashrams. They became important centres for thinking about Indian liturgy, using traditional Indian symbols, music, and gestures, and understanding of sacramental life.

The ashram idea is integral with all I’ve tried to do as an artist, and my efforts to create what I have called an art ashram. Originally, the ashramas were understood as the stages of life which every human being goes through: the student, the householder, the pilgrim seeker, and, lastly, the sanyasi. In India’s Freedom Movement, Gandhi believed ashrams enabled village industries’ sustainable development. For Tagore, they offered a template for education oriented to a spiritual transformation through poetry and art.

The Indian Christian ashram movement took two directions. Jack Winslow came to India in around 1905. He was shocked by Christian missionaries’ living in compounds, and started the Christa Prema Seva Ashram. He was very influenced by Gandhi, and understood an ashram as a community of people following a rule of life.

The Catholic branch of the ashram movement can be traced back to the French priests Jules Monchanin and Henry Le Saux, or even the 16th-century Jesuit Roberto de Nobili. The Abbé Monchanin and the Benedictine monk Le Saux — known as Swami Abhishiktananda — founded the Holy Trinity ashram for sanyasins in the 1940s. It focused on Indian approaches to inner transformation.

Though I’m a working artist, I teach Indian and Asian aesthetics in various places. I was fascinated by the Indian theory of the nine moods, which are Tastes of the Divine experienced in all the arts.

I am afraid there’s no typical day here. Every day brings new opportunities, and encounters. We aren’t an institution with a regular timetable.

Four of our children live nearby, and we have grandchildren; so, though some people have stayed with us for a number of years, our ashram is not just a fixed community, but rather a common search for a meaningful way of life in a local community. Now, when so many have been forced to work online, community is physically living together, but also sharing concerns, which transcend the limitations of a particular place.

I’ve collaborated with other artists, craftspeople, and architects on mosaics or murals, altars, reading desks, liturgical vessels, and sacred spaces. There are collections of my work with the Methodist minister Eric Lott and Christians Aware, and it can be accessed online.

The Sign of Jonas is a particularly important painting for me. It tries to bring together forms and colours related to the Cosmic Christ, drawing from images that are to be found in the Gospel of John.

Last year, I was involved with an online reflection for Christians Aware on the Tree of the Cross, and the spiritual meaning of a garden. Ashrams are adopting sustainable development, which includes creating healing spaces. Christians and others are all welcome to come and share their common concerns about the future of our planet.

Currently, I’m working on St Francis’s “Canticle of Brother Sun”. Interestingly, it doesn’t mention Jesus; yet it’s the culmination of his spiritual journey.

Art isn’t just about making artefacts. I’ve increasingly focused on art as interfaith dialogue, and encouraging peace between different cultural and religious communities. Masao Takenaka, who worked with the Christian Council of Asia, believed that Asian theology would emerge from artistic expressions of faith. The Asian Christian Art Association was founded after a gathering of Asian artists who had been inspired by the Gospels, in 1978, in Bali’s Dhyanapura ashram.

I visited Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, and the Philippines, through the Asian Christian Art Forum, and discovered that many artists involved with it were practising Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and also followers of other indigenous forms of spirituality. Asia’s an amazing fabric of many different strands of cultural diversity, and art can express this diversity, unlike creeds and dogmatic statements.

My father came from a reformed Hindu background in Punjab, and my mother was the daughter of a preacher of the British Unitarian Church, which had links with reformed Hinduism. My father’s father became, towards the end of his life, a sanyasi, or renouncer. I was born in Pune, and my two cultural backgrounds concerned me very much as a young person.

My mother became a Catholic when I was 14 years old. I was very close to her, and I became a Catholic when she did. When I was studying art in London, I visited Buckfast Abbey, where monks worked in arts and craft, like pottery and stained glass.

The sacramental life of the Church has been central to my encounter with the sacred. The sacramental is to be found in the ordinary, and elemental. My favourite festival in India is the Festival of Light. I was deeply moved once by the sight of a little oil lamp, a deepa, placed beneath a great tree, which seemed to symbolise the folk beliefs of many different peoples.

During the pandemic, we were not able to attend any formal church services; so going to church on Easter morning did mean very much to me.

I’m upset by discrimination on the basis of creed, caste, ethnic background, and privilege. Authoritarian Christian missionaries or priests cause so many to reject the Church.

Anger is linked to anguish or Angst, which drove Expressionist art, especially in Germany. I see my art as part of this expressionist tradition. Anger can help us to break down walls.

I’m happiest able to live with people who respect differences and don’t impose their beliefs on others.

I love the sound of bird calls.

The essential goodness and generosity in all human beings gives me hope.

The Lord’s Prayer and what has been called the “Jesus Prayer” of the pilgrim, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner,” have been very important for me. I do often pray for peace in the world, but I’m not sure what is the difference between asking for something and simply offering the reality in which we live to a divine presence.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with a friend with whom I could share my deepest thoughts. Christian or not, all people are drawn by the Spirit to search for truth.


Jyoti Sahi was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

He can be contacted at: “Vishram”, Silvepura Post Office, Bengaluru 560090, Karnataka, India.

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