Jamini Roy and the Lesson of (Visual) Contextualization

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“Flight Into Egypt,” Jamini Roy

On a recent trip to India I visited the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi. I confess I knew little to nothing about Indian art, and so thought this an appropriate act of penance.

The current exhibition, “… in the seeds of time,” traces “the history and evolution of modern art in India … from the 18th century to current trends in the 21st century,”[1] and though it came off as a bit overambitious, it was nevertheless an appropriate introduction for an Indian art novice such as myself.[2]

The museum is centrally located in the heart of New Delhi near the India Gate, and admission was negligible (£1.50/$2.50); two more reasons to visit. My time was limited, and so I walked through the various floors rather quickly, trying to get a sense of the whole, rather than its parts. Works were displayed close to one another, grouped by artist or school. Most surprising to my eyes, however, were the number of works informed by Christian stories,[3] and here one particular artist stood out: Jamini Ranjan Roy (1887 – 1972).

Roy was one of the most famous pupils of Abanindranath Tagore (1871 – 1951), “founder of the influential Bengal school of art, which led to the development of modern Indian painting.”[4] Roy studied with Tagore at the Government College of Art in Kolkata, but turned to folk and tribal art, rather than the Western tradition, for inspiration. In so doing, he sought “to capture the essence of simplicity embodied in the life of the folk people; to make art accessible to a wider section of people; and to give Indian art its own identity.”[5] His work deserves more extended consideration,[6] but here I’d like to focus on one particular lesson: (visual) contextualization.

Contextualization is, of course, “taking into consideration the cultural context in which we are seeking to communicate the gospel.”[7] In an essay entitled “Critical Contextualization,” missiologist Paul G. Hiebert identified three ways “in which Protestant missionaries have handled the problem over the past 100 years.”[8] He describes these three ways or types as follows: 1) noncontextualization, 2) extreme contextualization, and 3) critical contextualization. Advocating the latter, he outlines a four-step method: 1) Exegesis of the Culture, 2) Exegesis of the Scripture and the Hermeneutical Bridge, 3) Critical Response, and 4) New Contextualized Practices. I realize that this may all seem very academic and abstract, and I don’t have space here to engage Hiebert more fully, but returning to Jamini Roy, I think we have a more concrete and intuitive illustration of (visual) contextualization along the lines of what Hiebert has described.

By appropriating folk and tribal art, rather than the Western tradition, it might be argued that Roy demonstrated the skill of cultural exegesis, and the subject matter of certain pieces evidences exegesis of Scripture and the hermeneutical bridge, even if unintentionally and implicitly. These works then call for critical response and new contextualized practices. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that Roy was a Christian, nor that a work’s subject matter must be biblical. As David Brown has noted, “the deepening of our faith comes not only from within the resources of Christianity but also much more widely, from those of different religious beliefs and sometimes even from those of none.”[9] That said, Roy’s art seems fair game.[10] We might also consider the work of the Japanese printmaker Sadao Wantanabe (1913 – 1996), a Christian, who like Roy turned to folk art (even if for different reasons); more specifically, mingeiTaken together, these artists show us the way, and critique persistent strands of noncontextualization. 

And here’s the lesson for the Church: Until Christians learn the lesson of contextualization – perhaps from artists such as these – it seems to me that the Gospel will continue to be perceived as a foreign religion, and this whether we’re talking about Eastern contexts such as India, or Western contexts like the US or UK.

What, more specifically, might we learn from these artists, and how might we use their work with integrity in our efforts to communicate the Gospel?[11] Perhaps the first step, following C.S. Lewis’s advice in An Experiment in Criticism, is to receive.

Christopher R. Brewer is pursuing a PhD with David Brown and he is exploring the possibility of an imaginative natural theology.  Along these lines, he is the founder and director of  gospel through shared experience as well as the editor and publisher of Art that Tells the Story.


[1] Online: http://ngmaindia.gov.in/ce_seeds.asp, accessed 31 March 2014.
[2] For those wishing to learn more about  modern Indian art (but unable to travel to Delhi!) see, amongst others, Yashodhara Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), and/or Partha Mitter, The Triumph of Modernism: India’s artists and the avant-garde 1922–1947 (London: Reaktion Books, 2007).
[3] For an extended discussion of Christian themes in modern Indian art, see Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art, 205-211, or, with specific reference to Roy: Mitter, The Triumph of Modernism, 116-117.
[4] Online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abanindranath_Tagore, accessed 31 March, 2014.
[5] Online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamini_Roy, accessed 31 March 2014.
[6] We might, for example, consider Roy’s art against the backdrop of colonialism. Mitter argues: “Roy used the notion of the village community as a weapon of resistance to colonial rule.” (Mitter, The Triumph of Modernism, 100.) How so? By identifying with and appropriating the folk painters Roy was, according to Mitter, engaging in an “essentially political act of making the local signify the national.” (Ibid., 106.)  Mitter explains: “Roy offered further reasons for his choice of folk art. The ‘artistic truth’, namely concern for the ‘essential form’, once shared by prehistoric art across the world, was lost with the spread of colonial culture. Prehistoric (primitive) art fell victim to civilization, to the lures of meretricious objectivity and to the false promise of illusionism. The reason for its decline lay in its lack of a ‘coherent’ mythological tradition, an assertion by Roy, which was addressed less to primitive art per se than to the need to establish the cultural significance of the Bengali pat. Traces of ‘artistic truth’, he contended, survived in Bengali folk art even though colonial culture had sapped its vitality. However, the continued strength of the folk art of Bengal lay in its non-illusionist pictorial language nourished by a coherent and unified mythological lore. According to Roy, sacred art created the richest mythological traditions, the reason why he took a particular interest in Byzantine painting.” (Ibid., 116.) All this being said, Roy clearly had reasons for drawing upon Byzantine painting and Christian themes besides those being considered here. Nevertheless, Roy’s work might be considered along these lines.
[7] Online: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2009/12/13/to-contextualize-or-not-to-contextualize-that-is-not-the-question/, accessed 31 March 2014.
[8] Online: http://hiebertglobalcenter.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/108.-1987.-Critical-Contextualization.pdf, accessed 31 March 2014.
[9] David Brown, “The Glory of God Revealed in Art and Music,” in Celebrating Creation: Affirming Catholicism and the Revelation of God’s Glory, ed. Mark Chapman (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2004), 55.  Along these lines, Mitter notes: “It is not certain whether Roy was particularly religious. He told Mary Milford, ‘I am not a Christian…. Mrs Milford saw similarities between Roy and Jacob Epstein, both unbelievers but making an objective statement about the profound character of Christ.” (Mitter, The Triumph of Modernism, 117.)
[10] I’m here assuming something along the lines of George Pattison’s “Art and Apologetics,” Modern Churchman, 32 no. 5 (1991).
[11] For those working in an Eastern context, authors such as Hiebert or Leslie Newbigin, or a book like Timothy C. Tennent’s Building Christianity on Indian Foundations are helpful conversation partners. More specifically visual are books such as Beauty Given By Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao WantanabeThe Christian Story: Five Asian Artists Today, and (forgive the shameless plug) Art that Tells the StoryThe first two are specifically Eastern, while the third is more general tending towards Western.

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1 Comment

  • Grace Singh Smith says:

    As a Christian who is also an artist you have no idea how refreshing and timely this perspective is. That art and the gospel need not exist in two different planes but that something that is so intrinsically a reflection of our created personality can be used to point out greater truths about us and how we relate to God. Onward!

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