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Seeking the Holy in Everyday Themes
Observing Advent with the Art of P. Solomon Raj
David Zersen

A recent glimpse at theWall Street Journal wine catalog shows how far marketers will go to twist the meaning of the Advent season. For just $129, you can buy a “Wine Advent Calendar” that offers twenty-four bottles, one per day, presumably to celebrate the “seasonal themes” of relaxation, inebriation, and personal fulfillment.

The Wine Advent Calendar is about as far as you can get from how Christians should prepare for the Christmas celebration. In truth, Advent is a time to observe very different seasonal themes, what Bernard of Clairvaux described in the twelfth century as the “three comings of the Lord”: his historic coming in Bethlehem, the coming of Christ to us personally, and his coming again at the end of time. Often we need to push ourselves to get past the first coming in order to contemplate the second two.

baptism

The appointed gospel lessons for this year, (Year C in the lectionary), require careful thought if the faithful are to consider more than the historic coming of Jesus. Fortunately, art can sometimes help bring together the seemingly disparate themes of judgement, repentance, and hope that appear in the texts. The work of P. Solomon Raj allows us to see the meanings of the lessons in new and personal ways; his art addresses basic questions raised by these Advent readings, such as “Who and where are the forgotten people in God’s world? Where can we discover the power of God’s dawning reign?” and “What signs of hope can be found in the midst of suffering and evil?”

The image on the cover of this issue, is a case in point. Luke 3:1-6 and 7-18, the second and third gospel lessons this Advent, tell the story of John the Baptist preparing the way for the Lord. Raj’s image helps viewers to consider questions about the meaning of this event: Who is this John? How could humble Elizabeth (Lk. 1:39-45, fourth lesson in the lectionary readings) know that the birth of her son would prepare the world for a new era? How could John know that he would be sent to a remote area to summon the forgotten people to look to Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s long-treasured promise? And how could John know that baptism, not just in water but in the Spirit, could set pasts aside and introduce new life?

Raj is a prolific visual artist who, at ninety-seven, is regarded as the elder statesman of living visual artists in the Far East. He is also a Lutheran pastor, professor, musician, playwright, poet, and philosopher whose insights can quickly take us beyond any initial assumptions we may have about him or the stories he depicts in his work (Read more about Raj's story here.). A large collection of Raj’s artwork recently acquired by the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University—currently the largest collection of his work anywhere in the world—highlights the artist’s exploration of biblical themes and invites viewers to ponder the questions that arise for them out of these distinctive visual portrayals. (The Brauer will feature a major exhibition of the collection in fall of 2020.)

Raj, who lives in Vijayawada, a city of about a million residents in the southeast Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, once told this author, “I don’t want to tell viewers what my art means. I want them to ask questions about it. If they see Jesus portrayed in a compromising or controversial setting, I want them to ask: ‘Who is this man? What’s going on here? Why is he embracing an “untouchable” person? Why would I want to know more about him?’” (Raj 2015)

Throughout his life, Raj has attempted to find ways to share the gospel within the Indian context, and then ultimately with others around the globe. Raj himself was born a Dalit, an “untouchable,” which, according to a Hindu perspective, does not allow ascent to higher caste stations. (Although the caste system has been outlawed in India for decades, it still culturally conditions many people.) Raj has therefore always been moved by the ways in which Jesus affirms marginalized people—women, lepers, outcasts, public sinners, and even Pharisees who repent.

In the current state of world affairs, as women worldwide have asserted themselves in the #MeToo movement, as caravans of refugees seeking asylum from violence and persecution slowly make their way toward the southern border of the United States, and as many others around the globe face loneliness, poverty, and oppression, Raj’s art has a renewed poignancy. It conveys to all who are undertaking quests for political, economic, and social justice that Jesus shares their concerns. Raj’s work speaks to the fact that these everyday struggles for many are holy issues, and they should be viewed as such.

barbedwire

Raj’s life shows how a creative mind and nimble fingers can express the Christian faith. His son Augustine remembers how, on a family picnic on Kondapalli Hill decades ago, his father picked up a piece of soft wood and began to carve it with a penknife. Gradually it took on the shape of Moses with one hand pointing to the sky. Solomon called it “The Prophet” (P. A. Raj 2014).

One can discover many similar projects in Raj’s studio in Vijayawada, some complete, some never finished, in a variety of media: bronze sculptures, wood icons, and hundreds of carved blocks used to print images of both secular and biblical themes. Most of Raj’s work, however, involves Indonesian-type batiks and Japanese-type woodblock prints, both of which  require great attention to detail and many hours of preparation.

refugees

Batiks are one-of-a-kind pieces, some requiring the application of five or six colors. Some of Raj’s creations are true masterpieces. Through the years most have been sold to buyers around the world, and while there is no record of their current location, digital photos of many document their existence.

Wood-block prints requires even more preparation than a batik. While monochrome prints require a carved block, polychrome prints require a carved block for every color that is to be applied. Although many of his prints are part of a series, Raj did not always use a numbering system, so in many cases there is no way of knowing how many prints were produced or whether any prints of a given image still exist. Fortunately, the Brauer’s collection now has hundreds of prints, some of the same image, available for viewing and study by museum visitors as well as artists, students, art historians, and theologians.

Many of Raj’s batiks and prints allow a biblical story to speak to contemporary situations. He frequently focuses on two themes: inculturation and liberation. (In an attempt to define inculturation, a famous Anglican priest in Ceylon once wrote, “The Gospel comes to us as a potted plant. We have to break the pot and set the plant in our own soil” [Niles 2014].) Raj carefully attends to both the plant and the soil in which he plants it.

liberation

Two of Raj’s wood-block prints that explore the theme of inculturation have powerful political and social significance. One deals with the terrible events of 1947, when the Muslim state of Pakistan was separated from the Hindu state of India. Trainloads of murdered Muslims were shipped into Pakistan as trainloads of murdered Hindus were sent back into India. Boldly, Raj created a work of art that had an Indian soldier guarding the side of the fence in which the new Pakistanis once had their home. The Pakistanis longingly look over the fence. But in the background of the Muslim Pakistanis is a man with a crown of thorns on his head! Who is that man? Why is he standing with the Pakistanis? What is going on here? The image is powerful, and although it might have been dangerous for Raj to circulate it in India, it clearly seeks to promote reflection and discussion.

Another image that embraces the inculturation theme seeks to have an ancient Middle-Eastern Jesus reach into a contemporary Indian context (page 7). Refugees in the image are displaced, lost, disenfranchised—a type of Holy Family away from home. But in the midst of this monochrome block-print, a man with a crown of thorns embraces the outcasts. Who is this man? Who are these people? How do we feel about this?  These are the questions Raj the pastor hopes his “parishioners” will ask.

women

As a Dalit, Raj knew that Jesus’s powerful message of acceptance had to be explored carefully in a Hindu context. And in a society that still has many rigid social expectations, Raj wanted to explore the liberation that the gospel allows. Specifically, he explores the many ways in which Christians can be free in a series based on the Gospel of Luke, Liberation in Luke’s Gospel, (P. S. Raj, Liberation in Luke’s Gospel 1996). 

Raj wants to ask how stories in Luke’s gospel can raise questions about current challenges in relationships and in societyquestions not just for India but for every country. For example, Raj depicts women whom society regards as nobodies and shows how God loves them still; he shows prisoners who are wrongly incarcerated, and reminds us how we can call for their release. His work shows depressed and lonely people who are pleading for an embrace. “What is their plight?” the artist asks the viewer, and “In what way is their bondage a matter of our own making?” “How are we thus also ensnared?” “What can be done to set people free?”           

Raj’s commitment to portraying a new role for women stems from his desire to challenge social stereotypes. On one print, Ruth, the Gleaner, is shown rejoicing because God has freed her from her desperate situation as a single woman in an old covenant setting. In another, women in beautiful saris accompany their liberator to the cross. The power of love perfumes the room when a woman anoints Jesus’ feet; women beautifully bedecked in Indian garments rejoice in their acceptance at the wedding feast. In yet another, Hagar is comforted by a loving God even though she has been cast out by Abraham. These images and many others show the value of women in the eyes of God, not only in Hindu culture but also in a world-wide context in which today’s #MeToo movement has the potential to be a righteous and holy quest.

homeless

The artwork of P. Solomon Raj asks profound questions for both Christians celebrating the season of Advent, as well as others, whatever their heritage or faith tradition, who want to discover the holy in their everyday life. The crooked is being made straight and the rough places plain wherever the man with the crown of thorns appears. The crises in our world do not introduce the end of time, but new beginnings for the disenfranchised and those without hope. A lamp is being lit for those who, like Elizabeth, are alert to new life about to be born for and in us. And for those with eyes that see, the art of Pulidindi Solomon Raj helps us discover what many miss in Advent: a faith that liberates captives and an insight that makes even the common and humble holy.            

 

David Zersen is president emeritus at Concordia University Texas. He is co-editor of Planting in Native Soil: Studies in Gospel Inculturation (2014).

Works Cited

10 WSJ Wine. “All-New Wine Lovers’ Advent Calendar.” 10 WSJ Wine, 2018: 18-19.

David Zersen and B.S. Moses Kumara. “Curriculum Vitae for Pulidindi Solomon Raj.” In Planting in Native Soil: Studies in Gospel Inculturation, edited by David Zersen and B.S. Moses Kumar, 107-113. Austin and Delhi: Concordia University Press and ISPCK, 2014.

Niles, Daniel Thambyrajah. “Epigraph.” Planting in Native Soil: Studies in Gospel Inculturation. Austin and Delhi: Concordia University Press and ISPCK, 2014.

Riswold, Caryn D. “Holy Recognition and the #MeToo Movement.” The Cresset, Lent 2018: 41-43.

Raj, P. Solomon, interview by David Zersen. (2015).

___. Liberation in Luke’s Gospel.Vijayawada: St. Luke’s Lalit Kala Ashram, 1996.

___. St. John’s Gospel: A Gallery of Hieratic Art. Vijayawada: St. Luke’s Lalit Kala Ashram, 2010.

Raj, Pulidindi Augustine Jyothi. “My Tryst with Solomon Raj.” In Planting in Native Soil: Studies in Gospel Inculturation, edited by David Zersen and B.S. Moses Kumar, 107-113. Austin and Delhi: Concordia University Press and ISPCK, 2014.

Zsupon-Jerome, Daniella. Loyola Press. Advent 2018. https://www.loyolapress/our-catholic-faith/liturgical-year/advent

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