Page 6, 15th May 1992

15th May 1992
Page 6
Page 6, 15th May 1992 — An Indian fantasy in wood

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People: Timothy Elphick
Locations: London


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An Indian fantasy in wood

STRANGE they may seem to European eyes. But these Indian wood carvings from the sub-continent's sweltering south reflect the mood and traditions of the local Church every bit as much as anything we have in the West.

Carved by Indian craftsmen who otherwise spent their creative talents making Hindu votive sculptures and ornate decorative panels for local houses, they were made for the church, to have pride of place by the altar.

In southern India, Christian communities have thrived alongside the predominantly Hindu population for centuries, most notably in Kerala (where St Thomas is said to have landed on the Malabar coast in 52AD) and Tamil Nadu.

Christian religious carvings were and are still carried in procession at festival times, just as the sacred images of the Hindu world.

Figures of Christ and the saints on elaborate, portable shrines decorated with brightly-coloured flowers and banners are transported to and from the parish church while the priest recites prayers to the strains of the local band.

The near life-size carving of Christ (shown left) depicts

Jesus with his hands crossed before him the Christ of the flagellation.

It owes far more to the artistic legacy of the Portuguese who revived Christianity in southern India from the 16th century than the dancing angels illustrated above.

The angels, carved in the state of Tamil Nadu some 200 years ago, belong to the mainstream of the Indian woodcarver's art.

The obvious eroddsm of the figures and their sinuous, three dimensional quality is repeated time and again in the temple carvings of the south.

But the aesthetic appeal such sculptures have for us today Is in large part conditioned by our taste for wood in the raw. It is easy to forget that when they first left the woodcarver's bench they were brightly coloured even gaudily so.

The full gamut of the Indian woodcarver's art, including a room devoted to works from Catholic churches, is on display at the Living Wood exhibition in London's Whitechapel Gallery (tel: 071-377 0107) until May 31.

Timothy Elphick

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