The Dalit Madonna
(c 2000)Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art, No.42
Just after he had received his National Diploma in Design from Camberwell, Jyoti Sahi was invited by Dom Bede Griffiths to join him in his newly founded ashram in South India.
After teaching art for some years in India , he joined Fr. Bede and it was in this Ashram that he met his wife Jane, who is English, and from a Quaker background.
They were married in 1970 and came to live in Bangalore where he was connected with the National Biblical Catechetical, and Liturgical Centre founded by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, soon after the Second Vatican Council, to reflect on the relation of the Church in India to Indian Cultures and Spirituality.
He is still linked to this centre, having founded an Art Ashram in a village outside Bangalore in 1984.
Dalit is the current name for the caste previously called 'the untouchables'. In addition the image of the Dalit Madonna has arisen out of a very important folk symbol which used to be found in every home in India.
This is the grinding stone, which is often set into the ground, particularly in the courtyard of traditional homes.
There are a number of household rites of passage which take into account the grinding stone, which consists of two stones, one fixed and stable, known as the "Mother Stone" which generally has a hollow part carved out of its centre, into which fits a smaller seed or egg-shaped stone which is called the "baby stone" that is free to move about, and is used to grind various food stuffs which are placed in the hollow of the Mother Stone.
At the time of marriage, the bride and groom are often made to stand on this grinding stone, and are reminded that as the grinding stone remains fixed and stable at the heart of the home, so also their love for each other should be immovable.
Relating the figure of Mother Mary and her son Jesus to this symbol of the grinding stone as a folk symbol, we could draw attention to the way that the bond between Mother and Child is also linked to the preparation of the daily bread and other items of food which are blended together in this kitchen quern.
This communion of love is the source of all plenty, and we might think of the relationship of Mary to Jesus when saying "Give us this day our daily bread".
The word "Dalit" means broken, and in a way the grain or other items of food are also broken in this grinding stone, but this breaking is preparatory to the creation of wholesome food for the family. As the early
Father of the Church, Ignatius of Antioch said, there can be no bread without a process of breaking and transfoming. So already in the relationship of Jesus to Mary there is both suffering, but also in their communion a possibility of life and hope.
The grinding stone is especially important at the time of harvest festivals. The Indian festival of the new Rice takes place mid January, which in India is the time of harvest and threshing.
It is around this time that the early Church celebrated the feast of Epiphany, and we are told in some apocryphal stories of the Nativity, that Mary escaped being robbed of her newborn child when the massacre of the infants was happening, because when the soldiers came to her humble place, they found in the cradle only a bundle of new grain, which was in fact the new-born baby Jesus who appeared in this form.
In fact the very name " Bethlehem " means "House of Bread".
In India the nativity naturally can be associated with harvest, as this is what is going on in all the fields in the countryside.
Unlike in Europe , where midwinter is a time of darkness and cold, lifeless earth, in Asia the winter season is a time for rejoicing, and bringing into the home, the fruits of the earth.
That is why in this image of the Mother and Child, the relation of Mary to Jesus is symbolic of the transformed earth, which becomes like a full vessel of life. The Birth of our Lord is in this way celebrated every time we come together for the Eucharist.