jyoti_sahi_the_dalit_madonnaAt the heart of the Christmas story is a mother giving birth to a child. In one sense, this is a very commonplace event - around 385,000 babies are born every day. Yet many people will have felt a profound wonder at this “everyday miracle” of birth, whether as parents, family members or friends.

Family albums and social media accounts are full of photographs of mums and babies to try to capture and share that feeling. This beautiful painting by Indian Artist Jyoti Sahi picks up this theme and, through it, has the power to speak to people of all faiths and none. And if we find out a little more about the painting, it may help us ‘make room for God’ and speak to us not only of the relationship between a mother and her child, but of our own relationship with God. 

The painting is called The Dalit Madonna, which tells us that this is not just any mother and child.  

In art, a Madonna (from the Italian ‘ma Donna’, ‘my lady’) is an image of Mary. Such images have been central to Western European Art for centuries, and galleries are full of sumptuous versions  by ‘old masters’ like Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. This picture is more modern, painted at the start of this century, and does not come from a Western European tradition. 

Jyoti Sahi seeks to illuminate Christianity within the cultural traditions of India. This painting references an important folk symbol, the grinding stone, found in every traditional home. This has two parts. The larger ‘Mother Stone’ is fixed and stable, with a central hollow into which grain or other food is placed. The smaller seed or egg-shaped ‘Baby Stone’ fits into that hollow. It is free to move about, and is used to grind up the food. This folk symbol links the special love between a mother and her child with the preparation of bread and other food for the family. We might think of it when praying Give us this day our daily bread”. 

The word ‘Dalit’ (from the Sanskrit) means broken. Grain has to be broken in the grinding stone to create something new - life giving bread. We are reminded of Jesus at the Last Supper who ‘took bread, gave thanks and broke it, then gave it to them, saying, This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”’ The baby born at Christmas gave his body to be broken on the Cross to offer new life to all mankind 

‘Dalit’ is used in self-designation by those in South Asia who are traditionally regarded as low caste or ‘untouchable’, and who continue to experience rejection and discrimination. Is this exquisite figure of Mary from the Dalit community? Is the artist pointing to how God chose someone lowly to be the mother of Christ? Mary was certainly not from high society. Her song of praise – ‘the Magnificat’ – celebrates God bringing the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. 

This painting is from the Methodist Modern Art Collection, a collection of over fifty amazing pictures from across the world owned by the Methodist Church of Britain.

Explore the Collection here.

Katharine Farnham-Dear