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Jesus in Benares?

Wheatish in complexion, saffron draped, sitting on a make-do wooden platform like a sanyasi on the steps of Varanasi ghat, surrounded by pilgrims and devotees is the picture envisioned by the artist to represent Jesus preaching in the temple of Jerusalem. Painted by a down to earth symbolist like Redon and Paul Gauguin, each and every element included in the picture in fact symbolises something other than what you see.

india Updated: Jul 14, 2006 00:12 IST
PC Little

Wheatish in complexion, saffron draped, sitting on a make-do wooden platform like a sanyasi on the steps of Varanasi ghat, surrounded by pilgrims and devotees is the picture envisioned by the artist to represent Jesus preaching in the temple of Jerusalem. Painted by a down to earth symbolist like Redon and Paul Gauguin, each and every element included in the picture in fact symbolises something other than what you see. In comparison with the other pandas on the ghat, he is sitting firmly on a platform, otherwise, precariously supported on a mortar-less column of broken bricks. Unlike others, Jesus is also not using the umbrella to protect himself from the sun; as sun, rain and cold are not supposed to affect a person who has renounced the world and taken sanyasa. His posture is that of ardh-padmaasana, with left foot dangling. To supplement his discourse, he is using the gestures of his left hand while his right hand supports his body as he twists to answer a bald man’s questions [who gave you this authority? Matthew21:23].

An empty earthen vessel is lying near his feet while, in contrast, a silver gangajali is prominently shown in the left hand of a janeoo-dhari  pundit in white, who stops to listen to what Jesus is saying. The painting is titled ‘Jesus in Benares’. Similar is a painting titled ‘Jai Krist’, a village scene in which Jesus is standing amongst village folks holding a yoke and pointing at it with his right hand to depict Matthew 11:28-30 ‘…take my yoke upon you for my yoke is easy and my burden is light and learn from me…’

In his sequel to Durer’s Christ among Doctors this artist painted Boy Jesus with the Teachers [Luke 2:46-7]. The composition gives an impression of something more like a scene from Mahabharata; as if it is Yudishthir engrossed in a serious discussion with his acharyas. Jesus is again depicted in wheatish colour, wearing a silver kada on his wrist, a twine guriya-mala with pendant around his neck, pierced long earlobes with ornate earrings and a bandana tied on his forehead.

The background is that of typical Indian temple interior. The most extreme example is the Meeting with the Rich Young Ruler [Mark 10:21] in which Jesus looks more like Siddhartha Gautama with a sandalwood teeka on his forehead. So is also one of his Nativity scenes (5) where child Jesus is depicted almost like baby Krishna sucking his thumb in the lap of Yashoda.

These were the visions of a great Indian painter; over three decades before the flag of the ‘Priory of Sion’ was waved in front of our noses by the British authors in Holy Blood and Holy Grail.  Let’s thank our stars that this big pile of work by this painter did not fall in the hands of Dan Brown or else he might have given an extra twist to his story and called it a historical fact. Along with that, may be, this artist also deserves a pat of bravo from Vir Sanghvi (Crack the Code, HT, June 4, 2006) as this man even painted a ‘Black Madonna’ and a dark coloured Jesus in tattered cloths to express the original background which he came from; in his giant canvas ‘Arise’ representing “Jesus said to him, take your mat and walk” [John 5:8].

As an explanation to the Indian ness in these works by one of the greatest and most acclaimed Biblical painters of modern times I have only one statement to forward-ultimately it is the content not the container that matters; or else in the words of Shakespeare “…author’s imagination gives airy nothing a local habitation and name”, and it is definitely so at least in this case.

This significant body of work was the result of 60 years of hard labour by one of the greatest painters ever after LM Sen by our own College of Art & Craft, Lucknow, (the then Government School of Arts & Crafts)in the whole of its 95 years of existence. Even more significant is the fact that, though 1943 onwards, for over a decade, he was the most discussed and most-written about artist in Lucknow’s art scene, we totally forgot him after he left Lucknow in 1954 for studies abroad.

His name was Frank Wesley. He joined the Department of Commercial Art and after completing the course he did PG in Fine Arts. Immediately thereafter, he was appointed a lecturer in Commercial Art. Within the short span of 10 years, his achievements had been remarkably great.

In 1947, when he was just a IV year student, his painting ‘Blue Madonna’ was picked up by UNICEF to form its first Christmas card. Next year, in 1948, when the Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, he won the commission to design the urn that carried the ashes for immersion and he was specially invited to be on the boat that ferried the accompanying select few to Prayag. Two years later in 1950, five of his paintings were exhibited in the Holy Year Exhibition at Vatican.

His ‘Mary Magdalene Washing the Feet of Jesus’ won the prestigious Pious XII Silver Medal and reproduced in LIFE magazine. Perhaps, the first Indian painter to get his place in that magazine and he was just 27 then. Of the five, three of the paintings exhibited were acquired for the permanent Vatican collection.

Besides his genius, however, the only thing that never abandoned him was the bundle of adversities and worrisome times that pursued him all his life. Early in his childhood after a severe attack of typhoid his hearing got impaired, in 1963 while welding a cross he developed blindness for over two months that returned again for a longer period in 1965 due to high BP, in 1972 he started having frequent blackouts and then 1985 onwards strong attacks of seizures, but nothing could keep him away from his paint and brush till he died a couple of years back.

Frank, as he was popularly known, was born in a village of Azamgarh in 1923 in the fifth generation of a Christian family. He was a sickly child yet genius; a bit like Giotto, so he had his first one-man show at the age of 12. In the year 1943, he joined Govt. School of Arts and Crafts, Lucknow in the Department of Commercial Art. He was a topper throughout. In 1952, he was appointed as Head of Commercial Art Department, the same department which I myself joined in 1953 and was thus fortunate to be his student for one year from 1953 to 1954. In 1954 he went to Japan to study at Kyoto University. After completing his graduation there, he proceeded to USA where he again completed a course in Modern Painting and Etching at Chicago Institute. When he returned in 1960 he had a Leica III-G camera dangling from his shoulder and another one around his neck. His fancy for cameras tied us together and we became close friends for life.

How he got lost in oblivion? The answer is in painter & poet William Blake line: “The poison of the honey bee is the artist’s jealousy’. Unfortunately, when he came back, he found himself a stranger and unwelcome guest. The reason was obvious. Besides his Diploma in Commercial Art from here he was a graduate of Kyoto University in painting as well as that of Chicago Institute in Modern Painting and Etching.

He was thus, the highest qualified product of this college and, therefore, an extremely potential threat to all who had planted there foot here and were trying to carve out their respective niches; as the School had just been upgraded to College. In disgust he went back to his village to earn his bread through stray assignments. In 1965, he went to Jabalpur on a contract with CARAVAS (Christian Association for Radio and Audio Visual Services). Next, from the year 1965 to 1975, he served as an Art Teacher in Mussouri. Broken hearted, he finally left India for good and went to Australia where he died a couple of years back. Unlike others, he never limited himself to one style, medium or technique but mastered whatever he touched. 

As about his unconventional approach to the Biblical imagery, first of all, for Frank Wesley Lord Jesus was omnipresent or sarvavyapi so to say; he saw him every where and in every garb, besides is it not true that an English sonnet can also be written accurately in Devanagari script instead of Roman; without altering its meaning or spirit?

With his death we have lost one of the greatest painters ever produced by Lucknow College of Art and but for the great art historian Naomi Wray’s grand monograph on him he would have been totally lost to oblivion.