Jyoti Sahi and the Art Ashram

(cyprian consiglio)

Recently I had a correspondence with a gentleman who is rather well known in the lore of the life of Bede Griffiths, Jyoti Sahi, an artist from South India. My good friend John Marheineke was visiting his Art Ashram near Bangalore as he was chaperoning a trip with his high school students, not knowing Jyoti’s background. At the end of Jyoti’s presentation to the students, John casually asked him if he knew Fr. Bede, and Jyoti lit up, telling John that not only had Bede written an introduction to his book on Indian art (The Child and the Serpent), but had also witnessed his marriage to Jane. John later emailed Jyoti to thank him for the visit and copied me. Hence began our own correspondence, which I have edited and offer here, with his kind permission, to introduce him and his work to our readers.

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Dear John,

Thank you for your message. I must say that both Roshan [Jyoti’s son] and myself enjoyed the meeting with you and your students. It is refreshing to have an encounter with young people who are interested, and happy to be here in India.

As we tried to share with you all, Roshan and I have been very interested in folk culture which we have been looking at and thinking about around where we live, but also in India generally. I have been very much studying this folk culture ever since I wrote the book “The Child and the Serpent.” The symbols that we find in the primal culture of people who live close to the earth, and respond to the symbols that constitute the special meaning of the land, represent something which is archetypal and common to all cultures. However, each landscape has its own “spirit of the place” and in that sense is also unique.

I have also been very much influenced by the ideas of Rabindranath Tagore. The person who taught me art as a child, whose name was Suddhir Khastigir, was among the first students of Tagore at Shantiniketan. Roshan spent three years at the Santiniketan Ashram art school which Tagore initiated.

Sudhir Khastigir encouraged me to take up art as a life work, and suggested I focused on arts in relation to crafts. So I went to a school of arts and crafts in London, and it was while I was studying there (between 1959-63) that I was also thinking of becoming a monk. It was the novice master of the monastery that I was going to who suggested I meet Dom Bede Griffiths, who was visiting England at that time, talking about his experience setting up a Christian Ashram called Kurisumala. At art school I had been reading the works of Ananda Coomaraswamy, and it was in connection with his son, and a group inspired by Eric Gill who published a magazine called “Good Work” in America, that Fr. Bede had also been in the USA in 1963. Fr. Bede was interested in the connection between art and the monastic life, and had helped to establish a small community of artists and craftspeople near his Abbey in England, called the Taener Community. So Fr. Bede suggested that when I returned to India, I could visit his Ashram, and live near the monastery.

So in 1964 I travelled to Kerala and met him at Kurisumala Ashram. There was an architect called Laurie Baker, a Quaker, who was also living next to the Ashram. And so for a few years I worked with this architect who was also British, and had been designing a number of churches and other buildings using local materials, and what was being called “vernacular architecture.” It was in his house that I met my wife Jane, who also comes from a Quaker family background. In 1970, when Fr. Bede had already moved to Shantivanam Ashram, taking it over from Swami Abhishiktananda, Fr. Bede married Jane and me, after baptizing Jane standing in the river Kaveri next to the Ashram!!

Later that year we came to Bangalore, as I had been invited to work at the National Biblical and Liturgical Centre, which had been set up just after the Vatican council, to implement some of the ideas about relating the Church to Indian culture. And in 1972 we came to live in this Christian village of Silvepura.

Roshan and I have been thinking of perhaps setting up a website to explain the kind of workshops that we are interested to do with those who would like to think about folk culture, and the spirituality underlying an art that is close to the earth. This culture has, we feel, much to do with ecology, and a respect for the earth and the landscape. When I started what I called an “art ashram” in 1983, I called it “INSCAPE,” inspired by the ideas of Gerard Manley Hopkins. We have always been inspired by the landscape, and the ideas of Joseph Campbell on the “Inner reaches of Outer Space.”

As you saw, we do have some space, and are trying to construct more studio areas. One of our ideas is to offer the possibility for those who would like to explore the imagination through visual art forms, to perhaps think of a residency programme in which to engage with the creative imagination in the context of Indian spiritual traditions. As I said during the workshop which we had together, I really believe that “the artist is not a special sort of person, but every person is a special sort of artist,” which was an aphorism dear to both Eric Gill, and Andanda Coomaraswamy.

Like you I was very inspired by Tagore’s work on Sadhana, and have been telling those who have come here to work with us from time to time, that I believe that all forms of art are a sadhana or spiritual search. I am happy that we could meet, and hope that we can share more on these themes, and a common interest in the contemplative tradition, in the future.

I will be very happy to also learn more about what Fr. Cyprian is also doing in the way of relating music to contemplation.

Yours sincerely, Jyoti

Later, after I wrote to him…

Dear Cyprian,

I do not know if you have heard of a person called Stanley Jones? He was an American Missionary who came out to India and was inspired by the life and work of Gandhi. He created a Christian Ashram in the North of India, in the Himalayas, not so far from where I was brought up near the River Ganges, and Rishikesh and Haridwar. Anyway, Stanley Jones wrote a book about his approach to Christian Indian spiritual dialogue in which he took the theme of the Pilgrim wandering Jesus, and Walking with Jesus on the Indian roads. Stanley Jones had been close to the Pad Yatra or foot pilgrimage movement that Gandhi initiated, and which was carried on by Vinoba Bhave.

For Stanley Jones an ashram was not just a place; it was a process of walking together. Originally the word ‘ashram’ meant a stage in life (there are traditionally four ashramas). And so Stanley organized “ashram retreats” in different places, including in America, which you could say were part of a “vision quest,” a time of searching and sadhana.

For various reasons I have also been rather disinclined to think of an ashram as a place, though I did buy a plot of land encouraged by Fr. Bede and others, to set up an Art Ashram. We call this place “The Land,” and I found that after trying to run, or at least look after this land, was taking more of my time and energy than I felt able to give, especially as I was being asked to travel myself quite a bit, in connection with what I was calling “art retreats” and also commission work in designing, and also decorating churches in different places both in India and abroad.

It was in 1999, after struggling to administrate the art ashram as a registered society that I called the Indian School of Art for Peace or INSCAPE, that I finally decided to hand over this place to my two sons Kiran and Roshan, who had studied art and design and wanted to set up a design collaborative, and got together various young artist and designer friends to live together and be involved with craft work, mainly ceramics. Kiran also got married to a British girl, called Imogen, and they have three children. Roshan is the one who spent three years with the art school at Santiniketan (founded by Tagore) in Bengal, and then spent another three years working with the mentally challenged in a L’Arche community in London (linked as you must know to Jean Vanier). Roshan is very concerned with art practices as healing, and has been thinking of “earth art” which started with pottery and ceramics, but then developed into garden and vegetable planting, which he also sees as “earth art.”

For the last 6 years Roshan has been back here at The Land, working with groups mainly from the USA and UK who are interested in alternative approaches to education. My wife has also been involved with this since 1975 when she started a school here for village children. Her school has also changed and has become more of a learning centre for children with special needs, and teacher trainees who want to think about other approaches to learning that include the arts. We have two daughters who are also here, one involved with woodwork, which she calls “the wisdom of the hands,” and the other who is a dancer and teacher of mainly folk dance. (She studied classical Indian dance at Kalakshetra in Chennai founded by the famous dancer Rukmini Devi.)

However, of late I have been thinking more of returning to our interests in folk culture and in what we have also been trying to develop as an “eco-theology” and spirituality. Maybe later we can give more flesh to that understanding. Just now I am working with Roshan on a website, in which we are trying to put together various ideas that we have been involved with, and which we also hope can be interactive and the basis for further “art retreats.” Roshan and I are interested in relating to the folk culture that we have around us. This folk culture is, I am afraid, changing very fast, as a process of Hindu nationalism is now remodeling the Indian cultural and religious identity. Later, I will write to you more about this process of Hindu nationalism which I am afraid has very much affected the kind of work I have been doing over the last 50 years.

When Fr. Bede was at the last Ashram Aikya (Ashram fellowship) meeting that he was able to attend before he had his first stroke, he expressed his anxiety and sorrow over the way that the Indian spiritual landscape was changing. In a way that all began with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, and the movement that initiated what we now understand as a Hindu Nationalism, which has now come into political prominence. Perhaps fortunately Fr. Bede did not have to struggle with what that political initiative has meant in terms of Hindu-Christian dialogue, and in fact what it is doing to the cultural and spiritual diversity of the Indian social fabric. These are certainly profound issues that we are trying to address, as various forms of fundamentalism are changing the whole world. It would be important I feel for your website to take cognizance of this, as the future of the Ashram movement. Indeed spiritual dialogue and diversity will be possible only if we recognize what is happening in the fractured world around us.

Anyway, let us continue this correspondence, and reflect slowly and with prayer on current socio political issues. I think that was the great insight that Thomas Merton had, and the new direction that he gave to the contemplative understanding of the monastic tradition.

In a common spirit of searching and friendship, Jyoti

Jyoti and Roshan’s mailing address is: Art Ashram, Silvepura P.O. Bangalore North 560090, Karnataka, South India. Check out Roshan’s blog, <roshansahi.blogspot.com> or the website that Kiran has developed for visiting teachers, <sangmaprojects.com>.jyotijohn Jyoti Sahi with our friend and Camaldolese Oblate John Marheineke on his visit to Bangalore.