Kombai S Anwar
Published in The Hindu, April 27, 2017
Hindus and Muslims reciting Ghazals, inside a church — nothing novel today, perhaps but when it first happened, as an act of spontaneity by people who were overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the European paintings depicting Biblical scenes, it went on to be etched as a special moment in the city’s multi-cultural history.
It happened at the church (called Church of Our Lady of Expectation) on St. Thomas Mount, then known as Firangi Kunda or Parangi Malai when Nawab Sadathullah Khan ruled the Carnatic. The year was 1719, and the Nawab’s men — led by his Dewan, Dakhini Ram along with a few Muslim generals and others — were returning to Arcot after some tough negotiations with the English at Fort St. George.
The Nawab’s Church visit
On the way, the Nawab’s party was invited by Armenian traders to visit their palatial bungalows at the foot of St. Thomas Mount. After enjoying Armenian hospitality and some rest, Dakhini Ram and his men climbed up the hill to see the elegant church, built at the spot where St. Thomas, the apostle, was believed to have been killed in 72 CE.
The Portuguese had built a church there in the 16th century, which was renovated and beautified by the rich Armenian traders of Madras just a few years before the Nawab’s party would land up there, out of curiosity. And what they saw took their breath away. “Its lofty buildings and its elegant and bewitching aisles, where, at every corner, pictures of Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ adorn the walls, dazed the onlooker,” writes Jaswanth Rai, the chronicler of Nawab Sadathullah Khan.
It was probably the first time that the Indians were coming face-to-face with European Renaissance-styled paintings. The use of perspective on a two-dimensional surface to make it appear three-dimensional was one of the characteristic features of Renaissance paintings. It made the painted eye appear as though it was following the viewer.
Once inside the church, they found the interior of the church roof completely painted with Biblical scenes and of Virgin Mary with Child Jesus. “What wonderful paintings, particularly the ones on the roof are beyond all praise. From whatever corner one looks at, his eyes are dazzled at the art,” records Jaswant Rai, who accompanied the Dewan.
Jaswant Rai’s friend Muhammad Arif composed a verse on the spot:
‘His eyes (artist’s) see with the eye of God:
The whole art of the West is manifested in the twinkle of the eye.’
Thoroughly intoxicated with the beautiful paintings and the hospitality of the padre, the Nawab’s men decided to hold a Mushaira (a poetic symposium) right there. So poets such as Khizl Bash Khan, Fazlullah Khan, Aga Muhammad Muqim, chronicler Jaswant Rai and several others got together. Basanth Rai, brother of Jaswanth Rai, sang:
‘The eye has not eyed like unto the beloved from the west;
The moon has not witnessed another such moon in the whole of that country…’
Muhammad Arif continued thus:
‘The European beloved has struck such a chord in my heart
That the page of my heart has been metamorphosed
Into a picture of Europe…’
Interestingly, the paintings also brought in philosophical musings in people like Khizl Bash Khan, who began his recital with, “I am not able to differentiate between a Sheikh and a Brahmin…”
Perhaps the English translation does not do justice to the original Persian verse with its rhyme and meter, but it does offer a glimpse into a society that appreciated art beyond the narrow confines of religion. Today, sadly it is only these verses that remain of the beautiful paintings that adorned the ceilings of the church. But these verses and the St. Thomas Mount chronicle bear testament to a time when religion did not blur man’s appreciation for the lofty things of life.