Spirit of the Times

Two German photographers investigate the symbolism found in south India’s Syro-Malabar Catholic churches.

Written by Shiny Varghese | Updated: June 29, 2018 12:10:58 am
St Theresa’s Ship Church in Eravu. (Stefanie Zoche/ VG Bildkunst)

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, one of the early congregations of St Thomas Christians in Kerala, stayed rooted to the architectural styles of the Malabar ever since it was founded in 52 AD. Built mostly in wood, the facade of these churches bore images of Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, elephants, peacocks and other animals. By the early 16th century, most of the symbolism on these buildings would reference Portuguese churches. With the arrival of the British, church architecture wore a neo-Baroque style. However, after Independence, as modernism arrived on southern shores, the facades saw a drastic change.

German photographers Stefanie Zoche and Sabine Haubitz have investigated this architectural vocabulary through a project called “Hybrid Modernism: Movie Theatres in South India”. Currently, their photographs are exhibited at the Zephyr Gallery in Mannheim, Germany. “The show has the title Postkoloniale Erleuchtung, which actually cannot really be translated, because the word ‘erleuchtung’ has a dual sense of enlightenment or epiphany, and illumination,” says Zoche, adding, “The project rose from an interest in the changes in public spaces around 2006.

Indian cities were and still are full of strong contrasts between old and new, traditional and modernist, international and postmodernist style.” For over eight weeks, the duo travelled across cities and villages in south India, including Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Thiruvananthapuram. While they showcased photos of the movie theatres in 2014, the churches are Zoche and Haubitz’s latest inquiry into post-colonialism.

St Joseph’s Chapel in Thuravoor. (Stefanie Zoche/ VG Bildkunst)

“The architectural language of these churches is unusual. They do not follow any particular style, although there are visible influences of art deco or modernism. At many places, iconographic elements of the Christian belief are translated into monumental forms. Symbols such as candles (caducity of life), a book (the holy Bible), a dove (symbol for peace) or the letters PAX (peace) decorate facades. This literal translation of symbols into architectural forms combined with the use of striking colours is to my knowledge quite unique in the world,” says Zoche.

Among the many churches they visited and photographed is St Theresa’s Ship Church in Eravu, about 12 km from Thrissur. Known for its obvious shape of a ship, with Jesus at the bow, it is symbolic of the “pilgrim nature of the church”, while at The Assumption Church in Mupliyam, Thrissur, two gigantic hands point towards the sky. “The church building itself is thus transformed into a human body with the globe representing the head. On top of it there is a chalice, representing the Eucharist,” says Zoche.

The project also showcases facades where monumental Greek letters — alpha and omega, meaning the beginning and the end of the all-embracing god — feature on the walls. “This is a 20th-century trend. With priests and parishioners travelling across the world, they return with ideas that are implemented in their respective churches. Until 200 years ago, the Greek alphabet didn’t arrive in Kerala,” says Father KM George, director, Sopana Orthodox Academy, Kottayam, Kerala.

Zoche believes it has to do with establishing an Indian identity in the post-colonial era. “In my opinion, both the series — movie theatres and churches — witness a search for identity in postcolonial times. It seems that Indian churches wanted to make a statement with this new style,” she says.

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