Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Foreword to the book, ‘The Dolls Speak’ - by Samuel Rayan SJ



This book, bringing its message in pictures, poems and prayers, is an invitation to contemplation, reflection and action. The pictures command our admiration and meditation. The accompanying prose and verse pieces are samples of responses evoked by the pictures and/or by the dolls of which the pictures are photo-prints. Some sensitive people have been conversing with the dolls and their images, and are sharing their experience with us.

The dolls speak. Their images speak too. They bid us listen. They speak of the common people and their everyday life. They represent phases of our human condition, and facets of our domestic, social, religious and aesthetic life. They are not dolls in the dictionary sense of ‘models for children to play with’. They show us around and guide us towards a deeper awareness of the ‘the other India’, the India of the excluded, the oppressed and the despised. They present problems and challenge us to responsible intervention. We stand summoned to probe, grasp and disclose the human depths and the hidden riches of people’s daily life. These dolls urge us to join the masses in their struggle to change what illaccords with human dignity and hurts the wholeness of the human family.

The dollmaker’s introduction tells us how it all began, how the dolls came to be and how this book evolved. Some creative imagination has gone into the making of the dolls. But the dolls themselves are not children of sheer fantasy. They are born of their maker’s real experience. They embody and express the impact the life of the people, of the poor in particular, has had on Francoise in the course of her twentyfive year stay in India. They represent the thoughts and feelings – the joy, the distress and the critique – evoked in a sensitive and committed spirit by the sights and sounds of our cities, by the scenes of suffering and the visions of hope in our suburbs and villages. The dolls were born of compassion and love. ‘They are a part of me’, their maker tells us touchingly, ‘and I, a part of them’.

This experiential warmth of the dolls is in part the secret of their appeal as evinced by 
responses to their exhibitions in India and abroad.


The dolls/images should be seen as metaphors, parables, symbols. Symbols of life, a critique of life, and life as it ought to be. Parables of what people are, of what they endure, and of what they struggle against and strive after; parables of lament, protest, compassion, solidarity and hope. Studies in images, arts and aesthetics claim that symbols have cognitive value, that they are instruments of knowledge. Their function is to bring to light ‘the hidden modalities of being’. The mind makes use of symbols and images ‘to grasp the ultimate reality of things’. Through symbols the imagination is able ‘to see the world in its totality’ (Eliade, 1991: 9-20).

Images, symbols and other visual patterns are statements which make ‘a declaration about the nature of human existence’, and about the forces shaping it. In fact, ‘every organized pattern is a carrier of meaning, whether intended or not’. (Arnheim, 199: 296-97, 300, 315). The dolls/images in this volume ‘THE DOLLS SPEAK’ articulate the structure of our society, the forces that mould it, its failures to do justice to human life and dignity, as well as its visions of hope.

The dolls then are significant forms and carriers of meaning. Now, ‘significant forms’ is one of the ways of defining art (Bell, 1958: 54). Art is not to be confused with renowned masterpieces; it is not something ’lifted out of the context of daily life’ and ‘exiled by exaltation’. Acclaimed art works are the ‘rare peaks’. The effort, however, ‘to give visible form to all aspects of life’ is universal. Art is visual form, and visual form is the principal medium of productive thinking (Arnheim, 1969: 295). Many students of art find in it religious meaning. They affirm a convergence of the aesthetic and the religious. Indeed, what is aesthetic itself can sometimes be religious. (Brown, 1989: 35-37).

Both art and religion have the capacity to envision the world, and in vision to transform it. Both integrate the sensory and the spiritual, and engage us wholly and touch us in the totality of our being, and affect the relations of heart and mind to the vital elements –human, cosmic and divine- of what one regards as the ultimately meaningful Whole. Both of them enable us ‘to experience the familiar in unfamiliar ways’, and open up new possibilities of human relations. Both allow us to see more, feel more, think more, mean more and be and become more (Brown, 1989: 92-111; 144-145; Dewey, 1958: 349; Adorno, 1984: 21). The historical connection of these dolls with the Christmas crib illustrates and confirms the ‘crucial relationship’ that obtains between aesthetic and religious phenomena (Brown, 1989: 29,35).

Art and aesthetic experience, being important to religion in a variety of ways, invite theological reflection. So do these dolls and images. ‘Aesthetics has a theological vocation’, and faith frequently has ‘a component that we can identify as aesthetic’ (Brown, 1989: 35-41). The scriptures use figures of speech and poetry to communicate with us. Biblical writings have always engaged readers ‘by means of story, image and symbol’. Hence ‘the theologian may need to treat them in some measure as meaningful and truthful’. Without artistic sensitivity ‘theology is in danger of misunderstanding the very character of its primary data’. Hence ‘doing aesthetics is not so much a theological option as a theological necessity’. Even conceptually precise propositional theology ‘is rooted in symbol and metaphor and must be responsive to the norms of prayer and practice’. Since the primary language of religion is poetic, mythic and aesthetic, ‘it is with such language that theology repeatedly begins, and it is to such language that theology must often return’ (Brown, 1989: 37, 41, 193). The dolls/images presented here are such language. They explore ‘fictively, metaphorically and experientially what formal theology cannot itself present or contain’ (Brown, 1989: 167). They are theological statements in an idiom and a style different from those of academic conceptual propositions. In fact no theology can be strictly academic and purely rational. All theology appeals to insights and to truths that ‘must be taken on faith and uses metaphor analogy and paradox’ (Brown, 1989: 193).

The statements these dolls make about people are, or imply statements about God. To take note of the deprived and the oppressed, as many of these dolls do, is to take note of the naked, homeless, broken Christ, who identifies himself with the lowliest and the least. (Mtt 25: 31-46). It is also to affirm and proclaim that ‘Yahweh who does justice is always on the side of the oppressed’ (Ps. 103: 6). The mother figures who carry, nurse, cook and care are sacraments of God and icons of Christ saying in effect: Take, eat drink and live, this is my body, my blood, transformed through love and given for you. To plead, as many of these figure (implicitly) do, for the recognition of the excluded, to struggle for the liberation of the oppressed and to stand for the participation of everyone in the making of our world and our history is to illustrate the reign/kingdom of God and to serve its cause. The dancing and the praying figures, those with the harp and the veena, and Krishna with his flute, are explicitly theological-spiritual. Oppressive patriarchy is flayed in the woman in chains, the widow in white, the battered wife and the suicide. These are invitations to and first steps in a feminist/womanist theology. All these figures in fact raise questions of life and freedom, of human dignity and human rights. These are realities rooted in God and involving the Divine. They are theological themes.



This book, then, is an invitation to further exploration and articulation of situations, and problems, of criticisms, and protests, of liberation struggles and transformative efforts, as well as of the new creative presence of God in grace and judgement in the movements of history. The hope is that there will be more and other responses to these images and figures. The dolls may have a different message for different people and for diverse occasions. Or the same word may be heard, interpreted and expressed in various ways by assorted listeners. The invitation, however, addressed to everyone, to look, to ponder, to seek and to act, stands.


~ Samuel Rayan

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