finds home in Hindu India
S Mitra Kalita
When Stephen Huyler speaks of his upcoming trip to
India, he describes it as a journey home
The 48-year-old author and photographer, raised in
southern California and Wyoming, fell in love with India more than a
quarter-century ago and has spent three or four months in different regions of
the subcontinent every year since.
"India is as much my own as America. I am going
home in two weeks," he said in a recent interview with rediff.com
Indeed, Huyler's life, both personal and professional,
reflects this familiarity. His most recent book Meeting
God: Elements of Hindu Devotion, stimulates a reader's eye with
colorful photographs of daily rituals in Indians's lives from sunrise to sunset,
from bathing themselves to conducting business.
The book, published by the Yale University Press,
contains 160 color photos taken by Huyler. Its intentions are lofty: to
illustrate how devotion to God is incorporated into the daily life of India's
estimated 800 million Hindus, according to Huyler.
"We lack that in most Western cultures,"
Huyler said. "In Hinduism, you get a sense of the way in which the divine
is made accessible and recognized as a part of all existence. It is not
separated, as in the separation of church and State." In the preface to the
250-page book, he writes of his efforts in capturing the commonalities of
"an extremely complex and diverse religion."
He didn't start out captivated by the religions of
India. This art historian, cultural anthropologist, photographer and author
initially traveled to and spent time in India to conduct a cross-cultural survey
of Indian arts and crafts. His prior works include Village India
(1985), the only book to survey rural Indian life and cultures across the
subcontinent and Gifts of Earth: Terracottas and Clay Sculptures of India
(1996). His book Painted Prayers: Women's Art in Village India (1994)
documents women's ritual wall and floor decoration, which he discovered on his
first visit to India.
Huyler, who received his BA in Indian Studies from the
University of Denver and his Ph D from the University of London's School of
Oriental and African Studies, also curated an exhibition of photographs with Painted
Prayers that traveled to numerous museums throughout the Germany, India and
the United States, including the Smithsonian Institution.
The designs are also featured in Meeting God,
as Huyler recalls the first time he observed women using powders and water to
sprinkle designs on the damp earth in the shape of leaves, birds and flowers.
'When I questioned the meaning of this extraordinary process, I was told that
these paintings are sacred designs intended to protect the home from evil and to
encourage benevolent spirits to enter it,' he writes. 'In more than a million
homes, these kolams are created daily, and the women pride themselves
in never repeating a design!'
Huyler is outspoken on the important role Indian women
have played in his introduction, immersion and enchantment with the country. He
arrived on his 20th birthday, invited and accompanied by Dadaist Beatrice Wood,
his mentor, who was then 77 years old.
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and Rukmini Devi Arundale
arranged for him to stay in homes throughout the country. "My first
introduction to India was through the home and the heart rather than the
hotel," he said. "I was exposed to the remarkable generosity of the
Indian people and that had a remarkable influence on my interest in
Over 28 years and hundreds of stays in Indian homes,
Huyler said he is repeatedly struck by the strong role of the Indian woman in
both family and religion. "One of the reasons that we misunderstand Indian
culture is that Hindu society is divided into public and private spheres. Most
outsiders don't have any contact with the private sphere," he said.
"But it is in the private sphere where women make
the decisions and choices for the family's livelihood, the choices of their male
children's careers, the purse strings, the rituals." He tempered his
remarks by saying female infanticide and bride burning are unfortunate realities
and atrocities, albeit practiced in a minority of Hindu homes.
In his introduction to the private sphere, Huyler
learned that his area of study -- folk arts and crafts -- in India was
intertwined with the people's devotion. "I came into the study of Hinduism
through the back door. It was not through intent, but because I discovered that
none of the arts and crafts could in any way be divorced from spiritual content
and aspects of ritual."
He writes and speaks intimately of the role Hinduism
has played in his life. "Now when I am invited to attend a sacred ceremony,
I no longer withhold myself in critical appraisal. I am fully present with all
of my senses to absorb the ritual, to feel the full experience. I realize now
that my earlier distance was merely the consequence of my own limitations. The
many Indians with whom I have interacted have always invited my full
participation. I can admire and even be in awe of the ways in which the sacred
permeates the lives of the Hindu people while still maintaining strong
attachments to my own home, family, friends, culture and ideals. Awareness of
one only enriches awareness of the other."
A testament to his faith and devotion to both Hinduism
and Christianity is the puja room in the home Huyler shares with his
wife Helene in Camden, Maine. Alongside Jesus and Mary are statues of Ganesha,
Laxmi, Shiva, Shakti and Vishnu. "My understanding of Hinduism has only
enhanced the understanding of my own heredity," he said. "I
incorporate many Hindu beliefs in my prayer and worship."
In India, Huyler said he is almost never asked to
explain himself or his religion. His blend of faiths benefits from Hinduism's
tolerance, he says. "In America or in Europe, a non-Christian in a
Christian environment would be challenged often."
Through his book and an accompanying exhibit, Huyler
said he hopes to "demystify one of the primary belief systems in the
world." A traveling exhibition of photographs and interactive wooden
shrines that complement Meeting God just finished a run at the Houston
Museum and is expected to travel around North America and abroad over the next
few years. Huyler also co-curated an exhibition about sacred rituals in India
entitled Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion, on display at the
Smithsonian's Arthur M Sackler Gallery from May 1996 till 2001.
Huyler asserts that this tolerance is what has allowed
Hinduism to thrive in an increasingly modern, Westernized society. 'In India I am
frequently in awe of the sense of personal peace in the midst of apparent
turmoil. A station crowded with ten thousand milling commuters, the cacophony of
tea and coffee sellers and the cries of vendors,' he writes. 'In the midst of
this riot of activity, a small man stops to pray silently by himself. For these
five minutes, he is oblivious of his surroundings, immersed in his personal
relationship with God.'
Hinduism is not under threat by modernization because
it changes with times and embraces all walks of life, Huyler said. He denounced
recent attacks on the religion by the Southern Baptist Convention. The group
published a prayer guide that made said, among other things, 900 million Hindus
lived under darkness and they did not have the concept of sin or personal
responsibility. Indians in Atlanta, Boston and Houston staged rallies and
protests in response.
Huyler said the Southern Baptists's statements
demonstrate Western misunderstandings and misconceptions of Hinduism and a
failure to see commonalities among religions.
"Because they think their system is the only way,
they think others must be less," he said. "That is just arrogant
prejudice. I think Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims have a lot to learn from