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January 20, 2000
American 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 country."
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 one another."
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