Infant Jesus in a crib
Materials: moulded resin compound, paint
Dimensions: 7 centimeters
Place acquired: Mahé (Pondicherry) Kerela, India
Place of manufacture: local to Mahé
In the run-up to Christmas 2005 a street trader in the town of Mahé on the Indian south west coast was doing some seasonal trade by selling little nativity figures from a portable stall outside the Catholic church of St Theresa. I bought this little Baby Jesus lying in a crib.
It’s made from crudely moulded plastic and is very roughly painted in bright green, red and yellow. It looks to be the product of a local cottage industry. It shows the familiar catholic iconography for the infant Christ – a white child, lying on his back, long curly hair, eyes open and focused, and arms spread in an inclusive blessing gesture. The one local touch is the colour scheme, bright primary colours more typical of a kathakali dancer’s costume than a catholic nativity.
Mahé is a tiny enclave of the former French territory of Pondicherry, now surrounded by the state of Kerela. Like much of the east coast of India it has a long history of trade with, and colonisation by, whatever incomers arrived from across the Arabian Sea: Arabs, Jews, Portuguese, French, British. As a consequence the whole coastal region has a mix of religions, and in Mahé Muslims, Christians and Hindus do genuinely seem to live in a working harmony. The small church of Saint Theresa is attended not only by Catholics but is shared by other faith communities for major Hindu and Muslim festivals. It’s a strangely harmonious outcome of a history of commercial rivalry and conquest. It's quite likely that the baby Jesus was made by a non-Christian, and no doubt it would sell to people of all faiths. If a good festival is going on, everyone joins in.