Washing the Feet of Pottamma

 While the world of art celebrated the  the Cochin- Muziris  Biennale  well-known Artist Alex Chandy did a very revealing exhibition of some of his recents works at the Kerala History Museum gallery, Cochin.

The title of his  exposition was Wax and Tears. Wax was the main medium of his art- paintings , sculptures and the emerging  form of what is called Installation Art.

Anticipating  a longer piece of writing on the conceptually  insightful and emotionally moving exhibition, let me now make this brief note  about a radically new Washing of the Feet ceremony the artist conducted at the inauguration of his exposition.

It was not any  big celebrity in the world of art or film  that the Artist invited to open the show, but a poor, elderly village woman . The Artist called her Pottamma, because throughout her active life of some 64 years, from age 15 onwards, she had been carrying on her head a big bamboo  skeleton basket  heavily laden with clay pots of all sizes and shapes, for all  kinds of use in kitchen and garden (kalam, chatti, poochatty,  kudam, koppa, kooja.....) Bare- footed   she walked the length an breadth of the villages of Kerala, in the scorching sun and the pouring rain, wearing her shabby lungi and blouse, bearing  the burden of clay pots atop her head.  A rather rough "chummaadu" made of dry banana leaves served as a "cushion"  between her small head and the huge bamboo basket on top . She chatted with  village women, shared the sighs of their wants and  wishes and brought to them new clay  pots and bowls at a time   those poor women  had no other way to get their essential kitchen ware. Those clay pots were as fragile and empty as their dreams, but they loved them, and they loved the woman who brought them too.

Artist Alex himself had practised the Potter's art for many painful years of his creative life , and out of his experience of the tearful wetness of the earth ,  he developed the concept of  "Kalamaan", the main theme of his installation art in the exhibition.

 It is no wonder that the artist considered the feet of Pottamma as holy feet worthy of veneration. They were, of course , ravaged by age, wear and tear, yet those worn out feet had created  indelible footprints of the sweat and toil of  many generations of poor women  and their self- denial  for the family and society . 

Putting on his head the " chummaadu"  the Artist washed  Pottamma's feet  in public and kissed them. She became mother and teacher to him. Thus he also followed in a way the venerable Indian tradition of disciples washing the feet of the Guru, and children taking care of their elderly parents.

In spite of a heavy laden  life of poverty and deprivation Pottamma displays a dignity that nothing can deprive her of. Her face and feet have certainly transmitted that sense of dignity to tens of hundreds of village women languishing in the dark shades of worthlessness and self denial.

Reminding the biblical prophets of old, Alex the Artist makes a radically provocative and prophetic sign for our times.

But are we provoked- we who, in the opinion of many sensitive Christians,   make a mockery of the humility of the Son of Man in a ritual imitation by high dignitaries of the feet washing "ceremony" that signifies nothing but our heightened ego, our privileges, pomp and splendour?


Fr K M George

Holy Week 2013