The 100th anniversary of Pulidindi Solomon Raj’s birth wasn’t remembered by many in the United States. However, large numbers gathered in India this year to celebrate the life of a Lutheran pastor, scholar and artist who had lived among them for almost a century.
Born Feb. 21, 1921, as a-third generation Christian in Neggipudi, a tiny village in the West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh in South India, Raj became an internationally recognized name in the field of communication as well as an artist whose creativity explored drama, dance, music and visual expressions. His artwork focused on batik (a wax-resist dyeing technique) and woodblock printing. A theological dimension penetrated everything Raj, an Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church (AELC) pastor, did.
The boy from Neggipudi who became an influential global Lutheran figure was a Renaissance man who deserves to be better known among Lutherans in the West and around the world.
Raj’s grandfather Ramudi, baptized as Abraham, came to be a Christian through the ministry of J.C. Frederick Heyer, the first missionary sent abroad by Lutherans in the United States. His son, Lazarus, who became a teacher, shared Abraham’s faith, as did his daughter-in-law Naomi, who became a “Bible woman” using storytelling and song traditions to present the gospel.
“[The artist] is aware of the problems in the society in which he lives, he speaks the vocabulary and the idiom of his time, and he wakes up people of his day to some of the things that agitate his mind.”
Heyer, as with any missionary, couldn’t have known what his 16 years of service in India would yield. The Guntur mission field he founded in 1847 became in 1927 the largest Lutheran body in India, the AELC, now a companion of the ELCA. “Father Heyer,” as he was known to his parishioners, could also never have known that from his family a figure such as Raj might arise.
Raj’s progression from elementary education at his father’s school to graduate and doctoral work in communications at Indiana University, Bloomington (funded by the Lutheran Church in America, an ELCA predecessor body), and the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom was both rapid and extensive. He served as field director of audiovisual education for the National Council of Churches in India and director of Suvartha Vani, a radio station and multimedia project of the Andhra Pradesh Council of Churches.
Raj was also an artist-in-residence at Lenoir–Rhyne University, Hickory, N.C.; Luther College, Decorah, Iowa; and Bethany College, Lindsborg, Kan.
While serving in those positions, Raj wrote articles and books on communication. He asked himself how he, as a descendant of Heyer’s mission outreach, could best communicate the gospel with his own people, who were mostly Hindus and Dalits (the lowest caste in India).
“What does this picture say to me?”
Following visits to Germany, Japan and Indonesia, Raj decided to focus on two challenging art forms, carved wood blocks and their prints and multicolored batiks. These art forms would be the means by which the teacher-pastor would illustrate many biblical stories.
Raj claimed he wanted to place a life-altering visual question before the viewer: “How might this picture change my life?”
In addition to Bible stories, Raj was committed to addressing themes of social justice in his art—issues that his own Dalit heritage raised for him. He created art concerning the status of women, refugees and disenfranchised people in general.
“He is aware of the problems in the society in which he lives, he speaks the vocabulary and the idiom of his time, and he wakes up people of his day to some of the things that agitate his mind,” Raj wrote of the artist in his unpublished paper “The Prophetic Role of a Christian Artist.”
His audiences were challenged to ask themselves difficult questions. When viewing pieces depicting a man with a crown of thorns embracing refugees, they might ask, “Why is that man wearing a crown of thorns, and what does this picture say to me?”
“How might this picture change my life?”
Audiences from around the world have been impacted by his work, which crosses cultures from Judea and Galilee to India. Western audiences have been moved by Raj’s depictions of Christ reaching out to embrace the foreigner in their pain or loneliness.
In his 60s, Raj established the St. Luke Lalitkala Ashram across from his Vijayawada home, where he lived with Mary, his wife of 47 years. In the ashram he conducted classes for children and adults in dance, music, theater and various art forms that had particular meaning in Indian culture.
In his 80s, when it became difficult for him to dip the batik cloth into dye vats, Raj began to translate texts. He translated all the hymns of Paul Gerhardt into Telugu, introducing the people of India to the post-Reformation-era Lutheran pastor and poet.
And when his sight began to fail in his 90s, Raj still didn’t quit. He composed poetry in English to share his faith with a broader audience.
Raj died on Dec. 28, 2018, at the age of 98. As a Lutheran with wide-ranging knowledge and gifts who worked in numerous media and cultures, his story encourages us to believe that God continues to use our mission outreach to plant the gospel throughout the world.