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The Polychromatic Postcolonial Churches of Southern India Shine

The churches of South India are unlike others around the world for their colorful graphic designs.

Our Lady of Miracles Church, Thoppumpady in Cochin. All images courtesy Haubitz+Zoche.

Chandigarh, the capital of the northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana, is neither part of the former or the latter, and it is instead governed directly by the Union Government. One of the earliest planned cities in post-independence India (and, after Brasilia, the largest modernist planned city ever built), Chandigarh’s master plan was designed by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. You can see his designs in the Brutalist Palace of Assembly and its swooping roof, in the sculptures of dancing girls—tiled and stone-faced—at the Rock Garden.

Incarnations of Chandigarh’s designs are visible elsewhere in India, too, in buildings emblematic of what literary theorist Homi K. Bhabha describes in The Location of Culture as a “third space”: the steady integration of the visual semiotics of a colonizing culture into an indigenous system, till the aesthetic has transformed into something far more unique than the former could’ve attempted. Even if Le Corbusier was a kind of starting point, these other, later structures have little to do with him.

St. Joseph’s Chapel, Thuravoor

Photographer Stefanie Zoche described Bhabha’s “third space” in an email to Hyperallergic about Postcolonial Epiphany, her project with collaborator and fellow photographer Sabine Haubitz. The two, together known as Haubitz+Zoche, documented churches throughout Kerala, India, that look strikingly contemporary but are more products of the architects’ imaginations than any aesthetic movement. Some of these buildings recall the strong graphics of old Hollywood, with its fresh colors and angular design, while some are more Pop, like St. Theresa’s Ship Church in Eravu, which is shaped like its name would suggest and even includes a stoic Jesus at the bow. After dark, many of the churches light up like Christmas trees.

St. Theresa’s Ship Church, Eravu
St. Antony’s Church, Moorkanad

Postcolonial Epiphany continues another project, in which Haubitz+Zoche photographed eye-catching movie theaters in southern India. “We were traveling in India and doing a photographic research [project] entitled India Shining on the … striking contrasts between old and new buildings, traditional style and postmodernism.” After their interest was piqued by Kerala’s cinemas, they returned and photographed the churches. A series of these images is now on view at Zephyr Gallery in Mannheim, Germany. Over email, Zoche quoted from a book borne of their first project, Hybrid Modernism, as Rohan Shivkumar, an architect, designer, and theorist from Mumbai, contributed a text that offers insight into the larger context:

In the years after independence, RCC (Reinforced Cement Concrete) enabled the creation of larger and larger cinema halls. These enormous boxes needed to find an appropriate language to attract its public. The arena for the architecture to communicate its intention was in the space between the street and the inside of the cinema hall … In these spaces, signifiers of modernity are deployed as symbols — pretty much like in the architecture of Chandigarh. But there is a difference. While in the architecture of Chandigarh the organization of space and the use of materials inherently utilize distinctly modernist tools, in the cinema halls, as the basic structural organization of space is pre-determined, modernism is reduced to iconography — a pastiche of free floating signifiers that create a narrative of travel into other places and times.

Assumption Church, Mupliyam

The same can be said of the churches, whose loveliness is not connected to their deviation from Western architectural ideals, nor for their placement somewhere between said ideals and Indian tradition, itself a combination of multitudinous regions, religions, and philosophies. They sit at another intersection entirely: religious reverence — a gorgeous, whimsical kind — and pure functionality.

Our Lady of Pompei Church in Konchira
Our Lady of Pompei Church in Konchira
Mother of Perpetual Help Church in Palakattumal
Mother of Perpetual Help Church in Palakattumal
Mount Carmel Church, Keezhoor
Mount Carmel Church, Keezhoor

Postkoloniale Erleuchtung – Kirchen und Kinos in Sudindien is on view at Zephyr Raum für Fotografie (4.9, 68159 Mannheim, Germany) through August 26.

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