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Art links Gandhi and Mennonites


Ray Dirks and Manju Lodha in front of one of Dirks’s paintings of Gandhi.

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Ray Dirks, Alexa Dirks, Manju and Ganpat Lodha at a Jain temple in Rajasthan.

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February 27, 2009
-Deborah Froese

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — When Ray Dirks was invited to exhibit his work at the Jawahar Kala Kendra Art Centre (JKK) in Jaipur, Rajasthan from January 9-17, 2009, he was told “don’t be religious in your art.”

The Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery curator was not deterred by the polite but firm request.

Dirks has long used his artistic talent and vision as a form of ministry that has connected him with people and institutions around the globe, and allowed him to share his experiences with students. He describes his ministry as one of building relationships, getting to know others and allowing them to get to know him.

Dirks shared with his hosts some of the ways Mennonite organizations work for peace among all people regardless of religion or culture. He found his audience receptive to this idea. “On the level of individuals, there is a yearning for non-violent solutions. Many Hindus believe that this is at the core of who they are and who they want to be.”

The exhibit Dirks brought to JKK consisted of nine portraits of Gandhi, several paintings of outcasts from different countries, and manipulated photos of own heritage.

Dirks noticed that as people toured his exhibit, they were at first pleasantly surprised by the portraits of Gandhi, and then intrigued by the other paintings. They asked questions about how the images were connected, which in turn raised questions about being Mennonite.

Dirks set off to India with his daughter Alexa, a singer, and his friend and fellow-artist Manju Lodha. Now living in Winnipeg, Lodha is originally from Rajasthan. It was through her connection with Dr. Sharma, curator of JKK, that the invitation arose.

Lodha and Dirks had exhibits set up on opposite sides of a JKK courtyard, but under the same name, “In the Spirit of Humanity.” During the opening festivities, Dirks’s daughter Alexa sang “Peace Train” in his gallery and a traditional song in Rajasthani for Lodha’s gallery.

Local and national dignitaries attended the opening ceremony, including honoured guest D.H. Mehta. Mehta, whom Dirks refers to as “an expert on all things Gandhi,” is considered to be one of India’s leading humanitarians. He is the founder of Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayta Samiti, a large manufacturer and distributor of artificial limbs and callipers.

Dirks, who travels often and lives within the communities of those whom he wishes to paint, has become accustomed to relating to individuals from different social and cultural backgrounds with respect and curiosity. “You can’t go in with an ulterior motive,” he says. He doesn’t meet people with the intent of converting them to Christianity. “Just the way I am with them is an example, and that’s the best way I can be a witness in those situations.”

A broader project under the same name as the exhibition in India, In the Spirit of Humanity, has been awarded a grant by the Winnipeg Foundation to set up three exhibits, present school workshops and offer churches cross cultural, multi-faith presentations in Winnipeg. Dirks hopes to bring Dr. Sharma to Canada for one of the exhibits.


A beneficiary of two new legs.

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D.H. Mehta in the courtyard where the impoverished gather from all over India to line up for free artificial limbs, callipers and hand-powered tricycles. Alexa Dirks, right, listens.

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Sidebar: Artificial limbs promote peace and dignity

Ray Dirks, curator of the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery in Winnipeg, Man., says that D. H. Mehta “is one of the most gracious and inspiring people I have ever met.”

Dirks met Mehta at the opening ceremony of In the Spirit of Humanity, an art exhibit at the Jawahar Kala Kendra Art Centre in Jaipur, Rajasthan featuring the work of Dirks and former Rajasthan resident, Manju Lodha. Dirks describes Mehta as a humanitarian, a pacifist and the founder of the largest artificial limb manufacturing company in the world. He was the guest of honour at the opening ceremony for the exhibit.

The day after the opening, Mehta took Dirks on a tour of the plant. Mehta claims his product has been proven to exceed the quality of artificial limbs that sell for $10,000 in the US – and his are made at a cost of $40. Those without the ability to pay are given devices free of charge, including all travel expenses to and from the clinic.

The company also makes callipers and hand-powered tricycles for polio victims.

During his tour of the facility, Dirks met men and women of all ages and backgrounds from virtually every state in India.

Through Mehta’s conversation with one man awaiting his turn, Dirks learned that the man owned nothing more than the clothes on his back and the equivalent of 25 cents in his pocket. He had no legs from the knees down, but he said that he would wait, however long it took, so that he could leave walking on two artificial limbs that would not cost him a penny.