India, missionary, christianity, ethnography, art, paint, bamboo, decoration, Denmark

An artist in India: The longing of a missionary wife

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Asia, Europe

How do you pass the time, when your husband has brought you all the way to the other side of the world? To a strange land, with different customs? In a time, when women of a certain class were not supposed to work? And when you long for a home, which is so far away, it seems like it was part of a different life?

Back in April, we told you the story of missionary Herman Jensen, who travelled to India in 1874 with his wife Julie. They had six children in India. Two little girls passed away, and eventually the four remaining children were sent back to Denmark, to pass their childhood far from their parents. Yet one daughter, Nanna, vividly remembered her early childhood in India, and wrote it down for posterity. She recalls sheltering in the house from the sweltering heat of the day, waiting until the afternoon when it was cool enough for her to go with her mother to the beach, where they would collect seashells and bathe their feet in the sea. She writes of the time when the household cat saved her baby brother sleeping in his crib from a snake, and about the time when her father got bit by a scorpion.

And she writes of how her father was often away from home, and of her mother’s longing for Denmark:

Mother could hardly bare the sight of the poor storks with their clipped wings in Madras Zoo. Then her thoughts would wander home to her loved ones and the Danish countryside with its storks flying freely about, its lush beech forests carpeted with spring flowers, and the green fields of summer with its forget-me-nots, cotton grass, and other lovely flowers. In Mother’s eyes, the magnificent flowers out there (in India), in all their glory, could not live up to the simple snowdrop, crocus, wild pansy, not to mention a beech tree in spring.

I can almost see her, Julie, dedicated to her husband’s cause, yet with a sadness and longing in her eyes, for what she left behind. While her husband travelled around, spreading the word of God, Julie painted delicate flowers and swift birds on bamboo and calabashes. As I sit, holding these beautiful objects, I feel Julie’s presence in them. And that is what they can do, these things we leave behind. As Julie sat, thinking of home, and painting a heron flying over a patch of bulrush on a piece of Indian bamboo, she left a bit of her essence in the paint.

Julie was not to die in India. In 1892, Herman returned to Denmark for a spell, bringing with him his terminally ill wife. So, we can only hope that she had the opportunity to see the green summer fields and towering beeches of her home country before she passed away, and that someone put a little bouquet of snowdrops, crocuses, or pansies by her bed.

//Sophie Seebach

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