Behind the Box

Over the last 12 months our group enjoyed several excellent talks via Zoom and two very successful summer walks and talks. However, it was a wonderful experience to finally see people face-to-face on a warm evening in September and to welcome them back after such a difficult time. As Peniel Chapel, our usual venue, is not yet fully open we met at the lovely alternative venue of All Saints Church, Deganwy.

Our Chair Kevin Slattery welcomed everyone and introduced Mr Cefyn Burgess, our speaker for the evening. Cefyn Is a textile designer who trained at the Royal College of Art and is a member of the RCA. He has a studio in Ruthin and has worked in many spheres including extensive research into chapels in Liverpool and in the USA. He is involved in ongoing work in Liverpool Cathedral with the soft furnishings on kneelers and seats, the nave altar cloth and the bishop’s throne and has been involved with St Fagans in Cardiff, and with Welsh communities in Patagonia and India.

Cefyn began his talk by showing us a donation box (hence the title “Behind the Box”) for the work of the Calvinist Methodist Chapel Missions in India. These were handed out to members of chapel Sunday Schools in the 1960s and many of the audience remember similar boxes. He described how, in the 1840s, Welsh Calvinistic Methodist missionaries sailed to India and made arduous onward journeys to north-west India to the lands of the Khasi people.

Our speaker initially focused on the life and work of Thomas Jones, born in Montgomeryshire in 1810 who became a Calvinistic Methodist missionary. After a 6-month sea voyage Thomas Jones and his wife landed in Calcutta in 1841. Previous missionaries to the Khasi people had found little success in terms of their missionary remit, however our speaker told us that Thomas Jones did not confine himself to saving souls, rather the saving of people was as important to him. The conversion mission went hand in hand with efforts to educate, encourage self-reliance and raise awareness about healthcare. To that end he set up schools and taught practical skills such as carpentry and metal work. Many young women went out from Wales to India to become teachers in these schools.

Thomas Jones was the first to introduce the Khasi Alphabet in Roman Script giving it a phonetic structure by re-assigning the sounds represented by various letters. unlike the previous Bengali Script used by Alexander Lish (who came to the Khasi Hills before Thomas Jones) and the Baptist Mission in Serampore. In Khasi literature Thomas Jones is referred to as the father of the Khasi language.

Unfortunately, Thomas Jones soon ran into trouble with the colonial powers regarding their treatment of the Khasis. A bounty was put on his head, he escaped and fled to Calcutta but in 1849 he died of malaria. His grave in Calcutta is still tended today.

We were then shown a video of present-day Khasi life including some photos of symbols of the indigenous religion. Our attention was drawn to some of the similarities to Christianity. Our speaker discussed photos of the thriving Christian worship including churches with congregations of up to 6,000 – and singing Welsh hymns! We were also shown amazing examples of skilled weaving and our speaker then discussed the nature of Khasi society, including its matriarchal nature

Cefyn then turned his attention to another inspirational figure. Helen Rowlands (1891-1955) was born in Menai Bridge, Anglesey (she is also known as “Helen y Mon”). She sailed to India in 1916 and devoted much of her life to the welfare and education of Khasi women, setting up maternity care and running schools for divorced or widowed women and young girls. She was fluent in Bengali and knew Ghandi during the wars of independence, even speaking from scripture at his funeral. She is remembered in Khasi culture as The Mother/ Grandmother, a mark of utmost respect in Khasi culture.

The final part of the talk brought us up to the present day. Our speaker has been to India and came back just before lockdown in March 2020. He described the strong links which have been forged between Wales and the Khasi people. Musical exchanges are planned, possibly a harp will be taken over next year. The Art Council of Wales and RICE (Ruthin India Cultural Exchange) are active in promoting cultural exchanges. Cefyn plans to go to India in the future and learn more about the Khasi people. At the end of his talk Cefyn invited us to examine his paintings and stitch work depicting aspects of Khasis life and community. A fascinating, richly illustrated talk on a subject about which many of us knew very little. We hope he will come back and show us a little more of what is Behind the Box

Our thanks were conveyed by Vicky Macdonald

Diane Williams

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