The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara, the Asia Society Museum, New York
by Shoma Bhattacharjee
If a bit of Buddha breaks the hard ice over Osama bin Laden, the world surely drops what it's doing and pays attention, if only for a moment. When history enriches the contemporary geopolitical and ironical overload, the moment becomes a mesmeric prism. For some people stationed in New York, the moment can stretch into a few hours of exciting reawakening.
The Asia Society Museum in New York is currently hosting a show, The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara. The show runs from August 9 to October 30, 2011. But what's of piquant interest is that the majority of the 75 artefacts, dated from the first BC to the fifth AD, on display are on loan from Pakistan at a time of high negativity between the two nations. “Given the state of US-Pak relations, we could not have secured these loans without the assistance of several individuals in Pakistan, who championed the exhibition,” Melissa Chiu, Asia Society Museum's director told artetc. news & views.
The works, mostly depicting the different stages of the Buddha's enlightenment, shine a brilliant torch on the fusion-ism called Gandhara art. “Although the art of Gandhara has long been believed to have had Greco-Roman attributes, new scholarship suggests a much more complex reading that accounts for Scytho-Parthian and Indian influences,” says Chiu. The aim of the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue is to present “this more nuanced understanding of Gandharan art that accounts for these complex and varying influences.” The book includes essays by foremost scholars in the field, including Christian Luczanits and Michael Jansen. The display has been organized by Adriana Proser, a curator in the museum.
On today's map, Gandhara covers a swathe of northwestern Pakistan centered around Peshawar and a bit of Aghanistan. In its heyday, it encompassed Bamiyan in Afghanistan, Bactria, the Hindu Kush, and the Punjab region of northwest India. The ancient kingdom has been aptly described by historians as the “crossroads” of the world, also as a melting pot of artistic styles. The majority of Gandharan art known today is Buddhist in origin. It was in the first century AD, under the cosmopolitan Kushans, that Gandhara art peaked, when foreign and local approaches coalesced in perfect proportions and flowed into unusual, spectacular and independent forms.
While there are some gold and bronze objects, most of the pieces are made of schist-stone. “It was an early culture. It was one of the first occasions where we see Buddha represented in his figurative form,” Chiu says. The exhibition was delayed by six months but when the works finally reached New York from the National Museum of Pakistan, Karachi, and the Lahore Museum, it was worth the hard grind. “Most of what's here is neither dramatic nor grand: a chunk of a column; a head knocked from a statue; a panel sliced from some long-since-crumbled wall. Like most museum shows aiming for a big-picture view of a vanished world, it's a scattering of small effects: precious scraps and remnants. For every stand-back-and-stare item, there are a dozen others that require close-up scrutiny and informed historical imagining to make their point,” writes Holland Cotter in the New York Times.
“It was not just us on the US side that wanted to bring objects, but people in Pakistan really wanted to see the show happen,” Chiu says. An editorial in Pakistan's news daily Dawn, is predictably effusive in welcoming this positive projection. “This will give a global audience of art lovers a rare opportunity to see 'something nice` coming out of Pakistan, and may help salvage somewhat the country`s image,” it reads. The editorial goes on to rue the destruction of numberless pre-Islamic Gandhara artefacts in two Swat museums. A 40-metre high, 2,000-year-old Buddha carved on a rock at Jahanabad, Swat, had been blown up the Pakistani Taliban following the destruction of the more famous Bamiyan Buddhas by their Afghan counterparts in 2001. On the other hand, in the last couple of years, exhibitions on Gandhara art have been held in Paris, Berlin and Seoul.
Among the highlights of this show are The Vision of a Buddha Paradise from the fourth century and a winged Aphrodite leaning against a pillar from the first century. Cotter writes: “Culturally, everything comes together in The Vision of a Buddha Paradise. The big Buddha seated at its centre wears an off-the-shoulder robe, south Indian tropical attire, while a couple dozen of mini-bodhisattvas around him mix and match international fashions, with no two outfits, or gestures, or poses, quite the same. Two figures gaze raptly up at the Buddha; another, chin propped on hand, looks away; far below, two tiny observers feed lotuses to fish in a stream.”
The exhibition sheds light on early Buddhist art in a systematic manner. It begins with a section called Classical Connections, where selected objects draw attention to the Greco-Roman, Parthian and Indian influences as seen in such architectural details as columns and capitals. Motifs from Greek mythology and western architectural elements such as Corinthian capitals can be identified in the works on view.
The second section of the exhibition, Narratives and Architectural Contexts, focuses on the architecture of monasteries and temples, and in particular the stupa design that was peculiar to Gandhara. For example, on view is a unique type of stupa developed in Gandhara art that is characterized by an elevated drum resting on a square podium.
The third section, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, shows sculptures that illustrate the development of Buddhist sculpture and iconography, with Gandhara depictions being some of the first to show the historical Buddha in human form rather than symbolically. The so-called Mohammed Nari stele is included in this section. This visually stunning and complex stone carving presents a grand vision of a Buddha within his realm of influence. The panels also point to the fact that many of the artists were entertaining storytellers besides being ace carvers.