A Buddhist monk looked at a 3rd century Emaciated Siddhartha statue at the Asia Society Museum in New York / Stephen Chernin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Article in the New York Times by Holland Cotter, August 10, 2011
After what seemed like an endless run of geopolitical roadblocks, “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara” has finally come, six months late, from Pakistan to Asia Society. Is the show worth all the diplomatic headaches it caused? With its images of bruiser bodhisattvas, polycultural goddesses and occasional flights into stratosphere splendor, it is.
That all but a handful of the 75 sculptures are from museums in Lahore and Karachi is in itself remarkable. Any effort to borrow ancient art from South Asia is fraught, even in the best of times. For an entire show of loans to make the trip, and in a period when Pakistan and the United States are barely on speaking terms, is miraculous. (Without the persistent effort of Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, the exhibition would almost certainly never have happened.) So the show has a cliffhanger back story as an attraction, and some monumental work, like the fantastic relief called “Vision of a Buddha’s Paradise.” (Dated to the fourth century A.D., it’s a kind of flash-mob version of heaven.)
But 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.
The multilayered and time-obscured history of ancient Gandhara is particularly difficult to grasp. The area, which encompassed what is now northwestern Pakistan and a sliver of Afghanistan, was a crossroads for international traffic. If you had business that took you to or from the Indian subcontinent, you passed through Gandhara. If you were in the business of empire building, you made every effort to control it.
Persia, under Darius I, colonized the area in the sixth century B.C. Two centuries later Alexander the Great, a Macedonian Greek and a conquest addict, charged in and charged out, leaving behind a Hellenistic occupation, which held firm even as Gandhara was absorbed into the Mauryan empire of India, South Asia’s first great Buddhist power.
Over time Greco-Bactrians, Scythians and Parthians dominated the terrain. Then, around the first century A.D., the Kushans, originally nomads from the steppe-lands north of China, settled in, extending their reach down into the Indian subcontinent.
They were genuine cosmopolitans, linked to the Mediterranean, Persia and China, and tolerant of religions. It was under their aegis that Gandharan Buddhist art, compounded of foreign and local ingredients, flourished.
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The exhibition, organized by Adriana Proser, a curator at Asia Society, begins by showing elements interacting. The first thing you see is a substantial female figure carved from the dark schist that was the common stone of the region. She has a funny look, familiar but not. She’s dressed in a sort of cocktail-dress version of a Roman stola; her hairdo is pure 1970s Charlie’s Angels, long but with back-flipped bangs.
Because she wears a helmet, she’s been called Athena in the past, though she probably represents some regional genius loci modeled, at a remove of thousands of miles, on Greco-Roman prototypes. Another female figure with comparable features has more certain identity. Much as she resembles a Roman goddess of good fortune, the three clinging children she juggles mark her as the Buddhist deity Hariti, an infant-gobbling demon, who, after a little enlightenment, changed her ways.
The culture mix thickens further. On a fragmentary stone panel we find in relief a Persian-style column with an Indian nature goddess posed in front of it. A squat stone figure in baggy Kushan pants turns out to be Skanda, the Hindu god of war. And a stele devoted mainly to sober scenes from Buddha’s life doubles as a playground for dozens of cupids.
The point is, Gandharan art was all over the map. Yet confusion sparked innovation. The first known figurative images of the Buddha are thought to have emerged from this region. So did, despite all the crazy components, an instantly recognizable sculptural style, on persuasive display in the second of the show’s three sections.
Here we find the classic Gandharan Buddha. Dating from the second to fifth century A.D., he is a standing figure in an ankle-length tunic and a togalike cloak that falls in rhythmical folds, with hints at the shape of the body beneath. The facial features are symmetrical and crisply cut, and idealized, though on ethnic and aesthetic terms different from those of a Greek Apollo.
On the whole the image is naturalistic in a way that the purely Indian equivalents being carved from sandstone farther south were not. And the naturalism is especially pronounced in Gandharan images of bodhisattvas, those evolved beings who postpone nirvana to aid struggling creatures on earth.
One example from the Lahore Museum suggests a leader-of-the-pack biker: slightly paunchy, with a handle-bar mustache, a cascade of curls and a challenging stare. Technically, he’s Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, though judging by his ornamental hardware — bicep bracelets, neck chains — he still has something to learn about the spiritual path of less-is-more.
The show’s highlight, “Vision of a Buddha’s Paradise,” is in this section too, and culturally everything comes together here. The big Buddha seated at its center 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 daydreamingly away; far below, two tiny observers feed lotuses to fish in a stream.
Was this really designed as a vision of Paradise? We don’t know, though we might if we had some clue as to the piece’s original setting, probably as one of several related panels in an architectural context. But, as is true of most Gandharan art collected before very recent times, such information went unrecorded, and an accurate sense of what this art meant to its makers and early viewers is lost.
Ms. Proser addresses the issue of context in the exhibition’s last section, which is in its own gallery, by going with what we know: that much Buddhist art from Gandhara took the form of carved narrative panels depicting episodes from the life of the Buddha; that these panels once appeared on the walls of sanctuaries or cylindrical stupa mounds; and that many of the artists were entertaining storytellers.
Their skills are evident in the sequence of a dozen or so panels arranged around a stupalike structure in the gallery. In one, the Buddha’s mother, Maya, anticipates his birth in a dream, and the artist has made her look like a Roman matron en déshabillé and asleep on her couch. But in a second panel, carved by a different artist and showing the infant Buddha being examined by a sage, we’ve switched countries and cultures: now we’re in a land of turbans, boots and layered outwear.
A third episode takes place after the Buddha’s enlightenment, as the lords of the four directions, essentially Vedic or Hindu beings, decorously offer him bowls of food. And a panel set next to that is packed with the figures of demons who had tried hard to prevent that enlightenment. The scene looks like a Wookiee convention. It’s very funny, but also rich with information about armor and weaponry in use centuries ago.
For historians the value of an exhibition is in just such details, while for nonspecialists the main attraction is likely to be visual impact. Ordinarily, I’d rather look at Kushan-era Buddhist art carved farther south from rosy Indian sandstone than at sculpture made in cold, dark stone in Gandhara. (Asia Society had a show of both in 1986.) But that’s just personal taste, and, besides, the show has changed my mind about this: it pulses with human warmth. That’s one of the things we go to great art for, though in this case, and against very long odds, some of that great art has come to us.
“The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara” remains through Oct. 30 at Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, at 70th Street; (212) 288-6400, asiasociety.org.