A new exhibition showcasing artwork dating back to the 2nd Century puts Buddhist art on the international map
November 7, 2015 Last Updated at 00:17 IST
An exquisite sculpture of the Avalokitesvara greets the eye at Exhibition Hall-1 of New Delhi’s National Museum. Dating back to the Pala period (11th-12th century), this granite grey work has been crafted from Rajshahi basalt — a rich black basalt jamb unique to that era. There is also a rare exhibit depicting the Mahaparinirvana of Buddha from Yusufzai, Pakistan, which goes back to the Kushan period (2nd century). It is 91 such objects — stone sculptures, palm leaf manuscripts and ritual objects — that form the part of the exhibition Buddhist Art of India and have travelled from Kolkata’s Indian Museum to the National Museum in Delhi.
The Indian Museum has an unparalleled archaeological section with an exhaustive collection of religious art. It is from this agglomeration that these objects have been drawn to be shown for the very first time in Delhi and abroad. For any collector of Buddhist art, a glimpse of artefacts from the Kushan or Pala period is a rare treat. And that’s what makes this exhibition so significant. “The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) hadn’t been set up when the British discovered the doctrinal tenets of Buddhism and when the stupas of Sanchi and Amravati were excavated. As there were no ASI site museums at that time, a lot of the newly-discovered artefacts were put in the Indian Museum,” says Jayanta Sengupta, director of the Indian Museum, which was founded in 1814 and has the distinction of being Asia’s oldest museum.
Earlier this year, this collection travelled to the Shanghai Museum, Tokyo National Museum and Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. Interest has also been evinced by museums in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to host the exhibition next year. “Taiwan and Singapore have hosted such exhibitions in the past, but that was a long time ago. This travelling exhibition is more recent and features art material that has never been seen outside of India. Also, it features early Buddhist art, dating back to the Gandhara and Kushan periods. This is rare as the international art market usually only has works from the last 500 years to showcase,” says Edward Wilkinson, director (Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art) at New York-based auction house Bonhams.
Nirvana in stone with Buddhist art The collection has been divided into three sections. The first one is related to the birth of Buddha as depicted in the Jataka stories from Nepal and northern India. The second section features panels from stupas and showcases the evolution of the doctrines of Buddhism from Theravada to Mahayana and then Vajrayana. The third one focuses on the international transmission of these teachings. “A prime example of this is Gandhara art, which is a mix of Greek and Indian sensibilities. This was created by the Greeks who came to the subcontinent with Alexander and stayed back. Hence, you will find that the face of Buddha and the style of dressing is very Greco-Roman,” explains Sengupta. Also, the exhibition has been chronologically arranged in a way that shows the transformation of Buddhist art. “For instance, the earlier art didn’t feature any human depiction of Buddha. Only his feet were shown or he was represented by a lotus,” he says.
This exhibition comes hot on the heels of several successful auctions of Buddhist art conducted by major auction houses like Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s in recent times. In fact, Bonhams will be conducting a similar auction of Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art early next year, with special emphasis on Buddhist artefacts. It will feature an important 16th century Tibetan mandala and early Nepalese sculptures, besides other works.
There are several factors that have resulted in Buddhist art becoming popular with collectors. According to Sandhya Jain-Patel, head of classical Indian art at Christie’s New York, one such factor is that collectors are now avidly seeking broad and diverse representations across time and cultures. Wilkinson concurs, while adding that, “though there has been an interest in it ever since the marketplace was established in the 1960s, the recent increase in interest has matched the rise of interest in Tibet,” says Wilkinson. The emergence of the new Chinese collectors has also contributed to this phenomenon.
So, which genres of Buddhist art are collectors interested in? “We have seen success in nearly all periods of the category of Indian and South Asian art, especially if quality, rarity and provenance standards are met,” says Jain-Patel. But there are certain styles which are more in demand than the others — Buddhist art from Kashmir being one. “Then there is the very best of Ming and Ching art, which had been created for dissemination to monasteries,” says Wilkinson.
Buddhist Art of India will be on show at the National Museum, New Delhi, till November 30, 2015