New York museum to exhibit Indian sculpture

A grand exhibition of early Indian sculpture will be inaugurated in the US this week. For those in the know, there is palpable excitement as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York is preparing to throw open its doors to an excellent curation of Buddhist stone sculpture by MET curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, John Guy, that will be on from July 21 to November 13. Replete with exquisite fragments bearing narratives from India’s remote past, the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, ‘Tree and Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India 200 BCE-400 BCE,’ focuses on the Deccan’s pivotal role in shaping the Buddhist landscape of early India and beyond.

The historical Buddha Sakyamuni did not live or die in the Deccan. But southern trade routes (Dakshinapatha), Indian Ocean trade, and pilgrim networks ensured patronage, movement of artisans and merchants, and the spread of monastic lineages and texts, causing numerous stupas and monastic complexes to be built. The display of Indian Buddhist art in museums abroad is, of course, not new. The British Museum in London houses an entire gallery devoted to the Buddhist art of Amaravati.

But early Buddhist art of the Deccan spans half a millennium, from about the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD, and has a lot more to offer beyond the landmark sites of Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda. Two of the most tantalising discoveries of Buddhist heritage in recent decades – Kanaganahalli in Karnataka and Phanigiri in Telangana – belong to these parts. There is so much at these sites that awaits greater attention and appreciation.

Like much else from ancient India’s archaeological landscape, the built remains from these sites are fragments – materially and metaphorically – of lived lives, beliefs, and cultural practices from a distant past. For those willing to exert, to hear and to see, the mysteries hidden in them begin to reveal themselves. Some broken stones speak in parts, even as the better-preserved ones register a more assertive presence. Lost pieces whisper softly from within the emptiness created by their absence, like parts of an art historical puzzle falling into place.

This is quite the story that has been unfolding at Phanigiri (‘serpent-hill’), about 135 km to the east of Hyderabad. Located along ancient trade routes that linked western and eastern Deccan, Phanigiri appears to have been an important node in ancient pan-Asian Buddhist networks. Discovered in the 1940s, it is only from the dawn of the present millennium that archaeologists have been systematically excavating this Buddhist monastic complex.

The breathtaking beauty and historical significance of a few Buddhist artworks from Phanigiri are now set to awe and stun New Yorkers. For several years, patient and committed research by some historians of art and religion has enabled voices from Phanigiri’s past to be more audible in the present. Among the chosen objects to be displayed at MET are fragments of a magnificent 3rd-4th century torana-gateway that once stood tall on the hilltop at Phanigiri (photo).Fortunately, with some patient listening and seeing, the intrigue surrounding this broken gateway slowly unfolded. It was as if the place in its ruins warmed up to our struggles and yielded its past. Eventually, the dismembered parts offered much more than themselves – the missing links fell into place, and our attempts to arrive at its completeness were rewarded. Virtually reassembled, the Phanigiri gateway revealed a form similar to the famous Sanchi toranas.Unparalleled in their narration of the Buddha’s biography, from his birth in Lumbini to the turning of the wheel of dharma at Sarnath, the gateway parts have now acquired a new life. The fragments are ‘metaphors for modernity,’ complete in their incompleteness, embarking on new journeys and awaiting fresh receptions. Their curation as part of the MET exhibition visually connects them with larger Buddhist networks.

Wistfully, one wonders why an exhibition for which India has lent generously, and which also includes an Indian sponsor, Reliance, is not slated to show in any Indian museum. After all, many of the 125 exhibits will be returning to this country eventually.

The writer is professor of art history, Department of History, University of Delhi


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