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DUNHUANG ART

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Foreword

Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang --- the very name conjures up a vision of caves lying in the proximity of sand-dunes across the Gobi desert almost touching Turfan and Turkistan. Ever since the discovery of these caves, they have attracted scholars from far and wide. For me too, this was a dream. For years I had perused the reproductions of Dunhuang in many books, looked at the materials brought by Sir Aurel Stein, now in the National Museum, and hoped that one day it would be possible to see the originals in their natural setting. Such an opportunity arose when I was invited to attend an International Symposium on Dunhuang organised by the Dunhuang Academy in 1990. I took this journey by plane and not on foot or on camel back, not through the arduous paths of travellers, pilgrims and traders who had crossed the mountain passes and deserts, and yet the dramatic change in the landscape was evident. Flying over the Gobi desert and the dark-green rocky jade cliffs, gradually we were amongst sand-dunes conglomerates. A vast panorama of caves by the thousands opened up until I found myself suddenly in front of the Dunhuang Caves --- the caves which had called many monks and laymen for centuries. As I entered this dream-world of half-luminosity, I remembered a poem written by a contemporary Buddhist scholar, Zhao Puchu, namely:

"Angels hovering the sky with joy,

Enlightened path lies for men's choice,

Hands with umbrellas and garlands,

Tender is the preacher's exalted glance.

They fly non-stop through eternity,

With delight, devotion and dignity,

I am happy to come for pilgrimage,

To this jewel of cultural heritage."

Dunhuang epitomizes the mutual dialogue between India and China over the centuries. The creative energies of each, in symbiosis but distinct, are in evidence here in a manner which speaks of a continuous and sustained dialogue at multiple levels of communications between two great cultures. The opening and extension of the Silk Route served as a bridge for direct contact between the two countries by way of trade and commerce. But there was also a constant stream of religious, cultural and deeper spiritual communication. Buddha and his teachings were the inspiration for the goals of this journey.

Monks from India had travelled to China while many from China also travelled to India to collect Buddhist scriptures. This interchange flowered in many ways in philosophy, literature and poetry. It also manifested itself in line and colour, mass and volume in terracotta and stucco statues, frescoes and murals in this breath-taking impressive group of 492 caves covering 45,000 square metres of mural paintings, 2,415 stucco images of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Historically the span of creative activity is equally impressive, extending from the fourth to the fourteenth century.

What a treasure and what a privilege to be able to view these caves which had been closed to the public for many decades! As I walked through these caves and looked at the wall paintings, stucco figures and the terracottas, I realised that some of the materials in these caves, particularly manuscripts, silk banners and other antiquities were today distributed in many repositories of the world including Italy, Germany, United Kingdom, Russia and India. For the art historians and scholars of Buddhist studies, this material, both in situ and that which lies fragmented in many parts of the world, is an invaluable world heritage comparable to the artistic creativity evidenced in Ajanta in India.

Since the establishment of the Dunhuang Academy in 1944, two scholar-painters along with many associates have been copying these paintings for many decades. Professor Chang Shuhong and Professor Duan Wenjie have lived in these caves as custodians, art-historians and painters. Their identification with these caves and their contents is so complete that one cannot think of dissociating the Dunhuang caves from Professor Duan Wenjie and his distinguished predecessor Professor Chang Shuhong.

Although there has been much critical literature on Dunhuang in English and other European languages there was the need to have the authentic voice of a Chinese with a distinct Chinese viewpoint in the interpretation of Dunhuang. I was aware that Prof. Duan Wenjie had written a book on Dunhuang which he had graciously presented to me. I took courage to request Professor Duan to permit IGNCA to translate his work into English for publication. My colleague, Professor Tan Chung, undertook this difficult task and the volume is before us.

We have brought out this volume as a partial fulfilment of the cherished goals of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts to encompass achievements of art and culture of humankind. The volume is divided into three parts. First, the "Introduction" by Professor Tan Chung provides an overview of the history of Dunhuang, of Dunhuang becoming the celebrated repository of wall-paintings and stucco statues, of the Dunhuang Institute and of Professor Duan's contribution to Dunhuang art. The second part which is also the main part of the volume contains the English translation of selected articles of Professor Duan, mostly from his volume in Chinese. As his essays were written at different times, repetition of contents is unavoidable. We have done a selection not only to keep the repetition to the minimum but also to ensure that the volume speaks to a larger readership. The third part is a brief description of each of the 492 caves of the Mogao Grottoes which is largely an abridged translation of the Chinese materials supplied by the Dunhuang Academy which, I am told, is the labour of love of Professor Shi Weixiang who, like Professor Duan, I had the pleasure to meet both at Dunhuang and again in New Delhi in 1991, when they came as the honoured guests of IGNCA.

Through this book, perhaps we are attempting to communicate the vision and the distinctive approach of Professor Duan to this great monument of world cultural heritage. I have no doubt that this volume will make a distinct contribution to the critical literature on Dunhuang and it is hoped that the Dunhuang Academy will sponsor and promote further such studies.

I am glad that this volume is being released to coincide with the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the Dunhuang Academy in August 1994. I offer this volume as a token of our felicitations and greetings to our sister institute. Although the Dunhuang Academy is fifty years old, it is full of youth and maturity. I have no doubts that it will grow and provide more avenues of exploration of the heritage.

 Kapila Vatsyayan

New Delhi

June, 1994

 

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1994 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi