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ACROSS THE HIMALAYAN GAP

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CULTURE AND ART

MY TRYST WITH CHINESE ART

M. N. Deshpande

20

Before I started my dialogue book I had undertaken the study of the Svatamber Jain Canon under my late revered teacher H.D. Sankalia. This first introduction to a monastic religion was the first step that ushered me into further studying of Buddhism. It was in August 1944 that I had the opportunity of going to Taxila (where flourished in ancient times an important Buddhist University) to join the Indian School of Field Archaeology started by Sir R.E. Mortimer Wheeler to learn new excavation technique. On my way to Taxila, I availed myself the opportunity to study the Buddhist relics of Kushana period at Mathura and the Indo-Greek art of north-west India in the museum at Lahore. During my three months long training in the new techniques of archaeology I had the good fortune of visiting the monasteries in and around Taxila. I could study the stupa and Vihara architecture, iconography along with the rich collections of Buddhist antiquities in the Taxila Museum. These opportunities opened my eyes and gave me a new vision of Buddhist art and architecture.

As luck would have it, I was absorbed in the Archaeological Survey of India and had sample facilities to study Buddhist monuments in the Deccan such as the caves at Karle, Bhaja, Bedsa, Kanheri and Junnar together with Buddhist centres like Balabhi in Saurashtra as well as Jain caves in that area. It was in the year 1950 that I had the good fortune of being posted at Aurangabad and could study extensively the caves of Ajanta-Ellora, Pitalkhora and Aurangabad caves and obtaining a deeper understanding of the Buddhist art and philosophy. The Buddhist art of Western India commences around the middle of 2nd century BC and reached full development along with sculpture and paintings right from the 6th century AD. It was in the 1970s that I could visit Bamiyan {Afghanistan) and study Gandharan art, etc. in Kabul Museum through the relics preserved therein.

I travelled a long way as a professional archaeologist till I became the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India from which post I retired. Amidst the innumerable professional opportunities and hazards, I had the pleasure to have a peep into Chinese art, particularly Chinese Buddhist art through books and exhibits. I developed a great fascination towards the culture and art of our great neighbour -China, but had no opportunity of visiting that great country.

Fortune smiled on me when I reached my seventies. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi, under Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan started a collaboration with the Dunhuang Academy of China. Prof. Tan Chung of Jawaharlal Nehru University was an honorary consultant of IGNCA and he was the man in charge of the collaboration. In 1991, IGNCA had some very important programmes in the Indian capital. It first organized an international seminar on "Cave Art of India and China", and, then, put up a very impressive exhibition of the wall paintings of Mogao Grottoes. For these two events, the Director and a life- long curator of Dunhuang art, Prof. Duan Wenjie, visited New Delhi and stayed for a month along with his senior colleague, Prof. Shi Weixiang. Dr. Vatsyayan was so kind to put me on the job to organize the Seminar on "Cave Art of India and China", which had the honour of Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, then, Vice-President of India, to preside over the concluding session. Through the participation of work for the Seminar and also for the Exhibition, I began to have my tryst with Chinese art, as it were.

In August, 1994, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan asked me to join the IGNCA delegation to China to participate in the international seminar at Dunhuang. During that seminar, I and Prof. Tan Chung helped the Dunhuang Academy to organize a follow-up seminar on "Cave Art of India and China". I also had the rare privilege to go around to see the fascinating wall paintings of the Mogao Grottoes.

Before proceeding to China I had worked on the Kanheri Grottoes near Bombay, its 100 caves making the biggest Buddhist cave art in India. I also worked on the seven groups of caves at Junara. But the Dunhuang cave art is so enormous with 45,000 square metres of wall paintings and 2,415 stucco statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas spread among 492 caves, just beyond comparison with what we have in India. When I entered the Dunhuang caves in the company of Prof. Tan Chung, Dr. Radha Banerjee and Dr. Baghyalakshmi, all from IGNCA, I felt as if I was having a miniature Vishva Rupa Darshana (cosmic vision). In fact, the moment I saw Dunhuang Caves I fell in love with it, and I wished that I was not of the age of 74 but at least two or three decades younger, so that I could have enough energy to work on it. Hence, I offer my sincere advice to my young scholars among Indian archaeologists and art historians to make it their career to study Dunhuang and to have an indepth comparison of this wonderful art treasure with its Indian counterpart.

Because of the agglomeration of sand and earth in the hill, the Mogao caves were not suitable for exquisite sculpture. But the creators of Dunhuang art, lasting as long as a dozen centuries, converted the environs into magnificent canvases for frescoes. In many caves, I saw everywhere, excepted the floor, being covered with excellent paintings without an inch of space to spare. In some Sui and Tang caves of the vintage of 7th, 8th centuries I saw how the space of the cave was fully utilized. On one side of a cave there is a kind of stage on which there are stucco statues. The Buddha sits in the centre, with the two main disciples, Kasyapa and Ananda, standing on both sides as if to escort him. Then, the Buddha-disciples trio are flanked by two Bodhisattvas, mostly Avalokitesvara and Manjusri. Some times, even this quinquepartite group is flanked by two warriors at the extremes. In Ajanta, we have the Buddha flanked on the one hand by a Padmapani, and on the other by a Vajrapani. The Chinese seemed to have treated Padmapani a grade higher than Vajrapani, hence the Vajra warriors stand a degree further away from the Buddha than the Padmapani doubles.

In the background, there is always a fine painting which usually depict the life story of the Buddha. There is Mayadevi's dream of the elephant and Prince Siddhartha's leaving the palace. Prof. Tan Chung pointed out some strangle figures painted just at the back of the Buddha statue, and told me that the Dunhuang scholars generally identified these as the "thunder gods". I looked at the scenario and the picture of the Ajanta "Maravijiya" (victory over the devils) came to my mind. I said they could be symbols of the mara (devil). After saying that I hastened to add that when painting the story of the Buddha, four episodes are must: Mayadevi's dream leading to the birth of the Prince, the Prince's departure from the palace in search of bod hi (enlightenment), Buddha's overcoming the seduction, detraction, and threat of the devils -the "Maravijiya" -and, finally, his attaining the enlightenment. "Where is the 4th episode, then?" asked Prof. Tan Chung. Yes, nowhere is it painted on the wall. Suddenly I discovered that the sitting Buddha statue was in Bhumisparsha mudra, with his right hand touching the ground. So, here it was. How cleverly this composition was constructed, I thought, combining background wall painting with foreground stucco statue! Later, Prof. Tan Chung repeatedly told this little "discovery" to fellow seminarists many of whom felt it a new revelation. Prof. Tan Chung, then, observed that many of the already fixed identifications in Dunhuang art which had all been done by the Chinese scholars (some with suggestions from European scholars many decades back) could be re-opened for fresh reconstruction and reidentification. And a fruitful exercise of this kind had to involve Indian experts. I felt inclined to agree with him. Indeed, Chinese can learn many things from their Indian counterparts and vice-versa. There is a need for increasing contacts and exchange of expertise between the two peoples.

The Dunhuang experience was a golden moment in my life and this has set me thinking how Buddhist thought and culture were received in China in the beginning of the Christian era. About 500 hundred years earlier the royal prince Siddhartha had left his palace and became a paribrajaka and wandered from place to place, and teacher to teacher to find out the key to the elimination of dukkha. China was a similar country as India and her saints had also pondered over such humanistic problems. Confucius (551-497 BC) had left identical teachings. Laozi believed in individual salvation, and his Tao was so similar to Buddha's dharma that the early Chinese Buddhists used the word "dao" to translate "dharma". Also, Laozi's "wuwei" could be compared with Buddha's "sunyata".

Buddha embarked on a radical path and he wanted all his fellows to take to ascetic life. He did not encourage philosophical discussion or theorising about metaphysical problems because at the roots of human misery was maya (desire) and greed. Once the eight-fold path (right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation) is achieved the human problems are solved. He had no god to appease nor any sacrifice to perform. His teaching was entirely ethical in nature and he believed in substantiality of life. Prof. R.B. Pandey puts this in a very profound sentence, viz. "as logic sprang full grown from the head of Buddha". He did not ask any of his disciples to think of him as their guide, the disciples should follow the Dharma that he had practised, and only his doctrine could guide the people (Majjhima Nikaya).

Kapilavastu was the place where Buddha was born. The place name tells us that this was perhaps the place from where the sage Kapila had propounded the sankhya philosophy, having gyana and yoga as the two important elements of his philosophy, Buddha likewise laid emphasis on Samayaka gyana and meditation. In Majjhima Nikaya he demonstrated inhalation and exhalation and asked the monks to practise it with intensitiy. He had even asked his son Rahula to practise cultivation of mindfulness and achieve tranquillity of the body and control of the mind, and freedom from thought and transforming the consciousness into impermanence of illumination (bodhi). The monasteries like Dunhuang came into existence from 4th century AD and there must be a very vigorous period to digest when Indian Bhikshus spread Buddha's message of compassion for the happiness and welfare of beings. This organized ethical religious code was gladly accepted by the Chinese people and their rulers. From the 4th century onwards we find that Buddhist monks from China came to India for study. Among them the names of Faxian and Xuanzang are well known. They carried home with them hundreds of Buddhist manuscripts which were translated into Chinese by learned and dedicated Bhikshus, like Kumarajiva, Bodhidharma, Paramartha who went from India to China to propagate the new faith. The glowing account of how Xuanzang lived at Nalanda city and returned to his country having acquired complete mastery of the tenets of Buddhism is fascinating.

The other important factor leading to dissemination of Buddhism outside was the spread of Indian art and painting side by side with Buddha dhamma itself. Ajanta was the fountainhead of inspiration. It was during the days of Ashoka that calculated efforts to spread Buddhist religion started in earnest. Ashoka had sent his son Mahindra and daughter Sangamittra to Ceylon and, perhaps, some artists from Kashmir went to China from Central Asia and planted the roots of Indian art there. But in China, not only Indian but Sogdian and Greek elements also intermingled and created an art vocabulary which needs to be studied indepth by Indian art historians and archaeologists.

It is very necessary to train our scholars with good grounding in Pali and Buddhism to learn Chinese and spend years in Chinese universities, studying sculpture, paintings and architecture on the one hand, and Buddhist scriptures on the other. This should be a long term project. If the Indian scholars are expected to have a firm grounding in Chinese Buddhist art, they should endeavour to follow a long course of study extending over many many years to acquire specialisation. The study of Buddhism is gaining popularity in the universities of United States and Europe, India should not lag behind in this academic pursuit. With the revival of Buddhism in India, China and other countries it is all the more necessary that a very concerted effort is made to study ancient Buddhist texts and Buddhist art in both India and China.

 

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1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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Published in 1998 by 

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