Objects from the past give us a profound insight into the history of
our ancestors - each object expresses a unique view of reality that
even written texts can never convey. Richard Blurton's new book
explores in depth the rich cultural heritage of the Indian subcontinent,
encompassing Pakistan, Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka,
through a wide variety of objects from the earliest communities down
to modem artefacts. The book is beautifully produced with excellent
clear illustrations and impressive descriptions of each object. So often
nowadays authors arrange such objects thematically, but the author
here has arranged them chronologically making a more understandable
Among the earliest objects are ceramics from the borderlands of Iran
and South Asia. The excavated sites of Mehrgarg and Nal dating back
over 3000 years revealed some astonishingly modem looking vessels
richly decorated with animal and geometric motifs. A few hundred
years later highly sophisticated seals from the Indus civilization recall
ancient Greece and remind us of the cross-cultural connections even
in the distant past. The author carefully maps out the emergence of
the great religions in the subcontinent - Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism
and Sikhism followed by the arrival of Islam and Christianity each
represented by superb objects.
The British Museum's outstanding collection of Gandhara sculpture
takes anyone's breath away but lesser known Buddhist sculptures from
Sarnath and Bihar followed by the delicate friezes from Amaravati
each have an extraordinary power and sensitivity. I have always found
much Jain art somewhat static but a few 3rd Century fragmentary
figures from Mathura rival the very best Buddhist sculpture of the
early period. Similarly, the elaborate Jain bronze of the thirtankara
Parasvanatha from the Deccan (11th century) is outstanding. Buddhism
of the Mahayana school flourished from the 1st century in Sri Lanka
and solid cast and gilded bronzes from various sites on the Island
were collected and donated by European amateur archaeologists like
Hugh Nevill (1847-1897) and others.
The standing Buddha of Tara has a fluidity and grace that seems to
transcend bronzes that were produced in China at the time. The lost
wax process of bronze casting had been known in the subcontinent
since ancient times, but it reached its zenith under the Cholas. The
Museum's collection of Chola bronzes is one the finest in the world.
It contains the incredibly early 9th century small Nataraja that, to me
at least, is one of the finest devotional bronzes that exists anywhere.
The slightly later and much larger bronzes like the Siva Nataraja from
about 1100 that is on the front cover and the gorgeous saint Chandesha
donated by Eton College are each testament to the extraordinary
sophistication of this form of high Art that rivals sculpture produced
anywhere in the world.
The British Museum contains superb art of the Islamic period
produced in the subcontinent including paintings and richly decorated
objects - carved and inlaid jades, armour, metal wares and textiles.
Among the paintings is the rare early but fragmentary painting of
the house of Timur done on cloth - the figures are arranged around
a garden pavilion. It was worked on over a long period initially in
Kabul in about 1550 and with additions at the Mughal court in 1605
and in 1628. I know of nothing comparable. The collection is no less rich in Mughal paintings of later periods. These include the world
famous 'Weighing of Prince Khurram' showing the young Shah Jehan
sitting on scales being balanced against bags of gold. It is fashionable
nowadays to see the European period in India as one of decline in the
artistic productions of the subcontinent. Long forgotten paintings of
the Company period made for patrons as diverse as Antoine Polier
and William and James Fraser disprove this myth entirely. Indeed,
much of the British Museum's magnificent collection of objects owe
their discovery to Europeans who had a genuine and profound interest
in the cultures of the past and devoted their lives to the excavation and
research of such.
The modem period is represented here by some magnificent paintings.
Abanindranath Tagore's 'The Buddha to be bids farewell to his horse'
taken from ancient Buddhist history, is imbued with such depth and
emotion that is far removed from the European art that he reacted
against. It almost moves one to tears. His successors of the progressive
school are much better known today but the author doesn't neglect
the art of Pakistan and particularly that produced in Lahore. Quddus
Mirza's 'Portrait of my Village XIV' has real charm while the self
portrait of Ali Kadim is just sublime.
For anyone interested in the art and objects of the area of this part of the world, I cannot recommend this excellent book more
highly. It is sympathetically written, it covers a huge and diverse span
of history, and it is a joy to look at.