Pakistani Buddhist art defies odds to show in NY

A remarkable trove from Pakistan's little-known Buddhist past has gone on show in New York in an art exhibition that defied floods, riots and explosive US-Pakistani relations before finally crossing the world.

The against-the-odds exhibition, "The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara," features sculptures that have mostly never before been seen in the United States.

Unveiled this week at the Asia Society, the works trace the dizzyingly complex pre-Islamic history of the Gandhara region located in the northwest of modern-day Pakistan.

The area includes the Swat Valley, synonymous today with Taliban-linked guerrilla groups and extremist revolts against Pakistan's government.

But as the exhibition makes clear, Gandhara once was a cradle of culture and art, as well as the target of an endless stream of empires, in a flourishing period that ran from the first century BC through the fifth century AD.

"Despite images of Pakistan as a place of violent extremism, the region has an ancient tradition of tolerance and pluralism," said Asia Society Museum director Melissa Chiu.

The stone carvings and works in gold and bronze mirror influences from as far apart as ancient Greece and Rome, India, Persia and, increasingly over time, Buddhism.

The Buddha figures, including one of just three so-called "emaciated Buddhas" in the world, and the other pieces have survived more than a millennium and a half intact, their mixed styles testifying to cultural fusion and experimentation.

But the tale of how they traveled from museums in Lahore and Karachi to Manhattan is hardly less remarkable than their passage through the ages.

Chiu told AFP the Asia Society had been working nearly two years to bring the approximately 70 objects to New York.

With nine or 10 layers of bureaucratic approval required, it was always going to be difficult, and then negotiations became sidelined in the emergency caused by catastrophic flooding last year.

Next, with acres of paperwork already sorted, the country's government dissolved its culture ministry as part of a shake-up. "We'd had an agreement with the ministry of culture," Chiu recalled ruefully.

An opening for March was planned and abandoned - an unusual move in the international art world - as tensions, in part linked to a CIA operative's shooting of two Pakistanis, grew between Pakistan and the United States.

The killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan during a May raid by US Special Operations Forces made the hoped-for deal even more tenuous.

Finally, agreement was reached. But even as work began to pack and ship the precious artifacts, the exhibit's fate hung in the balance.

"In Karachi, they had all these riots the week this was being packed," Chiu said. Terrified packers refused to leave their houses and, in the end, "museum staff went around to the houses to collect them."

Chiu called the exhibit "a once in a lifetime opportunity," saying the difficulties in pulling it off should inspire optimism.

"What's interesting is there were so many people in Pakistan who helped, who put their necks on the line to make this happen - to show Americans another side of Pakistan, its long cultural heritage," she said.

Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations in New York talked with Chiu every day for months. "Then, he called the president and other ministers to get help."

Among the highlights of the show, which opened Tuesday and runs through October 30, is the extraordinarily carving "Vision of Buddha Paradise."

The stele features a crowded scene not only in relief but carved out, so that multiple details stand almost free of the background from which they have been cut.

Although Pakistan is now overwhelmingly Muslim, the artworks are carefully guarded and revered in their home museums. There's another echo that lives on, Chiu noted with a mischievous smile: the twirly mustaches sported by many in the sculptures.

In Pakistan today, "everyone has a mustache. It's de rigeur for men."

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project