by Hasan Altaf
The first time I heard the word “Gandhara” was when I was maybe eight or ten, and, driving from Islamabad to Peshawar with my father, brother, and grandparents, stopped in a town I’d never heard of to visit a museum that was equally unfamiliar. The little town was Taxila, and the museum was the Taxila Museum. I’m sure at the time someone, most likely my father, explained to me the significance, the historic and artistic value, of the objects presented there, but it seems I must have glazed over and ignored it. To the eight- or ten-year-old I was, none of the statues and relics, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, were particularly memorable. We left Taxila and continued our drive, leaving the museum behind, and until recently, I never thought about them again.
Many of us who grow up outside Pakistan have Pakistan always in the back of our minds, but that Pakistan is an imagined one that is different for each of us, and mine, at least, did not encompass Gandhara. (Which is, at one level, strange, as my imagined France includes a Revolution, my imagined England a conquering William, and, thanks to my grandmother, my imagined Pakistan a Muhammad bin Qasim.) Even when I lived in Pakistan, in Islamabad, within easy driving range of the remains of the culture, “Gandhara” was an irrelevant if not foreign concept.
The new show of Gandhara art, at the Asia Society in New York (none of the work came from Taxila, but from Lahore and Karachi instead, after apparently a great deal of diplomatic wrangling), doesn’t seem to be particularly aimed at changing that situation – which is, all things considered, probably for the best; such an attempt could so easily swing towards the moralistic and the preachy. Instead, the exhibition restricts itself mostly to sobriety, to a calm display of the work and relevant facts. When the curators do conjecture, they do so about what a particular gesture might mean, whether a particular statue depicts Athena or simply an Athena-like goddess, whether a particular piece came from a dome or a pedestal.
In some worlds that kind of speculation is probably controversial, but to me it is not; I have no idea what characteristics or what knowledge might lead one to decide whether a goddess is or is not Athena, or whether a sculptor’s awkward struggles with drapery really do suggest the tension between the Greek and the Indian styles. In the end, it doesn’t really matter; it’s like listening to a symphony when you don’t know the rules of classical music, or watching bharat natyam when you don’t know the steps or the stories. The pieces have their own pleasure, and in this exhibition, for me that was enough.
The larger, grander works – the statues, the carvings, the Buddhas emaciated or well-muscled (every time a statue has abs, they talk about Greek influence), standing or seated – were not the ones that impressed me the most, perhaps because, as the exhibition suggested, they were recognizable, even familiar: Some resembled Greek statues, others Indian paintings; none of the language was excessively foreign. The pieces that affected me the most were the strange, the unexpected, the orphaned. From the third or the fourth century AD, there was a massive carving in schist of the Buddha’s footprint, and its scale was powerful – as well as its obvious sense of something gone, of a remnant or a reminder. At the other end of the spectrum, there was a small carving, originally part of something larger, of a man leaving the gates of a walled city, which seemed at once immeasurably ancient and entirely contemporary.
Despite the beauty and serenity of the work, the exhibition overall left me with a strange kind of regret, brushed with something that felt like nostalgia, although it could not have been nostalgia. The museum resists going down that particular route, but I couldn’t help being sorry that my imagined Pakistan never had room for this history, and that the national narrative of Pakistan too touches upon this note only sporadically. In Pakistan we seem to have no idea where we want to go; part of that might be because we ignore so much of where we come from.
My other regret was of a different kind. Works of art, of course, travel; entire exhibitions travel; it’s the nature of such things. But how often will an exhibition like this be mounted in Pakistan? How many Pakistanis will get a chance to see it? The works are there, in Karachi and in Lahore and the others in Taxila, but of our massive population, how many are they accessible to, and how many of those will go see them? In Pakistan we have not yet reached the point of blowing up our Buddhas, and hopefully we never will, but it is possible to ignore something out of existence, too – to keep it so far away that it just vanishes. In one sense, that would be no loss, because things move on, but it’s a foreshortening of history – it’s the excision of some vestigial part of yourself whose function you might not have known but now will never learn.