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A GLIMPSE AT LAST

VISUAL ARTS

Young, beautiful and serene, Queen Maya is reclined in bed. Her hands (the left under her head and the right resting on the side of the bed) support her as she gracefully turns to see something appearing in the upper left hand corner of the composition. Since this corner of the stone has been defaced, there is no way to see her dream of the white elephant, but her face bears the expression of both joy and wonder. Interestingly the middle-aged attendant near her head is staring ahead with no expression, since she cannot see the dream. There is, however, trepidation in her posture and that of the partly visible attendants at Maya’s feet, while at the extreme right of the frame, standing outside the arched doorway — thus extending the drama beyond the queen’s chamber — is a woman with her back to viewers. Hanging from her hand is what seems like a basket of flowers as though brought in anticipation to greet the moment of joy.

Maya’s Dream (Kushana period, 2nd century AD) and 39 other exhibits from the Archaeological Survey of India site museums in Amravati, Nagarjunakonda, Sanchi, Sarnath and Nalanda and the National Museum, Delhi were displayed at the Indian Buddhist Art exhibition at the Ashutosh Birth Centenary Hall of the Indian Museum between December 21 and 25. The objects had been borrowed in June-July by the Indian Museum as nodal agency for a series of exhibitions as part of the Festival of India in China (November 2010 to June 2011). Objects from the Indian Museum collection were also to travel for the exposition. Too much red tape, however, forced Chinese museum authorities to reject the initiative. And the subsequent proposal to take this cache of sculptures and paintings to South Korea in 2012 as ‘Indian Buddhist art’ didn’t materialize either. So, at last, Calcutta got a chance to sample the treasures before they are returned.

It is true that these were not the highest examples of Buddhist art. But they displayed some rare iconography and interpretations. From the Sarnath Archaeological Museum came the 8th century AD sandstone Nilakantha Avalokitesvara, ready to drink a cup of poison to save mankind. Also from Sarnath was Marichi — the six-armed Buddhist goddess of dawn riding her chariot of boars chasing away darkness and evil. From Nalanda came a bronze Tara from the Pala period (9th-10th Century AD). The goddess is seen sitting upon a lotus throne, her right hand resting easily in a gesture of charity over her knee, while her left hand holds a lotus flower which curls over her shoulder. The bronze Maitreya and Lokanatha statues from the 9th century AD (Nalanda), and the illustrated palm leaf manuscripts from the 11th and 13th century AD were memorable.