Most youngsters, unabashed Hollywood fans all, associate Japanese martial arts with four teenaged, mutant ninja turtles. The older generation, with a slightly more cerebral cinematic inclination, is likely to think of Kurosawa’s samurais who, too, were exponents of martial arts. But what binds the two generations is their ignorance about the diverse schools (ryuha), philosophies, and weapons that are an integral part of the culture of martial arts that continues to enchant both modern Japan and the world. The Japan Foundation, Consulate General of Japan, Calcutta, and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations must be thanked for the exhibition, The Spirit of Budo: The History of Japan’s Martial Arts (Abanindranath Tagore Gallery, till today), which would, hopefully, plug some of the gaps that exist in the domain of public knowledge regarding this form of combat.
An article in the elegantly produced and informative catalogue informs readers that martial-arts schools evolved by the end of the Heian period. Initially, the warriors were taught an inclusive curriculum but by the time the Muromachi period dawned and then gave way to the Edo epoch, martial arts became compartmentalized with specific stylized formats and individual philosophical codes. Kenjutsu (swordsmanship), sojutsu (spearsmanship) and the jujutsu (grappling) were some of the celebrated forms that proliferated greatly till the end of the Edo period. When the country entered its phase of modernization during the Meiji Restoration, and, later, in post-war Japan, martial arts, given their incongruity with modern warfare, were slowly invested with an educative and recreational meaning, which ultimately led to the emergence of the concept of budo that aims at physical and spiritual upliftment.
The exhibition is divided into two parts. The first comprises a dazzling array of weapons and armour — bows and arrows, helmets, and such like — that helps trace the changes in form and philosophy of combat. Many of the exhibits are reproductions, the originals being too fragile to survive the rigours of transportation. But superior conservation techniques dispel doubts about authenticity. The second half of the exhibition documents the transformation of martial arts into a benign entity whose spirit continues to be preserved and revered. The exhibits — clothes and protectors — are used by students today.
Japan is credited with lending a sense of refinement to combat tools and now we know why. The Han-dachi sword, for instance, is intricately designed: a paulownia leaf motif accompanies black lacquer that contains grounded mother-of-pearl. The weapons also evoke a sense of harmony with the natural world. Bamboo, reef and shells are some of the materials that were used to make these weapons. The idea of creating beautiful weapons was perhaps meant to camouflage their grisly function. The detailing of the folding screens depicting historic battle scenes (picture) are an added attraction.
In a city used to shoddily mounted exhibitions, it was a relief to come across one that is a perfect blend of professionalism and elegance.