On July 5 to 6, in an illustrated lecture series titled Gandhara: A Confluence of Cultures at IIC, art historian Naman P Ahuja drew attention to the art and life in ancient Gandhara (present-day area of Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan).
For this, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) professor, used images of 35 objects from the culturally rich site. These objects are now placed in museums and private collections across the world.
The event also marked the launch of the latest volume of the art magazine Marg (Vol 70 No. 4, June 2019) that includes essays by scholars on the Gandhara territory.
In fact, in the introductory text of the magazine Ahuja writes, “The region has witnessed many waves of conflict, particularly in recent times. But it also has a long history of cosmopolitanism that allowed different local practices to coexist.”
At the lecture series, Ahuja took the audience through the Bronze Age before moving to civilisations such as Indo-Greeks, Kushanas, Hindu Shahis and the Timurids through the objects.
For Ahuja, the land is time and again brought to public view through exhibitions, books and television programmes, offering lessons in dealing with migrations and globalisation.
Gandhara has been a curious subject for many researchers given its rich heritage and natural resources.
Like Ahuja, who admits to have been interested in this region since childhood.
He says, “I am fascinated with this area because I have been seeing objects from Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier Province all my life. I have been reading about it and hearing stories about it since I was a child.”
But the region became much more important to him only after the art historian trained curators from the Kabul Museum on the subject in Delhi.
“After this training, I started making an archive of images featuring the art and architecture of Gandhara. The region is really important for India because many of the earliest developments we associate with Indian culture and religion took place here.
"It was a land where many texts were translated, making one community understandable to another. The Sanskrit grammarian Panini belonged to this place, while in a later age, the Barmakid and Timurid kings sponsored the creation of major libraries here. With political instability, artefacts and architecture continue to be under threat but many organisations are working to safeguard the heritage.”
According to Ahuja, the region holds a distinct identity and consistent violence due to migrations and its location in the middle of the Silk Route.
“People going to China through Europe or Europe to India had to go through this route. There has always been some movement here and history has proved that whenever different types of people met, violence is inevitable. But rather than only examine the violence, it is relevant to also see how the confluence of diverse communities created a syncretic culture in Gandhara.”
For instance, Ahuja showed an image of a sculpture which resembled both the Greek God Hercules and also the earliest available image of the Buddhist icon Vajrapani.
He says, “The same God is called differently by different people who associate it with their culture. It depends on what the viewer’s cultural background is.”