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Inside the Wonder House: Buddhist Art and the West

Wonder House

In this text, the author tried to explore the relationship between Western
influence and the study of Gandharan art. At the beginning of the text, he quoted
a section from Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim (1901) to illustrate how Greco-
Buddhist art was being viewed from the subject position of an Anglo-Indian. In
the story, the “natives”, here refer to the local Indians, call the Lahore Museum
“the Wonder House”. There are three important aspects about the museum: first
of all, it was built by the colonial rulers, which is beyond native experience or
expertise. The most part of the exhibits are Greco-Buddhist sculptures, showing
the taste for the art of the classical West, secondly, the contents are available
solely through the effort of the colonial administration, which collected and
preserved the art in the museum; finally, these sculptures were made in the
distant past, which are superior to what natives are capable of producing in the
present. The author suggested that this Buddhist art serves to mark the cultural
heights of the past against the impoverishment of the present day, whereas
British superiority is shown by their ability to recollect the artworks and
reorganize them in a western scientific way in the museum. Although the
Buddhist images in Wonder House are by definition alien and different, yet
through appropriate interpretative and disciplinary techniques, they are totally
knowable. Meanwhile, the curator, with the aids of European books, and his
training of an art historian, was able to transform the Buddhist art as a known
version to the western audience. However, this was made only possible by
controlling and excluding the native presence, their history and voice, from the
discourse of art history. Similarly, scholars used more or less the same way in the
creation of the discourse of Greco-Buddhist Art.

Greco-Buddhist art

Greco-Buddhist art is thought to be originally related to the eastern conquests of


the Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic settlement in the border of India. For
example, Bactria, located in the northwest of Gandhara, is thought to have
carried on Hellenistic traditions in to the first century B.C. The reasons for the
enthusiasm for the collection of antiquities such as Gandharan art are
multifarious: firstly, it was an extension of classical archaeology into India,
relating to the Neoclassicism movement in late eighteenth century; secondly, the
political authority of the West over India could be supported by such material
evidence of Greek presence in India.

Historical developments

The beginning of the interest in Gandharan art is highly related with the British
colonial expansion In India. “It was not until 1852, soon after the British
annexation of the Punjab in 1849, that examples of sculpture from Gandharan
were described as exhibiting Greek attributes.” W. Jackson, Vice-President of the
Asiatic Society of Bengal, described two heads as having Greek and Hindu
features respectively. In his eyes, of course, the Greek one is superior. Later in
1852, a large group of sculpture from Gandharan was identified a having Greek
and Buddhist characteristics. It became a problem to reconcile the purity of the
Greek influence in these works with their Buddhistic character. In 1870, C. W.
Leitner, an educational administrator and archaeological enthusiast from Lahore,
brought a collection of Gandharan sculpture to Europe and used the term
“Graeco-Buddhist “ to name these works. It was being regarded by many scholars
as a new page in the history of Greek art, which secured the source of western
influence in the discourse of Greece and Hellenism. Despite skepticism from
scholar like William Vaux, this notion was further elaborated by scholar like
Vincent Smith. He proposed that there are two periods of Western influence on
Gandhara. The early period was essentially Greek but the main school of
Buddhist art was Roman in inspiration. Therefore he argued that the term
“Romano-Buddhist” seems to be more appropriate because Rome was the
mediator of Greek influence on Gandhara. For example, he discovered many
Roman counterparts of these Gandharan sculptures like birth of Sakyamuni to
Apollo’s birth, and Parinirvana to Greek banquet scenes. However, the author
criticized it as a colonial discourse, in which Western influence was always self-
evident. Although Gandharan art was regarded by him as a new page in the
history of Greek art, they were considered to be inferior copies from their
European counterparts. In Smith words, they were “only echoes of the second
rate Roman art of the third and fourth countries” and “never Greek enough in its
inability to match the achievements of the classical West”. Therefore, the author
regarded the opinion from Smith as only one aspect of a larger discourse of
Western power and authority that incorporated the aesthetic and cultural into the
ideology of late nineteenth-century European colonialism. Despite Leitner’ s effort
to incorporate this Buddhist art as a natural part of a Universal History in which
East-West exchange was thought to be symmetrical and naturally beneficial, he is
similar to Smith by trying to incorporate India into the schemes of Western
schemes of Western knowledge. In 1900, Alfred Foucher published an art
historical book with Buddhist textual studies called L’art Greco-bouddhique du
Gandhara, in which the Gandharan Buddhist art was represented as a work
obviously familiar to the European viewer. He argued that the Greek element was
absorbed by Buddhist art is a scheme of gradual decline. Once again, the author
thought he joined the discourse of Western colonial discovery by naming and
reproducing the artworks for the Western audience.

The Origin of the Buddha Image

In order to answer the question about the role of Hellenism in the development of
Indian Buddhist art, the issue about the origin of the Buddha Image should be
addressed. In the late 19th Century, it was understood that in early Buddhist art
there was no representations of the Buddha in human form but only “aniconic”,
which are symbols to represent Sakyamuni, for example, his footprint or the
wheel of Dharma. James Fergusson suggested that the idea of making a Buddha
image in anthropomorphic form was inspired by the tradition of Greek image
making. Meanwhile, Alfred Foucher identified that the Gandharan sculpture as the
oldest images of the Buddha. He also confirmed that Greek blood must be
responsible for making such sculptures. However, Ananda Coomaraswamy
rejected his viewpoint. He criticized that such point of view was to “flatter the
prejudices of European Students and to offend the susceptibilities of Indians”,
because he believed that “precedents for the Buddha image were available in
pre-Gandharan Indian artistic traditions including Jain and Buddhist art from sites
such as Mathura”. Coomaraswamy, who received his education in the West,
lamented that “Indian (and Japanese) scholars have shown a singular humility,
and timidity, in their ready acceptance of all the results of European scholarship”.
It is important to know that the discourse around the origin of the Buddha image
was highly charged with issues of colonialism and race, in which Western
influence means progress and the Natives means stagnation.

In Pursuit of Greco-Buddhist Art

Accordingly, Aurel Stein was the most successful archaeologist to explore the
vast region between Gandhara and the borders of China. As soon as 1896, he
was allowed to visit Swat district, where he expressed his joy at standing on
“classical” soil. However, random digging was abundant in this region that it was
impossible for him to suggest chronological schemes that supported the claim for
a Greek origin of the Buddha image. As a result, in 1898, he proposed to the
British Indian government for the founding at his 1st Central Asian expedition.
Since Britain was then competing with Russia in that region, the author hinted the
complex relationship between scholarship and politics. In 1900, with the aid of
the colonial government, Stein was able to explore south of Khotan. One of his
goals is to secure Western authority over the texts and other antiquities that had
been appearing in piecemeal fashion during the 1890s. His findings would be
handed over to the British government for the British Museum like Greek art, so
as to show how far into Central Asia that classical art of the West had penetrated.
At Miran, he discovered the name of a painter “Tita”, which he thought to be a
sort of Roman Eurasian. At Dunhuang, he found “the faithful preservation of the
face, pose, and drapery as developed by Greco-Buddhist art “. To be sure, Stein’s
most important contribution to the discourse of Greco-Buddhist art was the
documentation of its unbroken trail from Gandhra to China. Even if the influence
of Greco-Buddhist art on Indian art was being doubted, schlolars could still use
his findings to support the argument that Gandharan art is the “basis for all
subsequent Buddhist art in Central and East Asia”. eg. Fenollosa’s Epochs of
Chinese and Japanese Art, the first important book on Asian art had based on this
theory to understand the artworks.