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Buddha, V&A Museum, London

Ashutosh Museum, Kolkata

The Ashutosh Museum is situated on College Street in Calcutta University's Centenary Building. The sculpture gallery is on the ground floor. The second floor has other forms of Bengali art including miniature painting from the Murshidabad school, Company paintings, and patachitras. The sculpture collection described here consists mostly Pala-Sena pieces from West Bengal, Bangladesh and Bihar, and some pieces from Orissa and Central India. Visitors are not allowed to photograph the sculpture in the collection. The photos shown in this essay are of similar pieces from other museums.

Terracotta

Along the left wall of the gallery are glass cases with terracotta figurines, pottery, and bricks. These are mostly from Chandraketugarh and Mahastangarh. At the end of the left wall are several glass cupboards of terracotta bricks from Bengali temples. Several well-preserved social and religious friezes are here including ships with European sailors, hunting, palkis, and hookah smoking nobles. The most exquisite pieces are the large roundels showing Radha-Krishna surrounded by a circle of gopinis holding hands. Along the back wall, dusty cupboards are cramped with terracotta panels. These include Mahisamardini images, Ramayana panels, panels showing the Samudra Manthan, and Narasimha disembowelling Hiranyakashyapa.

Two sets of large terracotta wall-panels are re-arranged on the wall. The first, above a cupboard at the back wall shows a sequence of the Dashavataras, with a large Bengali inscription panel below. The other, near the entrance, is damaged but more elaborate. At its base is a panel of twelve miniature Siva temples. In a glass-case below this are two large terracotta images that were probably part of a Saptamatrika series. These two images, of Indrani and Vaishnavi on vahanas are beautifully modeled and well-preserved.

Bihar

The centre aisle has sculpture collected from Bihar. Buddha images are predominant, with some Vishnu, Surya and Devi images. The two Buddha statues in the first group are striking. They show the Buddha within a niche, seated in padmasana and framed by two elaborate pilasters. The pilasters have a kumbha at the base, and above, a kirtimukha and a kinnara. On either side of the Buddha are Bodhisatvas, Padmapani on the left and Manjushri on the right. Below the padmasana is the dharmachakra panel. This group also has several images of Buddha, usually standing, and all wearing a diaphanous robe, plain or ribbed. In one beautiful piece he is crowned and surrounded by the five Dhyani Buddhas.

Among the next group of images, is the upper portion of a Parasanatha image in brown stone. This has a seven-head serpent hood, above which is an umbrella with two elephants. Next to this is a Chamunda in black stone. Seated on a corpse she holds a damaru, a kharga and a kapala in three hands, another hand holds a trisula, while another holds a severed head. The fourth hand is placed near the mouth with the index finger raised to the corner of the lip. She is emaciated, wears a garland of skulls, and her hair is like fire. Below the figure is a mound of severed heads and some kneeling supplicants. Contrasting with this is a calm image of Chandi. Here the Devi is standing with trisula, bow, sankha, sword, chamara, with one hand in varada mudra. Another unusual piece in this group is a Navagraha panel showing the dieties with their vahanas: Som's vahana is a matsya, Brihaspati's is a swan, and Shani's is a bull.

In the next group is a rare panel of figures with a seated Buddha at the centre, flanked by eight Bodhisatvas. At the base is the dharmachakra, on either side of which are long inscriptions. This group also has a beautiful Dasavatara fragment, a six-handed standing Padmapani, and a seated Buddha, not touching but holding a ball of earth.

Orissa and Central India

The collection from Orissa includes many miniature stone architectural replicas of Orissan temples. Among the figural pieces is an intact Mahisamardini in grey stone. In the same group is an image of a seated lion, the deulcharini, and a broken sculptue of Garuda. Another unusual image is identified as Jyestha, the eldest of a group of eight fierce Goddesses. Placed at the right wall is a Ganesa in polished stone. The most striking image is of Karthikeya on his vahana the peacock, in brown stone. The peacock faces the viewer and its elaborate plume is sculpted onto the prabhavali. The few pieces from Central India are all in rough brown sandstone. A beautiful square panel shows Brahma, with Savitri. Brahma holds a book in one hand, his other hand is in the varada mudra. Savitri holds a water-pot and a trisula in her hands

West Bengal and Bangladesh

The collection from West Bengal and Bangladesh, occupies the entire right half of the room. There are several massive Vishnu images. One of the largest, yet most elegant and intricately carved is a broken piece in brown stone at the right wall. There are several variations to the standard Pala iconography. One is the Vishnu-Lokesvara image, which shows a standing or seated Vishnu shaded by a serpent hood and holding a lotus. Several Vishnu images have the Dashavataras carved in relief on the prabhavali. One such piece is a large sculpture from Batajore in Barisal. Here the avatars are inscribed five on either side within creeper-circles. The creeper stems emanate gracefully from the lotus pedestal on which Vishnu stands.

Besides Vishnu statues, there are also sculptures of the avatars of Vishnu. Among them are two vamana images, and an unusual piece, a square sandstone block, like the Saptamatrika panels, showing Ugra-Narasimha carved in relief. Saivite sculpture, rare in this collection, is placed in three groups. The first group has a broken Nataraja image, the next group of images around a desk include a six-armed dancing Ganesa and two Chaturmukha Lingas. The third group has images of Sadasiva, Manasa and Uma. One of my favourite pieces in the gallery is a placed against a pillar near the entrance. It is a sculpture of a complete ship with five men holds oars. At the centre is a couple within a niche that looks like a cabin. They are surrounded by attendants, two chauri-bearers below, attendants above and at the left and an elephant on the right.

Kolkata, 2006


Photos and Text © Amit Guha