The so-called Graeco-Buddhist (or Romano-Buddhist) art of Gandhara has for almost 150 years been subject to appreciation and rejection by European culture. Some scholars believed it was the only "real" art India was ever able to produce, thanks to the divine spark she had received from Greece. Others considered it to be a poor and clumsy imitation of Graeco-Roman models, "decadent and lifeless, in so far as it is Greek or Roman; the more it becomes Indian, the more it becomes alive" (E. B. Havell).
Nowadays, no serious scholar would pass such a criticism, which is based on Graeco-Roman or Indian aesthetic principles. We are now accustomed to looking at Gandharan art with more candid eyes, ready to recognize what it achieved by itself, often happily mixing both the great traditions and creating a cultural borderland between the Indus river and the Hindu Kush, the Indian and the Hellenistic.
Wonderful collections of Gandhara art are kept at the Musée Guimet, Paris, the Museo Nazionale d'Arte Orientale, Rome, and the Museum fur Indische Kunst, Berlin. The British Museum boasts one of the most important collections of Gandhara sculpture in the world.
Good general introductions to the study of Gandharan art are available in various languages: L'Art Grèco-bouddhique du Gandhara , by Alfred Foucher (1905-51), and the more recent L'Arte del Gandhara , by Mario Bussagli (1984), which has also been translated into French ( L'Art du Gandhara , 1996).
Unfortunately no such book is available in English, since Lolita Nehru's Origins of the Gandharan Style (1989) does not cover the whole time span of Gandharan art, nor can The " Scythian " Period by the late Johanna Engelberta van Lohuizen-de Leeuw (1949) be appreciated by non-specialists.
The English-speaking reader has had to refer to chapters on Gandhara in handbooks of Indian art, some of them admittedly very good, for instance James C. Harle's The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent (1986) and Susan L. Huntington's The Art of Ancient India (1985), not to mention some older admirable though now obsolete handbooks.
The Gandharan collections of the Musée Guimet and the Rome museum have a precise historical background: they sprang into existence as "great collections" thanks to the excavations of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan and those of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Swat, respectively.
The British Museum's collection is the result of a slow stratification of gifts, bequests and wise purchases from 1879 - when the former Indian Museum was merged into the British Museum. As a consequence, it is much more varied and representative of the various local trends and chronological phases; an advantage and a drawback at the same time.
Volume One contains the catalogue's text, which consists of 680 entries and is preceded by some 70 introductory pages. These deserve a special mention as the reader will find in them almost all the clues to a correct and critical interpretation of the Gandharan phenomenon, "The name and the land", "The remains of Gandhara", "History of the collection", "Buddhism in Gandhara", "The stupa", "Statues and images", "Reliefs", "Some architectural elements", "Relics and reliquaries", "The art history".
I would draw the reader's attention to the chapter on "The art history". It is a masterpiece: highly informative, lucid, and readable. Until a few years ago, the chronology of Gandharan art was one of the most debatable points in the history of Indian art. As a result of the Italian excavations in Swat and the stylistic analysis of the sculptures carried out by Domenico Faccenna, J.E. van Lohuizen-de Leeuw, and Chantal Fabr gues some basic evidence for a relative, if not an absolute chronology, has emerged. The beginning of production can now be placed in or about the beginning of the 1st century AD.
Wladimir Zwalf's summary of the main achievements in this field is the clearest and most up-to-date assessment of the evidence. His scientific catalogue of this treasure should appeal not only to specialists but to a wider audience.
Each accompanying description contains information about provenance, medium, technical characteristics, state of preservation and measurements. Iconographic and stylistic description follows, rich in comparisons and hypotheses concerning the origin of each piece and other interpretative issues.
The entries in Zwalf's bibliography at the end of Volume One occupy 40 printed pages and represent the most complete bibliography on Gandharan art available. The sources are not merely listed; the opinions of each author are discussed or at least referred to in the appropriate place. This is a precious contribution for the specialist and a great help for the general reader who is able to consult books and papers written in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Russian. Volume Two contains most of the plates which are elegantly presented. Together, the set is a must for specialists of Indian art and would make a splendid ornament to the library of any person of taste.
Maurizio Taddei is professor of Indian archaeology and art history, Istituto Universitario Orientale, Naples, Italy.
A Catalogue of the Gandhara Sculpture in the British Museum: two volumes
Author - W. Zwalf
ISBN - 0 7141 1433 2
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £120.00
Pages - 778