Saturday, April 21, 2007

Shonar Bangla in Paris

In the west, Bangladesh's rich and multifaceted heritage has so far remained unappreciated and unrecognised. An exhibition, to be held at the end of October in Musëe National des Asiatiques Guimet, Paris, is going to change the situation, and will highlight the thousand year old glorious past of a country that otherwise hit the headlines of western media for all the wrong reasons.

Bangladesh's rich and colourful heritage caught the attention of the western eye last summer, when Bangladeshi and French archaeologists, in a joint excavation, unearthed a temple that dates back to the 800AD. This, however, did not come as news to veteran archaeologists as the country's civilisation is believed to be as old as the Aryan conquest of the South Asian sub-continent. In fact, the ancient city of Pundranagar, now situated in the village of Mahasthan (The Sacred Site) in Bogra, has been mentioned in the Vedas, and has remained one of the oldest urban settlements discovered in the eastern part of the sub-continent. The city, as the historians say, was the capital and most important city of Pundra Varendra Bhukti, one of the five Janapads (settlements) on the Ganges delta. It was also an important stop on trade routes leading to the east (Assam, Burma, Chinese Yunan) and to the Bay of Bengal to the south. The city lost its role of capital after the Muslim conquest of Bengal in the early 13th century.

French help in unearthing Bangladesh's forgotten and thus neglected past, is not new. After the Pundranagar was discovered in 1879 by Sir Alexander Cunningham, several excavation attempts were made throughout the last century, the most notable of which was led by Bangladeshi archaeologist Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed from 1961 to 1968. French archaeologists joined hands with their Bangladeshi counterparts in 1993 and have come up with a detailed stratigraphy from the late 4th century. B.C. to the 12th century A.D. and preliminary studies on different artefacts such as pottery coins and beads.

"Since 2001," says Shakhawat Hossain, Press Attachë of the French Embassy, "new excavations are being carried out in the Mazar area, near the south-eastern corner of the ancient city. New buildings have been brought to light, especially a large pillared room-- the function of which remains unknown, and beautiful defensive devices: two rampart-walls, a city gate with bastions, a paved access road, a protruding fortified bastion, etc. The latest discoveries provide evidence that there was a siege of the city, with sapping trenches by the attackers, probably at the end of the Pala-Sena (8th-13th century) period."

The most amazing aspect of Pundranagar is its rampart-wall, which is over 1.5 km long from the north to south axis and 1.3 km long on the west-east axis; in places the wall is 15 m tall, and several well-built gates are clearly visible in the site.

"Made exclusively of baked bricks, the rampart was re-built several times throughout the long history of the city; in its earlier phase, it was most probably built as a protection against floods," Hossain says.

From south to north, in the Mazar area there exist well-preserved public buildings and temples from the 14/15th century to earlier periods. Some other important discoveries include: the massive basalt threshold of a Hindu temple near Khodar Patar; a mosque at Mankalir Dhap; the Jiyat Kunda well, supposed to give new strength to men; the "Parasuram" building, which is thought to be a Mughul residence (16th century); the Hindu temples at Bairagir Bhita, the domestic area near the eastern rampart; the Munir Ghon bastion on the east side of the city-wall; the protruding buttress on the north-eastern rampart; and the restored Govinda Bhita temple outside the rampart to the north.

The country can also boast having the oldest Buddhist monastery in the world. Situated in Naogaon, Paharpur, has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Built by king Dharmapala in the 8th century, Paharpur Vihara was inhabited by Mahayana Buddhists and served as an important intellectual and cultural centre during the reign of the Pala dynasty. Its Buddhist architecture influenced building patterns throughout South Asia and it also has the ruins of Somapura Mahavihara, an important intellectual centre for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains.

The site bears the trademark quadrangular form of a traditional Buddhist stupa; it also has 177 cells, most of which were used by the monks for meditation.

The recent discoveries that Bangladesh has made of its past are no less than staggering; they include: a bronze Buddha measuring 1.33 metres (from Paharpur in 1982); a Gupta Buddha sculpted on both sides (from Mahasthan in 1992); a bronze Vajrasattva and an Avalokiteswara (both from Maintamati in 1995). All these artefacts will take their first journey abroad in the next autumn to be displayed in the French capital. The exhibition, primarily titled "The Collections of Bangladeshi Museums" aims to show, for the first time outside of Bangladesh, the unbelievably rich and complex heritage of this country. "Recent archaeological researches help us show works from the Maurya period and go on until the 19th century. Thus we are able to retrace history whilst emphasising on a certain number of major sites. As a matter of fact, one of the characteristics of this heritage is that a lot of the pieces are well documented and will enable us to situate the same in their precise historical and artistic context," Hossain says.

Most of the pieces to be showcased are from the 3rd century BC to 19th century AD. "As for the Hindu and Buddhist sculpture," says Hossain, "the iconographical variety of the two pantheons have been meticulously illustrated, and so remain representative of the larger tendencies. The exhibition has also had privileged pieces from the well-identified sites to present them as coherent ensembles."

Given the vast choice, he says, the museum has selected the most beautiful and impressive pieces. The grand bronze of Mainamati in particular is going to be a stunner. "It is interesting that even though some of these pieces have been published for an entirely scientific reader, these pieces are unknown to the larger public in the western world," Hossain adds.

In fact, Musëe National des asiatiques Guimet, the host of the exhibition, is one of the most prestigious and important museums in the world that exhibit oriental arts. "It regularly hosts international exhibitions, the latest being on the lost treasures of Afghanistan, especially gold artefacts, which is currently attracting thousands of persons daily," says Hossain.

The Musée Guimet is the brainchild of Emile Guimet (1836-1918), a Lyon industrialist who devised the grand project of opening a museum devoted to the religions of Ancient Egypt, Classical Antiquity, and Asia. The Museum came under the administrative control of the French Museums Directorate in 1927, since then under the able leadership of its directors (most notable of them are René Grousset and Jeannine Auboyer) Guimet has become the Mecca of classical Indian art. In 1996 the museum went through a major renovation that has made it a major hub of the Asian civilisations at the heart of Europe. Guimet has already played host to exhibitions of its kind to Chinese and Vietnamese artefacts, and a display of Afghanistan's cultural heritage is still going on.

Providing security for the invaluable treasures that are going to adorn Paris, the world's cultural capital, however, has remained an issue. But Hossain says that such exhibitions are held under the strictest international rules and never, not even once, has any artefact gone missing or failed to return to its home museum. In fact, since the pieces are cleaned and restored by the best specialists worldwide, they often return in a better state than when they were taken.

This will be the first ever exhibition of Bangladeshi artefacts abroad. In addition, paintings drawn by famous Bangladeshi artists, music, fashion shows, photo and film shows will be organised during the exhibition, first ever in France. "It will continue for four months in Paris, the most visited city in the world," Hossain says. During this period, posters advertising Bangladesh's culture will be all over the walls in Paris and reports will appear in both national and international media, "And on top of it all," Hossain says, "it will surely become a major international attraction, helping Bangladesh join the cultural world stage that its rich culture so rightly deserves."

The collections of Bangladesh's museums
(provisory title)
23rd October 2007 3rd March 2008
Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet
6, place d'Iéna 75116 Paris