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The art of heritage

  • Published at 08:05 pm October 2nd, 2015
The art of heritage

Gemstones and  pressed silver coins, or tokens, with their superbly designed symbols, recovered from such sites as that at Wari Bateshwar, near Narshingdhi, amongst others, in large numbers, are, perhaps, some of the earliest examples of the art of the ancient craftsmen, and, who knows, craftswomen too. All of them in the lands that are now those of Bangladesh. The gemstones certainly assemble into some remarkable and colourful jewellery.

We can give no names, perhaps not even ethnicity, to the skilled gemsmiths and silversmiths of, at latest, the early centuries of the last millennium BCE, but, considering the “tens of thousands” of cut stones recovered by the teams at Jahangirnagar University, together with uncut stones and cutting tools and the troves of the punch-marked tokens, the skills must have been shared by many.

The private Pathan collection at Wari Bateshwar also includes a clay model of indeterminate age, but skilfully done, suggesting that these creative skills were also utilised perhaps for children’s toys.

Whilst the coins/tokens, however skilled the design of the tiny motifs, unquestionably have a utility, and the cut stones, and some worked metals, for commercial sale as well as human decoration, we may well suppose that creative and craft skills, crudely demonstrated in the primitive stone tools and early iron age and bronze age artefacts, also recovered, were exercised hereabouts from an early age.

The fact that these lands, around the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna developed, long before the Common Era, as a flourishing centre of international trade, including, no doubt, the “vanishing wax” metal objects, still produced in Bangladesh after 4,000 or 5,000 years, suggests that forms of art chart a part of the rich heritage of the country.

The Ganges basin civilisation, of course, with the Ganges delta and its connections by such as the Brahmaputra, and by sea, were the gateway to markets for this, one of the world’s first great international market places, and there is no doubt that, quite apart from the development of Sanskrit, one of the world’s earliest forms of writing, and, no doubt, other artistic and cultural forms, the craft skills bear testimony to both the creativity and technical skills of those early peoples of these lands.

Sculptural forms, from as early as the third century BCE, the Mauryan era, can be found in major collections in Dhaka and Rajshahi, as well as, no doubt, private and public collections around the world. Religious representations of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist icons are amongst them. And these sculptural forms bear comparison with such famous “classical” pieces of the Mediterranean civilisations of the period.

Such skills, of course, take centuries to evolve and develop, and we may well wonder about the hows, whys, whens, and whos of such development, which pay tribute to early artistic traditions.

Sculptural and other works from the Gupta Period in the first half of the first millennium BCE also decorate many collections, with outstanding craftsmanship and astonishingly detailed skills, working, often, such difficult stone as basalt. Lost, no doubt, to history, and international art markets, may well also be bronze and brass artefacts, and, probably, gold and silver, too.

The heritage of the Pala dynasty, that may well itself have originated in the lands that are now Bangladesh, now, sadly, is much ruined, and its architectural and sculptural heritage in Bangladesh is not, perhaps, as plentiful as it originally was.

Such architectural remains, many with sculptural insets, and most with fine, geometrically sustained architectural detail, can, however, be found all over Bangladesh, and much of its finer, blackstone work recycled on early mediaeval mosques, such as the Golden Mosque and Kasumba.

Sculptural religious works abound; however, many of the manuscripts, small images, drawings, and other more portable treasures of artistic achievement of the Pala are also to be found across the modern Buddhist world of Nepal, Myanmar, Tibet, Indonesia, and Thailand. Artefacts of the period are also readily found in collections around the world, which may be a loss to Bangladesh, but shares some of the artistic heritage, once so rich in these lands. Properly identified with origins in today’s Bangladesh, such exhibits could do much to enhance the inbound tourism industry.

Magnificent constructs, such as the “60-domed” mosque at Bagerhat, with an interior to compare with any Gothic cathedral in Europe, and a number of other 15th and 16th century architectural masterpieces of design and craft, reassure that the great cultural traditions of pre-Mongol Persia and the Middle East were brought with the Sufi missionaries, who also, very obviously, adopted and adapted much of the cultural craft and design tradition they found on arrival.

Remnant pieces of the 16th century reassure that none of these skills were lost.

Such architectural and craftsmen gems as the early 15th century tomb of the Ilyas Shah dynasty ruler close to Mograpara, near Panam City, can rival, in excellence of craftsmanship, any such contemporary tomb in the parish churches of Britain.

Mughal remains of the 16th and 17th century, such as the group commissioned by Shah Suja at Chapai Nawabganj mosque, guest house, mazar and madrassa, also enjoying recycled pieces of earlier, Pala period work, are, themselves, like work at Lalbagh fort, superb pieces of design and craftsmanship.

A combination, perhaps, of the ancient cultural heritage of those who inhabited these lands, and the vestiges of the fabulous cultural traditions of the Caliphates that came with, first the Sufi missionaries, then, eventually, the Mughals, undoubtedly laid the foundations of a new era of cultural development. And, as the 17th century brought the earliest Europeans, with the wealth to buy the valuable traded merchandise, and, maybe, to pay whatever was required to extract such invaluable commodities as saltpetre, indigo, gems, and opium, it is not hard to find, even in the devastation wrought by the Liberation War of 1971, treasures of artistic achievement, especially those of architecture and architectural artefacts.

Perhaps the earliest, and finest of these, are the terracotta wonders of Kantiji Temple, near Dinajpur. Here, the art of the terracotta workers manifests itself in the extraordinary panorama of the terracotta frieze.

This early 18th century masterpiece, originally completed in the “Navaratna” style with the nine spires, which, sadly, were lost in the 1897 Great Indian earthquake, portrays vivid representations of the rich past of contemporary life.

Commissioned, it is suggested, for the local Nawab, with a palatial residence in Dinajpur, to explain his own descent from Krishna, the depiction of lives and lifestyles would require hours to properly study and appreciate.

A similar temple at Puthia, with its nine spires still intact, also has fine terracotta friezes. Standing next to the magnificent neo-classical palace, though lavish in detail, it cannot match that at Kantiji.

The Europeans, of course, also used their own wealth to support the artistic and craft skills, and few places, perhaps, better illustrate that patronage of ancient arts and crafts than the mausoleums in the Christian cemetery in Old Dhaka.

That they also attracted such notable artists as the German born, English Royal Court artist, Johann Zoffany, who painted both the great, “Colombo Sahib” mausoleum in the Old Dhaka cemetery and a gateway of Lalbagh Fort. And also nurtured the unquestionable talents of the East India Company servant Charles D’Oyly, leaving us with yet another aspect of such a rich and historic cultural heritage that is, probably, in international terms, almost unique.

The artefacts of the European Empire may have over-influenced much of the art and architecture of the 19th century but it is reassuring that, despite the best, awful, endeavours of the Pakistan army and its local allies, vestiges of the rich, native, heritage remain.

And the resurgence, since independence, of literature and art, together with the continuance of ancient skills, such as those practiced in Damrai, Tangail, and Rajshahi, amongst many other places, and especially terracotta skills, and the even the mosaic arts with, probably, Chinese origin, but so expertly practiced for centuries in Bangladesh, present such a rich picture of the extraordinary heritage of Bangladesh, through its art, artefacts, and craft skills.