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Buddhist art: where the natural meets the supernatural

Five red-robed monks chanted Pali blessings, the vocalised equivalent of oceanic silence, at the inauguration of the Metropolitan Museum's exhibition 'Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE-400 CE'. Ancient sculptures projected a distinct visual melody: forest birds sang, mythical beasts roared, and semidivine and human figures clapped their hands and danced as if at a wild summer party. There were also less obvious contrasts at the beginning. Given the monumental radiance of the sculptures, each illuminated to appear deeply carved from darkness, one can only speculate on the logistical and diplomatic process that spanned a decade and resulted in their acquisition, with more than 50 sculptures on loan from India for the first time. A display of this magnitude of ancient Indian art in a US museum has not occurred in years.

The exhibition begins with images of nature-driven Earth, as it was progressively perceived and comprehended by the man who would become the Buddha. The stupa is a recurring visual motif in the exhibition at the Met. The charismatic exhibition design by Patrick Herron is highlighted by a towering abstract walk-in rendition of one. This stupa contains a reliquary treasure from the third century BCE composed of rock crystal chips, tiny pearls, and sheet-gold florets arranged in a radiant mandala pattern. A sculpture of a stupa carved in relief on a panel of limestone begins the exhibition.

It was once affixed to a long-vanished stupa at Amaravati, a region the Buddha never visited but which produced some of the grandest memorials to him and the source of the majority of the works in the Met exhibition. Features of the natural-meets-supernatural world that Siddhartha-becoming-Buddha longed to comprehend are etched into the panel's surface. A majestically rearing serpent deity protects the railing of the stupa's entrance. A large tree resembling an umbrella shades its dome. And in a nearby extraordinary relief, a grave-faced, plush-bodied nature spirit appears to materialise from the stone like vapour.

The incorporation of two exquisite luxury trade items in a gallery titled "Buddhist Art in a Global Context" demonstrates the long-standing exchange between the subcontinent and the Mediterranean world. One of the artefacts is a bronze Roman copy of a Greek statue of Poseidon from the first century CE, which was uncovered in a jumble of other Roman artefacts in 1940s Western India and is now housed in a museum there. The second, also from the first century, is a statuette made of ivory that depicts a naked, sensual yakshi. It was crafted in southern India and discovered in Pompeii, Italy, in 1938.

The Buddhas in the final gallery of the exhibition are self-contained, expressively commanding, and contemporary in appearance. "Self-contained," "commanding," and "modern" feel like liabilities, not virtues, after travelling through rooms filled with images of humans and deities jostling, with bodies inextricably woven into landscapes of trees, flowers, and birds.

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