Area: World Cultures
I am the Collection Technician for the Far Eastern section of the World Cultures Department, responsible for storage and housing the artefacts from China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, South and Southeast Asia and for maintaining the respective documentation. Materials range from ancient bronzes green with corrosion to delicate ivories carved so finely that a breath might blow them away. I have Chinese oracle bones to ponder, Japanese lacquers exquisitely dusted with particles of gold, and ancient Korean ceramics whose elegant lines render them modern in feeling. There are bold Japanese prints and intricate Indian miniatures, sculptures as large as the lions guarding the east face of the ROM and tiny glass beads as old as glass was ever produced.
One of my current projects, aided by a cluster of interns, is to re-house our delicate materials by creating drawer liners with each artefact separated from its neighbour, each artefact identified by a clearly printed number, and with essential dating information provided in each drawer. An example of this project is the drawer of re-housed snuffbottles on the table before me.
It is particularly exciting and meaningful for me to work with the Far Eastern collection because my academic background is closely related. I have a MA in Sanskrit and Indian Studies from the University of Toronto and have further pursued a number of major research topics in my field: Asian drama in performance; Sanskritic theories of aesthetics; and early Buddhist iconography.
In Sanskrit studies, I specialized in literature, particularly dramatic, and literary criticism. Raised in North America where theatre largely means proscenium stage production of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was particularly important that I explore theatre on the ground in South Asia. I was able to participate with a graduate school colleague in documenting theatrical works in the repertoire of Kerala’s Kuţiyaţţam performance tradition. Kūţiyūţţam has been performed in Kerala for nearly a millennium among temple Brahmins who teach the repertoire and acting tradition to their children. The repertoire consists of Sanskrit plays, which over the years have come to be performed a single act at a time. Though the costumes and makeup resemble the much more recent Kathakali theatre of Kerala, Kuţiyaţţam is more centrally established in Kerala’s Hindu temples where Kuttampalam, theatre buildings, have been erected for Sanskrit theatre performance. Through South Asian performance traditions (Kūţiyūţţam, Kathakali, Bhagavata Mela Natakam and also classical dance forms such as Bharatanatyam, Mohini Attam, Odissi, and Kathak), it is possible to understand the elaborate forms of acting, music, and dance constituting South Asian theatricality.
Being a bookish sort of person, my primary research was directed to the Sanskritic theory of aesthetics, rasa, first enunciated in the text of the Nāţyaśāstra, a compendium on dramaturgy, attributed to the eponymous Bharata Muni. Rasa as we know it today is certainly an aesthetic phenomenon experienced by the sensitive man of letters when encountering an artistic production. But a reading of the Nāţyaśāstra appears to describe rasa as a unifying thematic agency drawing all aspects of the actors’ efforts together to produce a cohesive impression. My research centered on the text of the Nāţyaśāstra, endeavouring to uncover the earliest understanding of the rasa theory and to explore its early development. The results were exciting: it appears that the earliest enunciation of rasa is completely consistent with the statement of the rasa sūtra and furthermore that there is evidence that a text on dramatic science predated the extant Nāţyaśāstra. It seems that elements of that text may have been preserved in our extant Nāţyaśāstra attributed to Bharata Muni.
Early Buddhist iconography has been a subject for study for just over a century, and often opinions of the earliest scholars still hold sway in the field. I found the figure of Vajrapāņi in Kusana period Gandhara very puzzling. Though he has the name of one of the important Bodhisattvas, his appearance does not conform to that sort of identification. Puzzles are enticing and I launched a project to understand Vajrapāņi from his earliest appearance to his presence clearly marked as a Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhist monuments among the caves of Maharashtra. The results of this investigation were remarkable. I have found it possible to trace pre-Kusana peninsular enlightenment iconography from Bharhut through Bhaja to Sanci. Vajrapāņi as we know him in Gandharan sculpture is indeed not a bodhisattva but instead the personified thunderbolt weapon (vajra) belonging to the Hindu god Indra. He is depicted throughout pre-Kusana enlightenment iconography in fact. Furthermore, he continues to be represented in the Mahayana period as a companion to the newly presented Bodhisattva Vajrapāņi. (And, still accompanying Indra as well!) How he comes to be represented in Gandhara is also one of the most exciting aspects of his being. Early Buddhism proselytizes in two important communities: across northern India, early Buddhists are eager to bring brahmanical adherents under their influence and therefore depict Indra’s sympathies to the Buddha as part of their argument; across the Gandharan regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, formerly subjected to the incursion of Alexander the Great, early Buddhists use Alexander as the paradigm for the personified thunderbolt belonging to Indra. In subjecting the personified thunderbolt to Indra who is portrayed as sympathetic to the Buddha, Buddhism can entice devotees of both Indra and Alexander to its message.