Jain Art Liberates


Review of Jain Art Exhibition By Mr. Sobhag Shah held in Antwerp


We are extremely lucky to be invited to see the exhibition in Antwerp, which was put up by the Ethnografisch Museum with the support of the local Jain community of Belgium. The curator, Mr. Jan Van Alphen had set up this marvellous event in a short period. Many of the exhibits were from private and public collections in the Antwerp area. More recently, the City of Antwerphas enabled the Museum to acquire several works of Jain art.

At the entrance to the exhibition there was a huge photograph of Sammet Shikhar in the clouds. Having climbed these hills in February this year, it brought back vivid memories of my pilgrimage to these sacred hills where twenty Tirthankaras reached liberation. The photographer had captured the scene perfectly with the Parsvanath shrine in its heavenly abode.

The exhibition had over one hundred Jain exhibits of art dating from the second to the twentieth century ranging from ancient manuscripts and miniature paintings to cosmograms and astrological charts. An impressive collection of stone and bronze images of the twenty-four Tirthankaras were also displayed in perfection.

We were able to see fine examples of Jain miniature paintings and manuscripts brilliantly illuminated. This style of painting is strictly two-dimensional. The face is shown in three-quarter profile with the characteristic protruding eye. The limbs look thin and tubular, the chest is shown abnormally swollen with a narrow waist. The introduction of painting in Indian manuscripts was probably inspired by Persian examples. This influence is evident in Kalpasutra (A Book of Rituals) and Kalakacharyakatha (Story of Kalaka). The Kalpasutra is one of the most popular works in Jain literature attributed to Bhadrabahu Swami (300 BC). The manuscripts are richly illustrated with miniature paintings. The most important part of the Kalpasutra describes the lives of the twenty-four Tirthankaras, in particular those of Mahavir, Neminath and Rishabhanath. It also contains, rules for the monks to follow during the rainy season. It is regarded as a holy book and as such is worshipped during the great Jain fasting festive season of Paryushan.

The exhibition had a monumental piece of a large pilgrimage clothe painting (trith-pata) which was painted in gouache on cotton around 1800. It shows a cartographic view of the Shatrunjaya hills, the famous Jain pilgrimage site in the people and animals made this an important work. It had a lot of details including depiction of the five Pandavas and the six liberation from these hills. The air of tranquility on these sacred mountains seemed to have had its effect on the wild enemies. The paths are crowded with pilgrims, the villages and temple grounds bustling with activity. Patas such as these were commissioned by wealthy Jain laymen and kept in temples. During the festive seasons they are displayed only for one day. Full moon day in October-November (Kartik Purnima) is the most auspicious day of the year when pilgrimage to Shatrunjaya is undertaken. Pilgrims examine the map before their departure while those who stay at home worship or contemplate the picture of the tirth in order to acquire good karma.

The exhibition had some good examples of cosmograms showing our familiar earth with its continents and oceans in the shape of a cosmic man i.e. Lokapurusha. In a very small portion of the middle world (madhyaloka) on the continent of Jambudvipa human beings are to be found, the only creatures who can attain enlightenment. In the upper world (urdhvaloka) eleven celestial regions extend above the earth. AT the base the lower world (adholoka) contains a series of horizontal hells and underworlds.

The exhibition has impressive collections of Jain sculptures, any from private collectors in Europe. It clearly shows the interest this exhibition must have generated. Most of the sculptures are either in seated louts pose (padmasana) or upright meditation posture (kayotsarga) surrounded by miner deities, attendants, lions or elephants. The material used is either sandstone, marble bronze or copper alloy. The use of symmetry, harmonious proportions and geometric forms all communicate a sense of equanimity and spiritual release. There are good examples of portable shrines (siddhapratime yantra) which give an image of liberalized soul. In the art of the Jains this is represented by an empty silhouette cut out of a metal plate. The silhouette takes the form of a Jain standing in meditation posture (kayotsarga) which literally means 'body abandonment' or 'one who has attained perfection by overcoming his attachment to his physical body'. This image comprises the most important moments in the life of a thirthankara: meditation, death and liberation (moksha). 

Although Jainism is one of the three major world religions to have emerged from India, it is a pity that many people still do not know anything about this great religion. Exhibitions like the one in Antwerp will create more awareness and interest in people. Many will find the Jain virtues appealing, especially tolerance, non-violence and the concern for the welfare of animals and the environment. It is gratifying that the Jain community in Antwerp has already secured a site, plans and funds to build a Jain temple (Derasara) which no doubt will spread Jain philosophy and way of life.



Source : From "Jain Sprit" International Jain Magazine Published From Lodon


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