Muslim artist preserves Pakistan's Buddhist relics


THIMPHU, BHUTAN (RNS) - At a recent South Asian art workshop in this Buddhist nation in the Himalayas, the Buddha found space only on one of the two dozen canvases. Just as surprising: the painting of the Buddha was by a devout Muslim, Mussarrat Nahid Imam, director of the National Art Gallery in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.

Imam wants to preserve traces of an ancient Buddhist civilization in Pakistan and Afghanistan that is little known in the West and fading from Eastern memory.

The Gandhara civilization survived from the second century B.C. to 10th century A.D. until "the light of Islam penetrated in this part of the world," says the not-so-sensitive Web site of the Pakistan's National Fund for Cultural Heritage of the Pakistan government.

Imam spoke recently about painting the Buddha, transcending religion, and art after 9/11. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Do you face criticism for painting the Buddha?

A. I paint the Buddha or Buddhist relics not with any religious consideration. I paint it primarily to preserve it for posterity as most of the heritage sites in Pakistan are suffering tremendous loss due to lack of attention, limited resources, awareness and education. I feel my utmost responsibility is to safeguard it from further loss.

It is also to pay tribute to the artisans of the time, acknowledging their creativity and artistic skill. My work has not been opposed; on the contrary it has earned local and foreign accolades.

Q. So art transcends religious differences?

A. Yes, indeed. I have been painting the Buddha for a long time and am widely covered and reviewed by the media in Pakistan. I continue to paint because I feel for it and also because of my people, who have been my sole strength. It is because of them that I am where I am today.

Q. Who is the Buddha to you?

A. I am fully convinced that the Buddha's teachings are similar to what Islam teaches us, and to me the Buddha is a sacred being for the followers of Buddhism. As a creative being, I paint not just on Buddhist themes, but also on Hinduism and Islam.

Q. Do you think keeping the Gandhara art alive will promote religious tolerance?

A. I have a strong faith in Islam. Following the teachings of Islam, I firmly believe in religious harmony. I am fully convinced that as an artist I am contributing to the human society where love, peace, harmony and tolerance are lacking. I am doing my bit in reviving these extinguishing values.

Q. How has your faith influenced your work?

A. I believe in religious harmony and coherence. We must learn to live as good human beings and respect and demonstrate tolerance for each other. To me, we are humans first and then come our religious affiliations. This is the foremost preaching of Islam, which teaches respect for other religions and beliefs. And this is reflected in my work.

Q. Tourists from the West would frequent Buddhist sites in Pakistan,but it changed after 9/11. How do you feel about that?

A. Indeed, 9/11 had an adverse impact globally. We have suffered tremendously, but in spite of all this we continue to do our work. I am quite optimistic that the situation will change soon. My work hasn't changed in any way after 9/11. I still paint whatever inspires me.

Q. Are there many artists in Pakistan working to preserve the Gandhara art?

A: Very few artists paint only Gandhara, but the best part is that every creative mind in Pakistan and elsewhere is aware of his/her social and moral responsibilities. They paint and portray socio-political and global issues besides helping restore and conserve a heritage that is gradually fading away. But they especially take pride in identifying themselves with their own land and people. So do I, by painting Buddha.

Asia, ReligionVishal Arora