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Gandhara: Roots and Routes—An Interview with Art Historian Maliha Noorani

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

Hassan Tahir Latif

Wrapping up my digital curation for this year, I head back in time to the Gandhara Civilisation. In October of this year, the Taxila Museum along with UNESCO presented a special exhibition entitled, ‘Gandhara: Roots and Routes’, showcasing sculptures and objects from this ancient epoch in an attempt to engage contemporary audiences with a past they rarely interact with. Many of the objects presented as part of the show were from the deep recesses of the archives and had never been displayed before. This culminated in a unique, fresh perspective on a civilisation that still holds significance in today’s world. To delve deeper into the past and to understand what went behind the scenes, I spoke to art historian, and curator of the show, Maliha Noorani.

About Gandhrara:

The ancient region of Gandhara is located in northwest Pakistan in the Peshawar Valley. It lies between the Hindu Kush Mountain range and the foothills of the Karakorum Mountains. Buddhist Gandhara was at the centre of a global nexus. Whether by invasion or trade, soldiers, merchants and pilgrims from Ancient Greece, Iran, Afghanistan, China, Central Asia, the Mediterranean and the Indian Subcontinent intermingled in Gandhara. Between the 1st century BCE and the 7th century CE, the region became the predominant passageway for trade, connecting Western empires to Central Asia and China’s Silk Routes via the Himalayas.

About the show:

The art of Gandhara reflects the cosmopolitan encounters that took place in its thriving urban communities and Buddhist monastic complexes. Gandharan Art is important for its visual representations of Buddhist themes and depictions of the life of Buddha. It predominantly features sculptures in schist stone and stucco, architectural reliefs, bronzes, and works in gold. Stylistically, Gandharan Art embodies a confluence of styles that are both “local and foreign”.

Presented to the public for the first time, these objects demonstrate the continual adoption of new artistic practices and techniques by Gandharan artists. The antiquities on display reflect a conversation between cultures near and far, old and new; they ask us to look afresh at the global networks that intersected in Gandhara. This dialogue is significant in today’s world as well, connecting our ancient past to the present.

Hassan Tahir Latif: How did this exhibition come about?

Maliha Noorani: This exhibition was part of a UNESCO project in conjunction with the Punjab Tourism and Economic Corridor Project. While the discussions around the exhibition had been going on for a while, the concrete planning and execution took place not too long before the actual show. I believe we embarked on the project a few months before the opening. Now that I look back and think about it, it was quite miraculous that we were able to execute a show of this scale, and working with the government, on such tight timelines.

HTL: As an art historian, why does the Gandharan civilisation appeal to you personally?

MN: My area of specialisation is post 16th century, i.e. the Mughal and Colonial period in South Asia, but I had studied Gandhara in art school. My interest in this period grew through my work with museums and and their roles in colonial and cultural institutions. Through my work I was pulled into the Taxila Museum’s phenomenal Gandharan collection. Viewing these pieces in close proximity I was able to appreciate their complexity. Stylistically, Gandharan art represents a cultural diversity that is astounding. The sculptural depictions of Buddha, for example, range from Greek influences to South Asian ones. The spectrum of artistic representation that is contained in predominantly schist stone and stucco sculptures, architectural reliefs and bronzes was very exciting to study. It was also great to study the layers of history and the politics of display and representation with the artworks housed in an iconic cultural institution like the Taxila Museum.

HTL: Have any influences from the Gandharan art practices survived or affected contemporary Pakistani art?

MN: Existing artefacts from Gandhara are largely archeological fragments or sites, and are mostly stucco and schist stone. Therefore, the material and techniques employed by Gandharan artists aren’t actively used by contemporary Pakistani artists, as far as I know. However, Gandharan iconography has been referenced in the works of contemporary artists, such as Ali Kazim, Khadim Ali and Komail Aijazuddin to name a few.

HTL: What was your vision behind the show?

MN: I was focused on three main things. Firstly, to bring Gandharan art and its themes in conversation with the audience. The primary curatorial focus of the show was to demystify the objects on display and build a connection between the viewer and the objects. It’s important to note that the intended audience was diverse: students, their families, locals and other visitors—creating a show that could connect with such a broad spectrum of viewers was the prime goal. The core strategy was to make the ancient world of Gandhara accessible for visitors, to initiate a sense of curiosity and hopefully begin a conversation with the artworks through the display (with the help of the wall text and labels). It was important for me that the audience understands the stories behind the objects and leaves with a deeper sense of what Gandharan civilization represented.

Secondly, our curatorial strategy was informed by the desire to engage with a reluctant audience. My experience with working with museums in Pakistan has been that most visitors view museums as cabinets of curiosities. To engage a visitor to look at an object—really look at it—not just in passing or whilst they are recording their experience at the museum, is a real challenge. Our work as curators is to create an environment where audiences befriend the art. The exhibit’s aim was to demystify the artworks’ form and meaning and for visitors to understand for a start why ancient Gandharan objects are relevant to them as contemporary Pakistanis. There is a dearth of association with the past, especially the pre-Islamic objects found in our region, since there’s no reference to them in our collective cultural consciousness. My goal was to ensure people of all backgrounds and interest levels established a connection with this aspect of our culture and history.

Finally, our goal was to demonstrate to the museum team itself that such exhibitions are possible without massive budgets and tediously long planning schedules. This was the Taxila Museum’s first ever special exhibition and a reason for that may be that it required a substantial amount of planning and cooperation from various sectors, both public and private. The Taxila Museum’s team is a very small and incredibly dedicated group of professionals who work tirelessly for very little recognition in return, as is the case with many of our colleagues who work to keep cultural government institutions alive and running.

“...everything is in translation and in relation to its locations and shifting context… this idea of extracting a ‘pure’ identity in a vacuum is dangerous and misleading.”

HTL: I’m intrigued by the name ‘Gandhara: Roots and Routes’, tell us more.

MN: The title references a Finbar Barry Flood book entitled Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval "Hindu-Muslim" Encounter. The book is seminal in its discussions around artistic purity and authenticity. Why are we obsessed with the idea of what is purely Hindu or Islamic or Buddhist? Flood argues that everything is in translation and in relation to its location and shifting context. Therefore, this idea of extracting a ‘pure’ identity in a vacuum is dangerous and misleading. So, ‘Roots and Routes’ is doing a number of things; it’s a nod to Pakistan’s deeply ancient history. It asserts a rich Pre-Islamic connection with this land, predating the official and ubiquitously referenced starting point of Pakistan’s history beginning with the Arab invasions of Mohammad bin Qasim in the Subcontinent.

While, on the other hand, ‘routes’ references intercultural encounters and the transmission of information and ideas that informs Gandharan art. ‘Routes’ also references Gandhara as the cosmopolitan hub of its era. This is reflected in the artwork. For instance, the show features sculptural fragments depicting a Bactrian camel, a dragon with East Asian references and a Buddhist bust with a parasol. They indicate to us, the viewers, the diversity and broad spectrum of encounter that existed in Pakistani’s ancient history.

HTL: Will these artefacts be exhibited elsewhere?

MN: Sadly, no. Even curating this show at the Taxila Museum was a monumental task. Our team had to dig into the deep recesses of the museum’s archives to present never-before-seen objects. Naturally, that entailed a lot of work for all parties involved, and a lot of red tape. Luckily, the provincial and federal governments came through. Doing it again will be no mean feat.

HTL: What is the role of museums and organisations such as UNESCO in preserving the past?

MN: Vital. Extremely vital. Often this work isn’t even highlighted enough. Having worked with UNESCO for several years now, I can tell you that they are devoted to projects that amplify and structurally strengthen cultural institutions and their ecosystems. They provide a solid foundation for collaborative work, though so much more needs to be done.

Museums are spaces for intellectual discovery, but really, at their core they help us place ourselves. They have the power to deepen our understanding of our shared histories and develop a collective cultural consciousness. This is fundamental to understanding each other and our diverse communities in a more dynamic and tolerant manner. They help us see the best of our shared humanity through stories told by artworks and objects. They have the capacity to be magical, transformative spaces.

All photos courtesy of


Maliha Noorani's primary research and curatorial interests are in South Asian colonial visual culture and its intersections with modern art institutional histories. After her BFA, she read art history at SOAS and Yale. She teaches art history at The National College of Arts (Lahore) and works closely with museums as a UNESCO specialist. Her most recent projects include curating Taxila Museum’s first special exhibit, Gandhara: Routes and Roots and museum institutional development within Punjab.

Additionally, she was the Norma Jean Calderwood Curatorial Fellow in the Department of Islamic and Later Indian Art at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard Art Museums. She has worked at institutions such as Sotheby’s London and the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong. Through her work in cultural and educational institutions, Noorani’s research engages with themes around decolonising art histories; intercultural encounters, patronage and artistic production, the circulation and consumption of visual and material culture. Presently, her favourite course to teach is Global Modernism: Outliers and Art Histories.


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