With electronic books and iPhones, even the simple use-value of a book made of paper with a cover is called into question. Often the form of the book seems so basic as to obviate any defense over, let’s say, a scroll. But in the small, gemlike show Early Buddhist Manuscript Paintings: The Palm Leaf Tradition, alternate possibilities of physical books is made clear. While there is a definite speed and ease to electronically scrolling down a page, and expediency to flipping through real paper pages, these palm leafs clearly encourage a reader to proceed deliberately and slowly. The format itself demands patience: the leaves are long rectangles of 2 ¾ “ x 16 ½” with a painting in the center and two holes for the cord that will connect the leafs to the covers. On each page the small, elegant depiction of Buddhist figures –Bodhisattvas, Taras, Kurukulla- make concrete the image to be visualized through the slow and meticulous recitation of the neatly ordered text. When not in use, apparently, the manuscripts are wrapped in cloth and stowed away, perhaps like some of our laptops. But slower. A lot slower.
Image: Folio from an Ashtasahashirika Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) manuscript showing a Boon-bestowing Bodhisattva. India (West Bengal) or Bangladesh. Pala period, early 12th century. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.