21 June 2021 19:58

Ancient Murals: Earliest-surviving Hindu paintings revealed

Benoy K Behl’s photography of the early Indian murals has placed the Indian tradition of paintings in a new perspective. The murals of India have also been established as one of the greatest and most sublime traditions of the art of the world.

India has one of the finest traditions of the paintings of the world, coming from
ancient times. 

This early tradition is not generally known, as many of these paintings are hidden in dark recesses in ancient temples and caves. These had not been clearly photographed or sufficiently represented to the world before.  It was generally believed that India did not have a continuous tradition of painting, which came from ancient times. 

Revelation of True Colours of Ajanta

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In 1991 and in 1992, I had the privilege of documenting the glorious paintings of Ajanta of around the 2nd century BC and of the 5th-6th centuries CE. Scholars and institutions around the world responded to state that this was the first time that they were able to see the true details and colours of the Ajanta paintings, which were considered to be the fountainhead of the classic traditions of painting in Asia.

Darkness of the Caves

The ancient caves are dark and strong lights were not allowed to be used inside, as these would damage the invaluable paintings. Photography was normally not allowed in order to save the paintings from the adverse effects of flashlights. Some earlier photography of the paintings, which had been carried out with special permission, was not very accurate, as there was much surface reflection from the painted surfaces. I had fortunately developed a technique of photographing in extremely low light (where you could barely see your hand in front of you in the dark interiors of the caves).

Darkness Conquered

This manner of low-light photography was used by me to document the wall and ceiling paintings of the Ajanta Caves in 1991 and again in 1992, without the use of any strong lights. The then Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India Mr M.C. Joshi very kindly wrote to me that I had “conquered the darkness of the Ajanta Caves”.

Dancing Girl Ajanta. Photographed Digitally Restored by Benoy K Behl
Dancing Girl, Ajanta. Photographed & Digitally Restored by Benoy K Behl

Worldwide Response to my Work

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Scores of the most prestigious universities and museums around the world invited me to speak on Ajanta and to show my photographs of the paintings. National Geographic Magazine was among the hundreds of journals and newspapers around the world and in India, who immediately hailed my photography as path-breaking. In 2008, National Geographic Magazine went on to publish an 18-page story about Indian art as revealed to the world through my photographs. It was the cover story in some of the European editions of the magazine.

In the meantime, many noted international book publishers offered to publish my book on the Ajanta paintings. I went ahead with Thames & Hudson, London as I believed they would have a worldwide reach and would offer the large-format book to the public at a reasonable price. The first edition of the book came out in 1998, with an American Edition by Harry N Abrams. The book was sold out soon and there have been several print runs, as well as a revised paperback edition and an American Edition by Thames & Hudson, New York. I believe this has been the best-selling book on Indian art history in the world.  

World Response: Finest Art of Humankind 

There was a unanimous response of the leading art critics and art historians at the great capital cities of the world, where I was invited by the leading art institutions.

They all felt that the Ajanta paintings “were surely the finest art of humankind”. The finest art, not just for paintings of their period, but among the highest achievements of art coming right up to modern times. Experts around the world commented in detail on the great technical virtuosity found in these paintings. They saw qualities in them that appeared in Western art only in the High Renaissance, Impressionist, Expressionist and Modern periods.

20th Century Attempts of Photograph Ajanta

Numerous attempts of the reproduction of the Ajanta paintings with colour photography were made. In the earlier part of this century, photography was not developed enough to capture the colours of the paintings accurately. In recent years, the Archaeological Survey of India has not permitted the use of photographic lights as these would damage 2200 to 1500-year old paintings.  Strictly limited attempts to photograph some of the panels with lights were allowed, but these too failed to capture the colours accurately. 

Thus, the exquisite and haunting beauty of these paintings seemed fated to remain in the dark interiors of the remote caves.

Dark Princess Ajanta. Photographed Digitally Restored by Benoy K Behl
Dark Princess, Ajanta. Photographed & Digitally Restored by Benoy K Behl

Revelation of Ajanta to the World

In 1990 while I was visiting the Department of Culture of the Government of India at New Delhi, it was first brought to my attention that the world-famous paintings of the Ajanta Caves had never been photographed comprehensively or inaccurate colour. It was also told to me that the true and luminous colours and the depth and richness of detail of the murals were not seen even when one visited the site. This is because, for the protection of the ancient paintings, the Archaeological Survey of India has installed only dim lights in the caves, which exclude much of the light of the upper end of the colour spectrum. Thus, the paintings are seen to be very orangish as compared to their real colours. The blues and greens in particular are largely lost in the viewing and the colour cast which is created takes away much of the sense of depth in the painting, as well as the luminosity of colour Photography in low light, has long been a passion with me.

Hearing about the unseen exquisite beauty of Ajanta, I was drawn immediately to take up the challenge of photographing these murals in complete detail and to capture the full richness of their colours in all their nuances and shades.  Here was the greatest treasure of India’s heritage of painting, cloaked in the darkness around it. Truly this was the task for which the patient hours spent over many years of photographing in low ambient light conditions had prepared me. I applied for permission to photograph the paintings to the Archaeological Survey of India and was granted the same as I was not going to use lights which may damage the paintings.  An assignment to photograph them could not be obtained as, quite naturally, many among the authorities thought that the project I was embarking on was an impossible one. 

In 1991 and 1992 I made two separate visits to the Ajanta site. In each visit, the murals of the caves were documented in as exhaustive detail as possible. Having benefited greatly from the experience of the first visit and have come to know the paintings of Ajanta intimately through many viewings of the pictures, the results of the photography of the second visit (of which one photograph has been given for archiving in the Arctic World Archives) proved to be finally satisfying. 

When these colour transparencies were first shown at New Delhi, the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India remarked, “You have really conquered the darkness”. His words made all the effort over the long hours in the dark caves, the care and all the pains, seem worthwhile. Over the coming months, and till now, those who have loved Ajanta, scholars and curators of art from the world over, have expressed their happiness at being able to see the details of Ajanta and the many subtle nuances in the paintings, which they had never seen before. I am humbled by the abundance and warmth of the appreciation of this photo which I had not anticipated in this measure. The keen interest with which Ajanta has also been received by the audiences at the fine universities and museums where these transparencies have been shown has given me a deep sense of fulfilment.

10th cent. Brhadiswara Murals. Establishing a Continuous Tradition of Painting in Ancient India

Subsequently, in 1992, I went on to photograph the 10th-century paintings in the dark and narrow inner ambulatory corridor of the Brhadiswara Temple at Thanjavur, in Tamil Nadu. These had not been clearly photographed before and scholars around the world responded very warmly when they saw my photographs. Dr Milo C. Beach, Director of the two American National Galleries of Asian Art (in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC) said to me that he would have to revise his understanding of the history of Indian paintings. He explained that the paintings of Ajanta had been well known, but, since paintings before Ajanta and paintings after Ajanta for the next eight hundred years, were not known, the art of Ajanta was somehow treated as a flash in the pan. It was not seen or studied as a part of a continuous tradition of art. However, since I was now showing him the art of the tenth century, which had the same technical virtuosity as the fifth century Ajanta paintings, this pointed to the fact that there was a continuity and a great tradition of art.

Ancient Murals of India

I had the good fortune to go on to photograph other Indian mural paintings of the fifth and the later centuries of the ancient and medieval periods, clearly establishing and presenting a continuous tradition of painting. Between 1993 and 2020, a few hundred cultural institutions, universities and museums have invited me to speak on ‘The Murals of India’. The American National Geographic Magazine has also done a major story on this documentation and revelation of this artistic tradition.

The murals of India have been established as one of the greatest and most sublime traditions of the art of the world. 

In 1930, Laurence Binyon, Director of the British Museum and a leading authority on Asian art wrote,

‘In the art of Asia what a supreme and central position Ajanta owns! Whoever studies the art of China and Japan, at whatever time he begins, starts on a long road which will lead him ultimately to Ajanta.”

Author: Benoy K Behl, Culture Historian

“He is a film-maker, art historian, and photographer who is known for his tireless and prolific output of work over the past 44 years. He has taken over 53,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage and made 145 documentaries which are regularly screened at major cultural institutions worldwide. His photographic exhibitions have been warmly received in 74 countries around the world. These have been inaugurated by ministers of the governments of various countries, ambassadors, archbishops, and other dignitaries.  He holds the Limca Book Record for being the most travelled photographer and art historian.”       

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