The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 1, 2002
Time Off

The Ajanta treasure
Manohar Malgonkar

AS a rule, most art critics in the West are ill at ease in the presence of Hindu temple art. Gods and goddesses with four or six arms offend their sense of taste. In their ranks, the American critic, Robert Payne, is something of a rebel — he, for one, is fully at home with Hindu religious art. In the Kailas temple at Ellora, for instance, he sees "nothing less than the mountain of creation. It was here that Siva hammered out the shapes of men and women of fables and mythologies of universes and eternities." he writes. He is awed by the sweep of imagination, the exuberance and tumult of creation itself, depicted in stone. Payne is deeply moved by the Ajanta paintings. "Never again would Indian paintings achieve these heights," is his verdict.

The Ajanta caves, 29 in all, are dug out of the black rock in the hillside overlooking a ravine. Most of the caves were used as viharas or residential quarters for a colony of monks, but at least three of the larger ones were used as places of worship. They date from a period ranging from the second century B.C. to the 7th century A.D. and, thus, may be said to have been inhabited for close on a 1000 years. And then, like a colony of ants that had burrowed into a hillside abandoning their habitat, the monks just vanished. Strange as it might seem, in none of the accounts of Ajanta that I have read is there any mention of things they had left behind: no pots and pans, tools of trade such as crowbars and chisels, ink or paint, no skulls and bones of human beings or animals.

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It is only from the images carved in the rock-face and the paintings on the walls that one can say, "This one was Buddhist, and this one Hindu." For more than another 1000 years, the Ajanta caves themselves went into hiding, as it were, because the jungle reclaimed the ravine at their foot and sealed off the approach. And this, in hindsight, seems to have been an act of providence because it is unlikely that so brazen a display of Hindu iconography would have escaped the destructive frenzy of the several waves of conquerors that swept through the Deccan before the British established their Empire in India. In 1819, a party of British army officers posted in Aurangabad were out on a hunt in this area when a cowherd told them that tigers sometimes took refuge in ancient caves nearby. Stealthily, they made their way to the entrance of one of the caves and looked in. And thus discovered the paintings of Ajanta: India’s richest art treasure — so Robert Payne tells us. The ‘discovery’ of the Ajanta caves also set in motion the process of the deterioration of its paintings.

Because they had been sealed off in dark caves which were relatively dry, their colours had remained remarkably fresh. But as the word of their discovery began to spread, they became objects of curiosity among those who were interested in ancient art and sculpture. Soon, they would end up as lures for coachloads of tourists. The earlier visitors used to make their own servants light flares made up of straw and cloth soaked in kerosene, which were held as close to the surface of the walls as possible for a study of their details. Inevitably, the surface of the pictures cracked and peeled off in patches and acquired burnmarks. In the face of such treatment, the wonder is that some of the more famous paintings still retain enough of their artistic merit to draw unstinted praise from men of good taste. Here is what E.M. Forster, who saw them in the year 1945, wrote in his diary. "The paintings have not been overpraised."

He was, as it happened, in mourning for his mother and confesses that he only "received impressions when he forgot his grief." Here in Ajanta the paintings fused sadness with interest. "They have gone further towards fusion than the 14th and 15th century. Italian art to which it is natural to compare them." This is high praise indeed. For the art Forster cites is that of men like Giotto, Pietro Lorensini and Simone Martini. But if, because of the lack of light in those caves, those frescos are no more than shadowy patches on the wall, how did the artists themselves manage to execute them with such sensitivity and exuberance of detail? Did they, too, have to work by the light of crude flares exuding sparks and filling the caves with smoke? What made them do the work at all? Were the professionals paid to do a job or were they from the ranks of the monks themselves who practised art as a hobby?

These questions can never be satisfactorily answered. But the basic fact, of the entire artistic impulse that rose to such towering eminence more than 3 centuries ago should have made such an abrupt exit from the Indian scene precisely at the time that the colony of monks fled Ajanta has a convincing explanation. Art thrives in times of peace. The artists must have creative freedom. True. But they also have to have patronage. The period of Ajanta coincides with the rule of great kings who supported Buddhism. The death of a powerful king called Harsha in the mid-seventh century also spelt the end of Buddhism in India. After that followed a prolonged period of ceaseless warfare in which warlords fought one another over bits and pieces of territory which had hitherto been parts of a single empire. "The unity of India’s history vanished with the death of king Harsha," the Oxford History of India tells us. It did not return till the 13th century, when the Sultans established their rule in Delhi. In the intervening period of lawlessness and tumult, art itself may be said to have gone underground. The miracle is that it did not die out altogether for want of nourishment. This we know because whenever Mahmoud of Ghazni came to India on his plundering raids, he made a point of carrying away as slaves, the artists and sculptors of India to beautify his own capital. The bitter irony is that the stability that restored a semblance of unity to the country’s history proved to be even more harmful to the professional artists of India than the period of chaos that had preceded it.

For the Sultans and their successors, while they had nothing against the practioners of art, subscribed to a culture that fettered their creativity. They were not permitted to depict any kind of life. They could paint trees, flowers, hills, but nothing that had life in it. Calligraphy — handwriting as an art — and intricate geometric designs became the field for artistic endeavours. As Robert Payne summarises it — and in doing so also provides the explanation for his own observation that Ajanta should have remained the high point of India’s artistic excellence. "They could paint nothing that represented the figures of human beings, or animals. No man, no woman, no horse, no camel, no bird, no dog."