Paintings of India – A Brush with History

Eminent photographer Benoy K. Behl’s film The Paintings of India reveals the subtleties of the art tradition in the country writes Mitali Kar.

There is an air of hurried activity at Benoy K. Behl’s studio in New Delhi. The well-known lensman and art historian, best known for photographing the Ajanta paintings in their true colours, and the author of the Thames and Hudson published book The Ajanta Caves, is discussing the background score for a series of 26 documentary films to be aired on Doordarshan next year. Matthew Kurien, the computer artist is busy “cleaning up” images on the computer, while Latika Gupta, assistant director is sifting through heaps of transparencies. Sangitika Nigam, a fellow art historian, is coordinating the work. It may seem a long way until next year but Behl is in a hurry and one can’t blame him. He is covering 40 districts spread across eight states in only 45 days from the middle of October.

Behl has already photographed Indian paintings in more than 55 destinations in India and abroad. Among these are 900 masterpieces of representative Indian miniatures in Zurich. Paris, Dublin, London, New York. Boston, Harvard University in Cambridge, New Hampshire, Philadelphia, Baltimore and San Diego. For some months now, Behl has been following a whirlwind schedule but ask him if he’s tired and all he says: “It is a pleasure to work.” Behl began working on the documentaries in May and is sure he will wind up by December.

It all started when Behl was photographing the Ajanta caves nearly 10 years ago. “This was our biggest challenge since the caves were being photographed in darkness for the first time,” he says. There are 31 caves in the Ajanta. For two years. Behl and his team painstakingly studied and photographed each frame. Scenes on top of the frame had to be correlated with the ones below because the Ajanta caves have been painted episodically. “This procedure had to be followed for the entire length of the wall,” explains Nigam. The task became doubly difficult because the light that filters in is blocked by protective measures like screens. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has installed lights that emit a reddish hue which don’t allow for clear viewing. The only alternative is torch light which again focuses on a single point. “Since we were shooting the caves in such detail and with low light, we couldn’t allow too many people around,” says Nigam. “Too much movement would dismantle the tripod or shake the stool on which the photographer was standing.”

Next began the task of documentation. Around 50 select masterpieces from 800-odd slides of the Ajanta paintings were scanned at high resolution. After conducting a thorough research on the paintings, each image was repaired. Colours which had faded with time were restored, broken lines joined and scribbled graffiti removed to reveal the glory of Ajanta. “You’ve conquered darkness,” M.C. Joshi, former director general of the ASI is reported to have said when he saw the paintings.

Detailed computer restoration work revealed many unknown aspects of the Ajanta paintings. Explains Behl: “I have always noticed the brightness in the eyes of King Mahajanaka in a cave 1 painting. It was only when the slide was scanned at a high resolution that I could understand it was a touch of the painter’s skill. In that panel, a white spot was painted in the eyeballs of the figures, achieving the same effect of modern photography which uses a light for the purpose. It was surprising to see this level of expertise in a 5th century painting.” The media lauded Behl’s efforts. He was invited to deliver lectures on Ajanta and other paintings at universities and museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; Harvard University, Boston; the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music; and the Mahidol University, Thailand.

At this point, Behl and his team felt that much more needed to be done. In order to preserve the original caves from being exposed to natural wear and tear, they now propose to excavate two more caves and replicate some of the finest Ajanta paintings on them. “Since bright lights can’t ever be used in the original caves, this is the only way people can see the beauty of the Ajanta,” says Behl. The paintings will be accompanied by computerised documentation.

From documenting paintings on film to filming it for the small screen seems a logical step for Behl. Beginning February 2002. Doordarshan will air the 26 documentary films. And of course, the Ajanta paintings, considered the fountainhead of Indian art, will figure prominently in the project. Commissioned by Prasar Bharati (the broadcasting corporation of India), the series of films will present the tradition of Indian paintings beginning with rock paintings from the prehistoric ages to the 10th century Chola paintings in the Brihadisvara temple in Tanjore, as well as Mughal and Kashmiri paintings. The project is enormous, but Behl is unfazed. The logistics have been worked out, the paperwork is in order, plans are being implemented. Explains Behl: “Everything has been worked out to the last detail.” His aim is to show that there is a continuity in the tradition of painting in India. “The western world believed that Indians had learnt the art of painting from the Mughals and the British,”says Behl.

The films will dispel these notions. Not only that, they will give the world an opportunity to see these exquisite pieces of art in their original form. Says Behl: “In the past, artists would sit for hours inside caves trying to recapture moods or nuances of the figures in the murals. What they reproduced would be very close to the original, but chances are there would be some changes.” Changes that could alter the meaning of the painting. Says Behl: “Even a misunderstanding about the shape of the eye can change the mood of the painting.”

Being able to understand the subtle nuances in the expression is an integral part of restoration work. In the panel in cave 1, the queen is persuading King Mahajanaka not to leave the palace. She is frightened about a future without her husband. This fear is reflected in her eyes. The person carrying out restoration work must understand what she is trying to say. Sometimes this can be quite confusing. “We work on the premise that the eye can have five shapes,” says Behl. “It is important to understand the situation and then portray the emotion.”

The task is not easy. It has meant studying books on history, talking to eminent historians about painting styles and carrying out thorough research by visiting the locations themselves. Behl and his field team of four spends more than a month for each schedule. In Delhi for a four-day break, Behl tells you what a normal working day is like. “Work begins at four in the morning when we set out for shooting. We cover around 250 kilometres each day. There is no time to stop for a break because that could play havoc with our plans. But we do stop to shoot sunrises and sunsets.” Behl claims that he has photographed around 40 sunrises. “Maybe that would make another documentary,” he quips. And a simpler one at that.

If Ajanta was Behl’s biggest challenge, filming the 10th century Chola paintings in the Brihadisvara temples at Tanjore is the beginning of the “unveiling of a glorious and widespread tradition of paintings over the centuries”. Earlier, the Indira Gandhi National Centre had been given the task of documenting these paintings. When Behl and his team took over, they realised how difficult it really was. Explains Nigam: “In most cases there were these walls facing each other, with a 5-ft space between them. There was nothing to separate the artist from his painting.” For these artists, art was deeply embedded in their consciousness. “The artist was only trying to approximate the Supreme by replicating what he (god) has provided,” continues Nigam. “The painting was a former of prayer.”

When Behl was shooting these paintings, which were incidentally being photographed for the first time, little did he know that the work would find echoes in far off Sri Lanka. During an assignment at the Polonaruwa temples in Sri Lanka, he found the paintings to be exactly similar to the ones he had photographed in the Brihasdisvara temple in Tanjore as well as the Ajanta paintings. “Nobody had any idea about this similarity before,” says Behl.

The whole purpose of finding similarities is to make art a unified whole. That will be the theme behind the documentaries. Shot extensively on location in countries such as Europe, the US, the UK, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Nepal, the films speak of humanity. In other words, paintings will be used to express harmony between people despite the existence of so many multiethnic and multi-religious groups.

Behl’s work abroad involves photographing and documenting Indian miniature paintings in museums. “In many cases our documentation is incomplete without sourcing material from foreign countries,” he says. Part of the project also involves documenting paintings housed in foreign museums. By the time the schedule was over, 900 masterpieces had been shot.

Back home in India, Behl had to travel through some of the worst terrain to complete his schedule. In order to get to the 11th century monasteries in Tabo and Nako in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, the photographer and his team traversed practically non-existent roads to film exquisite paintings on the walls of the monasteries.

The work doesn’t end there. Behl and Nigam are also involved in restoration work. Over a period of six years, the two travelled to Ladakh and visited the monasteries of Alchi, Thikse and Hemis. “The paintings in these monasteries (of Buddha, the Bodhisatvas and scenes from Buddha’s life) are meditational aids.” It was during a visit to one such monastery that the two decided to take up restoration. Nigam feels it is no point trying to restore the paintings or even document them unless the monasteries are repaired.

What’s next? Behl is unwilling to divulge details about his next project. Shooting the documentaries is taking up all his time, he tells you. But Nigam is a little more open. “There are plans to release a book next year which will pre-sent painting themes in greater detail,” she says. Will they redefine the history of painting in India? Maybe.


Reprinted from “Swagat” – Inhouse magazine of Indian Airlines, dated Nov. 2001 issue and written by Mitali Kar.