Herald: Ajanta Rediscovered
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Ajanta Rediscovered

19 Dec 2014 01:38am IST

Report by
Patricia Ann Alvares

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19 Dec 2014 01:38am IST

Report by
Patricia Ann Alvares

The 1st century BC paintings at Cave 9 and 10 of Ajanta which long remained undiscovered are the oldest Buddhist paintings of Indian images. They represent the birth of classical Indian painting. At the ongoing Sensorium Festival, art historian, author, curator, broadcaster, critic and co-founder of the Jaipur Literary Festival William Dalrymple will highlight these murals and their representative value as the ‘Birth of Indian Paintings’. Artist and research photographer Prasad Pawar’s nine images ‘Unseen Ajanta’ will also be unveiled at the event


An art historian by training William Dalrymple’s curiosity was more than aroused when he visited Cave 10 at the Ajanta caves in Aurangabad. The murals on the walls, which remained undiscovered for a long period and survived several botched attempts at restoration, unveiled a rich treasure trove of Indian paintings dating back as far as the 1st century BC. 

“Here were the oldest images of Indian faces, but also the oldest Buddhist paintings in existence,” reveals Dalrymple. “The appeal is in the simplicity of its style and a different technique from the rest of the paintings in the other 31 caves. They look much less ethereal and more real and life like.” Intrigued and interested by the paintings Dalrymple wrote a few articles on the subject.    Although tomes have been written about the famous Ajanta and Ellora caves, not much is known about the two caves, located at the centre of the cliff, which remained hidden for a long time.

Painstakingly restored by Manager Singh from 1999 with infra-red light, micro-emulsion and cutting-edge Japanese conservation technology, these murals signalled the birth of Indian classical painting. Scholars working at the caves also unearthed the fact that there were two distinct phases of work at the caves, separated by as many as 600 years.  One of the oldest structures of its kind in the world, the caves and murals, particularly those in cave 10, show fragments of the oldest surviving painting of the life of Buddha.  As Dalrymple points out, the Buddhist intuition of the close connection between the animal and natural world to humankind through cycles of reincarnation are clear and realistic in their portrayal.  “Unseen since 1920s after several attempts to restore them, these paintings are now being rediscovered and their immense importance being recognised,” avers Dalrymple.

Although Dalrymple has no immediate plans to write a book on the subject, he will nevertheless discuss the matter in some detail at his lecture at the Sunaparanta on the topic ‘Birth of Indian Painting’.   The event will be paired by an unveiling of artist and research photographer, Prasad Pawar’s ‘Unseen Ajanta’, a collection of nine photographs of these unseen cave murals. “Prasad’s unrivalled expertise on Ajanta will give us an opportunity to look into a different world,” emphasis Dalrymple.

As he takes us through the various stages of the history of Caves 9 and 10 of Ajanta, Dalrymple will once again, in his inimitable style, help us rediscover the rich classical history of Indian painting.

(William Dalrymple will deliver a lecture on ‘Birth of Indian Paintings” at the Sunaparanta – Goa Centre for the arts, Altinho, Panjim today at 7pm)

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