Saturday, August 30, 2014

Barefoot in the Alps


The Swiss have learnt to pronounce Paresh Maity's name almost as well as in his native Bengal. At Art Masters in St Moritz, Switzerland, his Mystic Abode installation of 8,000 temple bells has been placed outside the very snooty and old-world Badrutt's Hotel and commands attention. Jayasri Burman's sculpture of a goddess-like Dharitri with swans has been snapped up by an Italian collector. We've been to the Engadin Museum to view Nalini Malani's video installations, glimpsed Jitish Kallat's 14 Lives, been charmed by Mathias Brunner's film installation based on Satyajit Ray's Jalsaghar, appropriately titled The Music Room. I've seen Subodh Gupta's School earlier in New Delhi, but am sorry to miss some of the other Indian artists' works, notably a collective ode to Maximum City.
 Art Masters is celebrating India Week - last year China was featured - and Indian artists are getting a viewing throughout the spread of St Moritz. I am here for the launch of a book on M F Husain, commissioned by the Switzerland-based Stellar International Art Foundation, which has a selection of some of his most iconic series not previously aired, and some of which have been displayed for the first time, whether privately or publicly. Even though Art Masters tends to signify the contemporary, Husain's work is regarded by many as being "fresh". The barefoot artist would have been charmed.
 India aside, there's lots to see even casually across St Moritz. Such as the massive shopping bag installations by different artists consisting of digital prints over aluminium, Loris Hersberger's Dystopia Stalker that resembles a smashed bus shelter, Joel Shapiro's sculpture, Hubert Kiecol's Reise Nach that briefly diverts our attention about the future of art, and another installation at the Kempinski Hotel by Arne Quinze literally worth its weight in 45 kg of gold.
 Art Masters isn't an art fair. Now in its seventh edition, it is a hothouse property simply because it addresses an exclusive community of billionaires and millionaires. Its location makes it easy for the Italians to drive over for casual viewings. For now, it is being viewed simply as another activity on St Moritz's already crowded calendar of programmes. Sponsors bring in the money, even though it is all very discreet in the finest Swiss tradition. There's Mercedes-Benz, for instance, or Leica, Mont Blanc and Cartier, and there's no loss in their target audience simply because of an absence of the hoi-polloi in St Moritz.
 This very exclusivity has stirred interest in the boutique event, made interesting for being small and manageable where art fairs are large and chaotic. Artists and their galleries view this as a prestigious platform, though it's difficult to get in because there are no pavilions to buy, so you have to appeal to its organisers and curators. Groups of visitors such as those brought in by Maserati come for viewings as they might any other attraction, and can turn into spontaneous buyers in an instant. Necessarily, though, much of the art is in the nature of public installations, not something that might easily fit into a city flat.
 How might India feature at Art Masters in future? If this year was any indication, last year's China exposition did little for its presence in 2014. India, then, might not find much place in 2015 but for the presence of the Stellar International Art Foundation which might want to review its gains for Indian art and its own activities from its support this year. If interest in this year's Art Masters was anything to go by, tastes in St Moritz can be eclectic and not defined by provincial nationalism. Could it become the sounding board for the second coming of Indian contemporary art? Don't hold your breath on that one yet.

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi   August 30, 2014 Last Updated at 00:07 IST

India's education system needs to have an eye on future: K G Subramanyan

PTI | Aug 29, 2014, 07.29PM IST

KOCHI: Education should not be related to something in the past or that has gone by, but must be based on situations that are yet to come, probably in the next ten years, renowned artist K G Subramanyan said.

Subramanyan was speaking at an interactive programme "An Evening with KGS" organised by the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) at the Kerala Folklore Museum, here on Thursday.
 India's art institutions and centres are yet to catch up with the changes brought about by new technologies, he said during a conversation with Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014 Curator Jitish Kallat and renowned visual artist Prof Suresh Jayaram.

Artists must make use of the wide range of possibilities offered by visual communication, he said.
 In a career spanning six decades, the artist has won many recognitions and awards including the Padma Vibhushan in 2012, Padma Bhushan in 2006 and Padma Shri in 1975.
 K G Subramanyan, fondly called Mani Da, had been a lecturer at the Faculty of Fine Arts in M.S. University in Baroda till 1980. Later, he joined his alma mater Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati University as a professor in painting.

He exhorted art lovers not to gauge an artist by his achievements. KGS also pointed out that some of the works that he at one time did not approve of, have later become acceptable to the people.
 Referring to the art scenario in India, he said India's art culture, for example the murals and Mughal paintings, are very unique in many aspects. "I personally think, Indian artists can do very well, provided they think less about the world outside and more about the world around us," he added.

An active participant of Indian freedom struggle, KGS also shared his experience of art practice at that time which was mainly focussed on nation building.

Meet the saviour of India's heritage

Over the last decade, Kirit Mankodi, a Mumbai-based professor of Archaeology has been working hard to help recover the country’s stolen heritage and create an online profile of stolen Indian artworks

In January 2014, Indian newspapers reported the return of three stolen sculptures — two amorous couples (known as Mithunas in Indian art), and a stone sculpture of a male deity from the US Immigration Custom’s Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security to the Indian embassy. The three sculptures were valued at $1.5 million (Rs 9 crore). While the news widely featured and was appreciated by all Indian art lovers, very few are aware that it would have been impossible without the efforts of a Mumbai-based professor of Archaeology, Kirit Mankodi.
Rani Ki Vav
In 2001, Rani Ki Vav (The Queen’s Stepwell) in Patan, Gujarat, lost two prized sculptures of Hindu gods Ganesha and Brahma. Pic Courtesy/WWW.PLUNDEREDPAST.IN

Earlier, in 2010, Mankodi, an expert on Indian temples and sculptures, had helped Interpol trace the sculptures. He had identified one of the sculptures in an ad for sale in an international magazine. Mankodi immediately wrote emails to the Interpol and US Homeland Security with details about the sculptures, their place of origin and photographs of the site, before and after the theft. He also wrote emails to scholars, museums, art dealers and experts around the world to help locate the second one.
A digitally mastered image of a Buddha sculpture,
A digitally mastered image of a Buddha sculpture, stolen from a protected site in Bilhari, Katni, Madhya Pradesh. While part of the sculpture (right and top) remains attached to the site, the main statue has been missing since 2007.

Lost and foundMankodi, 74, who helped identify and establish the ownership of these sculptures, has since then been writing extensively about stolen artworks via email and on his website Plunderedpast.in. He has managed to create a database of over 15 such thefts, with details about their origin, pictures before and after theft as well as dates of FIR. The list includes sculptures from Sas-Bahu temples at Nagda in Rajasthan (2006), two Buddha sculptures from Bilhari, two stone sculptures of the Hindu god Ganesha and Hindu god Brahma stolen from the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Rani Ki Vav or the Queen’s Stepwell (underground reservoir) at Patan, Gujarat, in 2001, and many more.
A headless statue at Jina, Kota, Rajasthan
A headless statue at Jina, Kota, Rajasthan. Mankodi says that there are thousands of such headless sculptures in India. “When thieves can’t take away the entire structure, they cut off its head and sell it in the market,” he says.

These are just some of the sculptures that have either been identified or reported lost. Mankodi believes that there would be many more. “I was able to identify these thefts because I had worked on these sites. There could be many more such sculptures, which have been stolen from India, and not reported,” he says. This could be highly possible considering Homeland Security and Interpol recently found artefacts worth over $30 million (Rs 180 crore) stashed at various warehouses owned by the New York-based Indian art dealer, Subhash Kapoor. The art dealer is currently undergoing trial in Tamil Nadu for allegedly stealing artefacts and exporting them outside India. According to the website hasingaphrodite.com, nearly 230 artworks have been traced from Kapoor to some of the most popular galleries in the world, including Australia’s National Gallery of Art (21), Metropolitan Museum of Art (81), Toledo Museum of Art (44), Boston’s Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. The dealings go to several millions of dollars.
Sas Bahu temple
Around four-five of the eight celestial women missing  from the ceiling of the Sas-Bahu temple in Nagda (above) are believed to have been traced to dealers, but bureaucratic laziness has prevented their return.

Art of the matter
“As unfortunate as it is, despite the huge size of the stolen artefact rackets, the Indian government has failed to form any individual organisation to monitor and trace stolen artworks from India,” rues Mankodi. Lack of efforts by the central and state governments inspired Mankodi to start the website. “To prevent such thefts from happening, and retrieve what has already left India, we need awareness. This is our heritage, our culture, and it must be preserved,” he says, adding, “I created the website so anybody — from international organisations, museums and galleries to art dealers, scholars or the common man is aware of such thefts and can alert us or the authorities about them.”

Saving our artefacts
Mankodi relies mostly on the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for details on recent thefts, and information from art dealers and other experts. “The ASI is not an investigating agency, so, it can’t investigate thefts. What it does is file an FIR when such a theft is brought to notice. I get all the information — the FIR number, the place from where the theft has taken place, the police station where the FIR is lodged, the date of theft, photograph and description of the artefact — and I put it on the website.”

His efforts have also helped trace two sculptures from Nagda Temple, which an art dealer had bought, unknowingly. The dealer offered to return the sculptures, but there has been no response from the Indian authorities. Mankodi advises all owners of old artefacts, including those inherited from their fathers to register them with the ASI as soon as possible. “Every owner of old artefacts must register it to the authorities under Indian Antiquities Law. But also because it will save you from any trouble, and help relocate in case of a theft. To claim a stolen artwork, you have to provide a link and establish the ownership. And for that, the best thing to do is to register it with ASI,” he adds.

Did you know? "Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are the three most vulnerable states in terms of sculpture thefts. These states are rich in temples; many in small villages are often unlocked and unprotected, and hence, vulnerable to thefts. While Tamil Nadu has an active department to look after thefts of artefacts, I am not aware of such organisations run by the other states or the central government," Mankodi informs. Man on a mission

Author of several books on Indian temples and their architecture, Kirit Mankodi graduated in Ancient Indian Culture from St Xavier's College, and holds a MA and PhD in Archaeology from Deccan College, Pune. He has taught at reputed schools and colleges like Pune's Deccan College and College of Indology in Bhopal.

City-based Archeology professor, Kirit Mankodi

He has also authored several papers on the art and architecture of temples in professional journals. When he isn’t teaching or writing books, he is busy working on the website. "The website takes a lot of my time, largely because, before you I have to double check everything before I put it on the website. You cannot post inaccurate information because that would be wrong. Besides, I have to also stay updated on any new developments on the stolen artworks," he signs off.

The Indian museum 'ignoring' its Salvador Dali etchings

By Shamik Bag
Calcutta
Salvador Dali etching
Should a leading Indian museum be doing more to tell the world about rare works it holds by the master of surrealism Salvador Dali?
Calcutta's Victoria Memorial Hall (VMH) holds two Dali colour etchings, thought to be the only originals any museum or gallery in India possesses by the Spanish master.
But they have been shown to the public only twice in the 24 years since the US-based, Calcutta-born artist Bimal Banerjee donated the works along with 81 other pieces of art to the museum.
The two untitled but signed etchings purportedly date back to 1946 when Dali released an illustrated edition of William Shakespeare's Macbeth.
This was in line with his literary illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote as well his interest in Shakespeare seen through original engravings entitled Much Ado about Shakespeare and Shakespeare II.
'Breached contract'

Printed on Japanese rice paper with cotton threads, the etchings are small but maintain the surrealist streak characteristic of Dali.
The two etchings are currently being exhibited for the first time since 1993.
However, there appears to be little attempt to showcase the prized exhibits. Visitors walk past the small glass enclosure where the untitled etchings are kept, and security personnel and officials fumble at the mention of Dali. The paper signage placed near the artworks bearing details like the artist's name and dimensions of the works is too small to grab people's attention.
Donor Bimal Banerjee is annoyed at the way the artworks have been displayed.
"Having gifted the 83 artworks, I drew up a contract with the Victoria Memorial which mentioned that all of the donations will have to be exhibited together in one hall or adjacent halls. It wasn't about Dali only. They have breached the contract and I feel that I've wasted $4m worth of gifts on ignorant people," he said in a telephone call from New York.
VMH curator Jayanta Sengupta says the museum doesn't have enough space for permanent display and its huge collection necessitates display by rotation.
"The bulk of our stock remains in storage. Cluttering the gallery is a concern we have," he adds.
The VMH, he says, is planning an exhibition of European and Western art in the near future and many of the 83 pieces of art donated by Mr Banerjee - works by Paul Klee, Jean Arp, Joseph Beuys, Robert and Sonia Delaunay and Robert Motherwell, as well as the Dalis - will be part of the show.
The VMH is known for its impressive collection of a genre of painting involving picturesque Indian landscapes and people. It also has many Mughal miniatures, lithographs and aquatints, arms and armoury, rare books, sculptures and paintings, including a notable selection of works by legendary Indian artists Jamini Roy and Abanindranath Tagore.

Salvador Dali etching
"Victoria Memorial's indifference towards my contribution only indicates how Indians don't care about contemporary art," says Mr Banerjee.
Mr Banerjee's website mentions his meeting with European and North American artists like Georgio de Chirico, Sonia Delaunay, Arman, and Beuys besides Dali, who gave him the two etchings in exchange for some of Mr Banerjee's own work after their 1972 meeting in Paris.
Earlier this year, the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi held an exhibition of prints by Dali and his fellow Spaniard Pablo Picasso.
The gallery's owner, Arun Vadehra, says all the Dali prints were immediately sold at $100 apiece - an indication, he says, of the stature and worth of an internationally-reputed artist like Dali in urban India.
"The possession of two Dali originals significantly increases the importance of Victoria Memorial as a museum and gallery. More people should know about it," Mr Vadehra said.
Back at the Victoria Memorial, Guillermo Gallego Nistal, a 27-year-old airline employee from Spain and a Dali fan, has spotted the prized etchings.
Last year, he visited the Catalonian town of Figueres in Spain where Dali was born and found inspiration from his paintings.

Indian visitors walk past displays of two artworks by Salvador Dali in Durbar Hall of The Victoria Memorial in Kolkata on August 14, 2014
Dali's works have been shown to the public only twice in 24 years
Jostled by other visitors and whistling security men, he peers intently into the glass-topped case housing the two Dali etchings.
The effect is "pretty surreal", he says.
"I wasn't really expecting to find a Dali here. It made me nostalgic seeing them."
Shamik Bag is a Calcutta-based independent journalist

India’s Own Ajanta Caves May Be The Birthplace Of Indian Art



Vishal Ingole
Aug 29, 2014, 06.47 PM IST

The Ajanta Caves, located in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra consist of about 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments that date from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 or 650 CE. There are several sculptures, paintings and murals in the caves that can be called some of the finest surviving examples of Indian art. Many have referred to the murals as 'nothing less than the birth of Indian art'. These murals give one an insightful look into an ancient world that has long since been destroyed. Two of the oldest paintings in the caves, which have been hidden from view for decades, have recently been restored to reveal their natural beauty.

Rediscovery of the cavesIn the summer of summer of 1819, a British hunting party, led by Captain John Smith, a young cavalry officer from Madras, was traversing through thick jungle near Aurangabad, when they came upon a manmade facade cut straight into the rockface. What Smith saw was the work of great sophistication, which had been abandoned for centuries. A closer look revealed a long hall with 39 octagonal pillars on both side, and a carved domed-shaped Buddhist stupa at the center. On the walls, the officers noticed some of the most magnificent murals they had ever witnessed. The robes of the monks in the murals were painted in orange-and yellow hues. They stood on blue lotuses and had green haloes. Other murals revealed elaborate crowd scenes.

These elaborate murals represented the lost golden age of Indian painting and told the untold story of life of the Buddha with grace and elegance. Today, the Ajanta murals have been identified as some of the greatest works of art that have emerged out of any century.

Early restoration of the murals  It was only in the late 1920s that the Nizam of Hyderabad sent Ghulam Yazdani, the leading art historian of the state, to take a photographic survey of the murals. But unfortunately two of the caves, caves nine and 10, had suffered irreparable damage by then. Two Italian conservationists were also dispatched by the Nizam to assists with the restoration, they ended by obscuring the murals further, by coating them with Victorian layers of varnish first and then a thick layer of unbleached shellac. Bat dug, dust and grime fused to the shellac which then oxidized to a dark reddish-brown color, obscuring them from scholars and travelers alike for the rest of the 20th century.

Modern restoration attemptsIt was only in the year 1999 that Rajdeo Singh, the Archaeological Survey of India's (ASI) chief of conservation and head of science at Aurangabad, began restoration work on these long-forgotten murals. Singh said that the restoration work had to be carried out extremely delicately because some paintings were so fragile that a mere touch might have ruined them forever.
The painstaking restoration involved the use of micro-emulsion, infrared light and cutting-edge Japanese conservation technology, which ultimately succeeded in removing almost 75% of the layers of hard soot, shellac, and grime from 10 suaqare meter of the murals.
Due to the efforts of Singh and his team, the murals were ready to be displayed for the first time since the 1920s. Singh's restoration work has allowed us to take a look at the oldest paintings of Indian faces. These are the oldest Buddhist paintings in existence, dating from only 300 years after the death of the Buddha. It can undoubtedly be said that the murals of caves nine and 10 are representative of the birth of Indian painting.

Antiquity of the cavesWhile the antiquity of the caves is evident, the exact dates of construction are unclear. Most scholars believe that the caves were most likely to have been constructed between 90-70BC, and excavated shortly after the collapse of Ashoka's Mauryan empire, which once stretched from Kandahar to the Vindyas.

A rare treasure uncovered in cave 10 Only recently has a rare treasure been uncovered in cave 10 - an image of the first sermon at Sarnath and fragments of the oldest surviving painting of the life of the Buddha. Near the painting of the sermon, lies a pictorial depiction of the legend of Udayana, a tale of two rival queens, one evil, and the other virtuous. The best preserved and most dramatic paintings however, are illustrations of two Jataka stories: the 'Chaddanta Jataka', the story of a virtuous six-tusked elephant that a vindictive and jealous instigates to have killed, and the 'Shyama Jataka', the story of a forest dweller who the poisoned arrow of the king of Varanasi fatally hit.

The artists of Ajanta have given us an insight into a time we know little about, through the illustrations of these two stories. Through this visual window, we know more about the attire the kings donned at the time, their general facial features (which are strikingly central Asian), the arms they carried and more.
 The murals bridge the gap between a time that fleetingly went by 2,200 years ago and the modern day.
 Image: Wikipedia

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Ajanta cave murals: 'nothing less than the birth of Indian art'

The paintings are possibly the finest surviving picture galleries from the ancient world. Now, the oldest in two of the caves – hidden for decades – have been painstakingly restored to reveal their true beauty

William Dalrymple
The Guardian , Friday 15 August 2014 15.00 BST

Detail from one of the murals in cave 10 of the Ajanta caves.
Elegance and compassion ... Detail from one of the murals in cave 10 of the Ajanta caves. Photograph: Prasad Pawar

In the early summer of 1819, a British hunting party was heading through thick jungle near Aurangabad, in Maharashtra, western India, when the tiger they were tracking disappeared into a deep ravine. Leading the hunters was Captain John Smith, a young cavalry officer from Madras. Beckoning his friends to follow, he tracked the animal down a semi-circular scarp of steep basalt, and hopped across the rocky bed of the Wagora river, then made his way up through the bushes at the far side of the amphitheatre of cliffs. Halfway up, Smith stopped in his tracks. The footprints led straight past an opening in the rock face. But the cavity was clearly not a natural cave or a river-cut grotto. Instead, despite the long grass, the all-encroaching creepers and thorny undergrowth, Smith was looking at a manmade facade cut straight into the rockface. The jagged slope had been painstakingly carved away into a perfect portico. It was clearly a work of great sophistication. Equally clearly, it had been abandoned for centuries.

A few minutes later, the party made their way gingerly inside, as Smith held aloft a torch of burning dried grass and his companions clutched their muskets. A long hall led straight into the rock, flanked on either side by 39 octagonal pillars. At the end rose the circular dome of a perfect Buddhist stupa carved, like everything else, out of the slope of the mountain. 

All over the walls, the officers could see through the gloom the shadowy outlines of ancient murals. On the pillars were figures of orange- and yellow-robed monks with green haloes standing on blue lotuses, while on the rock walls facing on to the side aisles were long panels of painting filled with elaborate crowd scenes, rather as if a painted scroll had been rolled out along the wall of the apse. In the light of the flickering flame the officers crunched over a human skeleton and other debris dragged into the cave by generations of predators and scavengers. The party advanced until they reached a pillar at the far end of the hall, next to the stupa. There Smith got out his hunting knife and inscribed over the body of a Bodhisattva (a previous incarnation of the Buddha) the words: "John Smith, 28th cavalry, 28 April 1819."

Detail from a mural in cave 10 of the Ajanta caves.
Otherworldly beauty ... A mural in cave 10 of the Ajanta caves. Photograph: Prasad Pawar

In the decades to come, first other hunting parties, then later groups of Orientalists, archaeologists and Indologists followed in Smith's footsteps through the jungle to Ajanta as word spread that in this most remote spot lay 31 caves that collectively amounted to one of the great wonders of the ancient world. The walls told the Jataka stories of the lives of the Buddha in images of such extraordinary elegance and grace that they clearly represented a fragment of a lost golden age of Indian painting. They were utterly lovely – but they were also utterly alone: with a very few fragmentary exceptions, there is almost nothing else surviving from the ancient Indian past to compare them to. The murals of Ajanta are now recognised as some of the greatest art produced by humankind in any century, as well as the finest picture gallery to survive from any ancient civilisation. Even today, the colours glow with a brilliant intensity: topaz-dark, lizard green, lotus-blue.

From almost the beginning, scholars working on the site came to the realisation that there were two quite distinct phases of work at Ajanta. The cave that Smith first walked into, later named cave 10, lay in the centre of the cliff face; it and the five others flanking it were datable by inscription to the first or second century BC. 

However most of the Ajanta caves, and almost all the murals, date from nearly 600 years later, during a second phase of construction. This was at the height of India's golden age, when in the Gangetic plain, the fifth-century Gupta dynasty was filling their capital of Kannauj with some of the greatest masterpieces of Indian sculpture, and when Kalidasa was writing his great play, The Cloud-Messenger.

From this period date the rich picture cycles of wall painting in caves one and two. Here among handsome princes and bare-chested nobles, princesses with tiaras of jasmine languish love-lorn on swings and couches, while narrow-waisted dancing girls of extraordinary sensuousness, dressed only in their jewels and girdles, perform beside lotus ponds. Nearby are painted very different images of stark ascetic renunciation – a shaven-headed orange-robed monk lost in meditation, a hermit seeking salvation or a group of wizened devotees straining to hear the words of their teacher. Dominating everything are portraits of bodhisattvas of otherworldly beauty, elegance and compassion, eyes half-closed, swaying on the threshold of enlightenment, caught in what the great historian of Indian art, Stella Kramrisch, wonderfully described as "a gale of stillness".


Ajanta cave murals
Striking ... the Ajanta cave murals. Photograph: Prasad Pawar

Such was the celebrity of these fifth-century masterworks that most scholars, and almost all modern accounts of the Ajanta caves, have all but ignored the earlier picture cycles. These paintings were not only more fragmentary, they were also more smoke-blackened than the almost pristine later murals, and perhaps for this reason seemed to invite the attention of early graffiti artists and tourists who wanted to leave a record of their visit.

By the time the Nizam of Hyderabad sent the leading art historian of his state, Ghulam Yazdani, to produce the first photographic survey of the murals in the late 1920s, the murals of caves nine and 10 had already been irreparably damaged. The Nizam also sent two Italian conservationists to help restore them. Unfortunately their efforts only obscured the murals further: they coated the pigments with a thick layer of unbleached shellac that sat on top of at least two existing Victorian layers of varnish. The shellac attracted grime, dust and bat dung, and quickly oxidised to a dark reddish brown that totally obscured the images from both travellers and scholars. Less than a century after being rediscovered by a British shooting party in 1819, the figures of caves nine and 10 had been lost again. For the rest of the 20th century they remained effectively hidden, invisible to the naked eye, forgotten by all.

Then in 1999, Rajdeo Singh, the Archaeological Survey of India's (ASI) chief of conservation and head of science at Aurangabad, began work on the restoration of these murals. Manager Singh, as he is always known, had been in charge of conserving the paintings of Ajanta for a number of years, but the work in caves nine and 10 was, he knew, especially difficult, and of the greatest importance: "The paintings were so fragile that in some places there was a great fear even to touch them with the hand," he wrote later. "At some places the pigment was found completely detached from the ground plaster and stone surface."

However a painstaking restoration of the paintings from 1999 onwards using infrared light, micro-emulsion and cutting-edge Japanese conservation technology succeeded in removing 75% of the layers of shellac, hard soot and grime from 10 sq m of the murals. "Particular care and precautions were taken not to alter even a grain of pigment," he wrote.

Manager Singh's work revealed for the first time since the 1920s the images that are now on open display. Remarkably for so famous a site – Ajanta is one of a handful of world heritage sites in India, attracting 5,000 visitors a day – their wall paintings have never before been properly photographed.

India. Maharashtra. Ajanta Caves.
The Ajanta caves. Photograph: Getty

I stumbled across them on a visit to the caves in March. The ASI does not have much of a tradition of public outreach, and even internally there is perhaps little recognition of what Manager Singh has achieved and uncovered. For his work is nothing short of a revelation: Singh has uncovered the oldest paintings of Indian faces – with the exception of a few prehistorical pictograms of stick men and animals left by paleolithic hunters in the wilds of Madhya Pradesh. They are also the oldest Buddhist paintings in existence, dating from only 300 years after the death of the Buddha.

More exciting still, this earliest phase of work is not just very old, but very fine indeed and painted in a quite different style, and using markedly different techniques to that used in the rest of Ajanta. The murals of caves nine and 10 represent nothing less than the birth of Indian painting.

The extreme antiquity of the caves is clear, though their exact dates remain elusive: from the paleographic evidence they can be securely dated to between the second century BC and the first century AD, but most scholars believe that between 90-70BC is the most likely period of construction. This meant they were excavated shortly after the collapse of Ashoka's great Mauryan empire, which once stretched from Kandahar to the Vindyas. They are roughly contemporary with the spectacular Buddhist stupas and gateways at Sanchi and Bharhut, built during a period of political disruption across India but also one of great artistic and intellectual ferment.

Inscriptions in cave 10 record the many small patrons of these masterworks, like sponsorship tags on television today. One mentions a Kanhaka of Bahada, presumably a nobleman, others monks named Dharmadeva and Sikhabhadra, the latter "in honour of his mother and father". This was a period not of royal but of community patronage, and appropriately the murals were a crowded, vibrant narrative art, teeming with people and alive with drama.

Cave 10 contains a supreme treasure that has only recently been identified: fragments of the oldest surviving painting of the life of the Buddha and an image of the first sermon at Sarnath. Next to the latter lies a depiction of the legend of Udayana, a tale of two rival queens, one virtuous and one evil. The most dramatic, and best preserved scenes however show two Jataka stories: the "Shyama Jataka " is about a forest dweller who was fatally hit by the poisoned arrow of the king of Varanasi. Next to it is the "Chaddanta Jataka ", which tells of a virtuous six-tusked elephant that is killed at the instigation of a jealous and vindictive queen.

In illustrating these stories, the artists of Ajanta open a window on to an age about which we know little. We see the costumes of this very early period: the king of Varanasi, for example, wears a white cotton tunic of strikingly central Asian appearance, wrapped around the waist with a cummerbund, while on his head he wears a turban. He has a bow and a full quiver of arrows. His guards are bare-chested and are armed with spears and bell-shaped shields decorated with half-moons and shining suns. The turbans of the different ranks are shown with great care and seem to be an important indicator of status, the different materials – some with red or gold stripes, others pure white – and the different styles of wrapping are delineated with the greatest care.

Much about the clothing is identical to that worn by the sculptures at gateways of the Great Stupa at Sanchi , and there is the same interest in detail, yet the style is in feeling and temper subtly different. In Sanchi, the images are animated with a wonderful joie de vivre. Here there is a sadness in the programme of painting, which is concerned with justice, peace and non-violence: one image tells of a war breaking out over the Buddha's relics – something that went totally against the grain of everything he taught. 

A mural in cave 10 of the Ajanta caves.
Two kings from oldest surviving painting of the Life of the Buddha. Photograph: Prasad Pawar

There is also something very different in the style of these faces. Their physiognomy and the world in which they are depicted may be utterly Indian, yet the artist's long, bold brushstrokes, the use of perspective and three-quarter profiles, the play of light across the large brown eyes and cheekbones, and the technical aspects of the work with its choice of pigments and use of lime mortar all show a hint of Hellenistic influence.

This is hardly a surprise: after all, at this period Indo-Greek kings controlled as far south as the Punjab and were deeply integrated into the Indian world. This intimacy, classicism and striking realism, combined with the haunting wistfulness of the features of these faces, is not a million miles away from the distant, melancholy world of the later first century AD encaustic wax mummy portraits from the Fayum region of Greco-Egyptian Egypt, which were also the products of the Hellenisation of the east. In both, we are in a world so lifelike that even today, even in reproduction, they can still make you gasp as you find yourself staring eyeball to eyeball with a silently watching soldier who could have fought the Bactrian Greeks, or a monk who may have seen the sculptures at Sanchi being carved.

So realistic are the faces of the people depicted that you feel these have to be portraits of real individuals. There is none of the idealisation or otherworldliness you see in the later images of the bodhisattvas. Instead there is something deeply hypnotic about the soundless stare of these silent, often uncertain, Satavahana faces. Their fleeting expressions are frozen, startled, as if suddenly surprised by the king's decision to loose his arrow or by the nobility of the great elephant breaking through the trees. The viewer peers at these figures trying to catch some hint of the upheavals they witnessed and the strange sights they saw in ancient India. But the smooth, clean humane Indo-Hellenistic faces stare us down.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the people in these murals is that they appear so familiar. Two thousand years after they were painted these faces convey with penetrating immediacy the character of the different sitters: the alert guard, the king caught in the excitement of the hunt, the obedient son fetching water. Indeed, so contemporary are the features that you have to keep reminding yourself that these sitters are not from our world, they are depictions of a court that vanished from these now bare hills more than two millennia ago. 

Yet these are self-evidently the same people who inhabit western India today: looking at these images you cannot help but feel the great distance of time separating them from us; and yet we find in their eyes an emotional immediacy that is at once comprehensible. While the glass coverings were being removed to allow the photography for this piece, the guards joked among themselves about which painted figure looked most like which guard. The women on the cave walls wear the same bangles that the Banjara tribes of these hills still stack along their forearms, and their dupattas are decorated with fringes of taarkaam or Paithani still popular in Maharastra today, as are the fish-scale kham textiles that clothe the hunters in the Shyam Jataka. It is eerie to stare into the eyes of men and women who died more than 2,000 years ago; but odder still to feel that their faces are somehow reassuringly recognisable.

Friday, August 08, 2014

‘Mughal Painting’: Tiny works tell a story of vast wealth

A review of “Mughal Painting: Power and Piety,” exquisite miniature paintings from the wealthy dynasty that ruled India for hundreds of years. At Seattle Asian Art Museum through Dec. 7.

By Nancy Worssam
Special to The Seattle Times

One of the major figures depicted in “Mughal Painting” is Akbar, shown on horseback in this 17th-century painting. He <br/>was
One of the major figures depicted in “Mughal Painting” is Akbar, shown on horseback in this 17th-century painting. 

Emeralds and empires, rubies and royalty, pearls and power. In the early 16th century, Muslim invaders from the West swept into Hindu India and established a dynasty that lasted into the mid-19th century. These Mughal emperors became immensely wealthy, enabling them to commission astounding artworks and jeweled adornments.

The small but dazzling collection now exhibited at Seattle Asian Art Museum, “Mughal Painting: Power and Piety,” offers a peek at the lifestyle and history of the Mughal Empire and an insight into the extent of its wealth.

The paintings are miniatures, an art style that fuses Indian and Persian art traditions. They were created by hundreds of the finest artists of their time working in ateliers set up by the Mughals to produce art that honored the royal line and depicted its epics, triumphs and daily life.

Not only are the paintings artistic jewels, but jewels were incorporated within the materials from which they were made. Gold paint is prevalent, and the blues are made from lapis lazuli.

Though shown in this exhibit as framed paintings, at the time they were created they were preserved in albums or within manuscripts to illustrate texts. Of course, the Mughal and his court reserved these for their own use. Sadly, over time most of them have been lost, a fact that makes this exhibit especially important.

Complementing the paintings are a number of extravagant cultural items such as daggers, a mirror, a pen case and walking-stick heads. They are made of the finest jade and crystal, each adorned with gems and gold. They remind one of the collections at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

Look carefully at the displayed paintings and you will see similar items. Fortunately, the museum has provided magnifying glasses in the gallery so visitors have an opportunity to compare and marvel at the detail.

One of the major figures depicted here is Akbar, the third in the Mughal line, reigning at the same time as Elizabeth I of England. Akbar was amazing in many ways. A man of great intellect, he couldn’t read. Scholars today suggest he was dyslexic, but that never crushed his quest for knowledge. He commanded his artists to create these classic and historically important images. Written explanations were mounted on the rear of the pictures and read to him.

Akbar demanded realism as his artists depicted religious narratives and conquests and illustrated the milestones of his life. One of the miniatures depicts Akbar’s son Jahangir saluting his father.

Akbar respected the Hindu maharajahs he conquered, allowing them to rule their lands as long as they loyally tithed and provided armies for him when they were needed. He also saw the value of marrying one of their daughters and allowing her to retain her own religion.

In a world of religious intolerance, he respected others; among the miniatures on display is one of the Virgin Mary, while another depicts the Hindu god Krishna in a battle scene.

Because works on paper cannot be exposed to light indefinitely, another exhibition of SAAM’s Mughal art will replace this one in December. I look forward to it.

Nancy Worssam: ngworssam@gmail.com