Indian wing of global hard rock galleries

Indian Rock Art and its Global Context
December 4, 1998

India is extremely rich in rock art sites, though whether it contains one of the three largest concentrations in the world, as this book claims, is a matter for debate and of little consequence. The subject has been reasonably well covered in recent times, with Kalyan Chakravarty's edited volume Rock Art of India in 1984, Shyam Pandey's Indian Rock Art and Erwin Neumayer's Lines on Stone, both in 1993, and occasional volumes by Yashodhar Mathpal on the rock art of specific regions, as well as Purakala, the journal of the Rock Art Society of India, since 1990.

In 1994, the two authors co-chaired a rock art session at the World Archaeological Congress in Delhi, and also organised an exhibition on "Rock Art in India and the World". This book is described as a "record" of the exhibition (it is not a catalogue per se), and Bednarik reveals that "the bulk of the text in this volume was written over five consecutive days in late November 1994 atI BhopalI entirely from memory, without the benefit of any literature references". This certainly shows.

In places the writing is excellent and crystal clear, while in others it becomes indigestible, with ponderous declarations about Eurocentrism, "archaeological confirmationism" or the inadequacy of our model of objective reality.

The book falls into two halves: in the first, one is given an overview of Indian rock art that is illustrated with a mass of miscellaneous photographs of little direct relevance to the text. The second, a gallop through the rock art of some other parts of the world, has far better integration with its illustrations but no references whatsoever - its welcome mentions of many pioneers, past and present, in rock art studies are thus rendered somewhat pointless since readers are given no way of delving into their work.

Knowing the problems of publishing in the less affluent parts of the world, it seems churlish to criticise a book for lack of production quality, but it has to be said that this volume has many faults: the colour quality of many illustrations, in particular, leaves much to be desired, and few of the pictures feature any scale or any indication of size in their caption.

Nevertheless, the coverage of world rock art is quite good and fairly even in the main text, with only a few lapses such as a virtual absence of the wealth of sites in Baja California, or the inclusion of the Ice Age portable art of Siberia, while the infinitely richer portable material of the period from Western Europe is totally ignored.

The glossary, however, is very lopsided, since it goes into great detail about the rock art of India, Australia, Europe and America, but dismisses Africa and the rest of Asia in a tiny paragraph each, and omits Oceania completely. However, the glossary's sections on technology and conservation are sound and useful.

Perhaps the book's most valuable contribution, though, is its utter refusal to entertain fanciful interpretations of rock art, preferring to concentrate on testable and falsifiable aspects such as technology and chronology. Although the authors' resolution occasionally slips (with captions such as "Family at work on ritual in enclosure" or "Ritual gathering") this is a most welcome departure from the sloppy misuses and distortions of ethnography that have become endemic in some areas of the subject in recent years.

As the authors rightly state: "We do not claim the privilege of knowing the meanings of the art, and to state our own interpretations would be an infringement of the right of others to interpret to their hearts' desire - as well as a likely misinterpretation of the artists' true intents."

Paul G. Bahn is an archaeologist and writer, specialising in prehistoric art.

Indian Rock Art and its Global Context

Author - Kalyan Kumar Chakravarty and Robert G. Bednarik
ISBN - 81 208 1464 9
Publisher - Motilal Banarsidass
Price - Rs1,700
Pages - 228

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