In 1930, Laurence Binyon (the poet who wrote "They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old"), an expert on Asian art at the British Museum, wrote an introduction to a book of the much-celebrated cave paintings of Ajanta, located in a remote, hilly area of western India. "In the art of Asia what a supreme and central position Ajanta owns!" said Binyon. "Whoever studies the art of China and Japan, at whatever time he begins, starts on a long road which will lead him back to Ajanta."
The reason is that the Ajanta murals (they are not frescoes, since they were not painted on wet lime plaster) are inspired by the life of the Buddha, which had of course a profound influence on far eastern art as well as on the early classical art of India such as the sculptures of Sanchi. They were painted in a series of caves excavated for the purpose in two phases, in the second century BC (some three centuries after the death of Buddha), and then again some six centuries later. The artists were members of guilds, who would also have painted themes from other faiths, working under the guidance of Buddhist monks and the patronage of enlightened Hindu rulers. Indeed there are numerous dedicatory inscriptions by the monks, one of which reads poetically: "A man continues to enjoy himself in paradise as long as his memory is green in the world. One should set up a memorial on the mountains that will endure for as long as the moon and sun continue."
But although Buddha was the inspiration of the paintings - which mostly depict the events in the Jatakas, the stories of Buddha's life in his former births - they are not religious art in any conventional sense, intended purely as icons for the faithful. There is little that is abstract or alien about them for those who are not Buddhists or Hindus. Rather, they present a glowing panorama of the human and natural world of two millennia ago imbued with reverence for life in all its forms: human, animal and plant. "A visit to I Ajanta is one of the great human experiences," in the opening words of art historian Milo C. Beach's foreword to The Ajanta Caves.
There have been many attempts to reproduce the murals since their rediscovery by a British hunting party in 1819. Major Robert Gill spent nearly 20 years drawing them, only to have most of his work destroyed in the fire at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham in 1866. There has also been a continuous effort to preserve them, which has often resulted in damage. Photography has been severely handicapped by the darkness of the caves and the size and subtlety of the paintings, especially their luminous colours. For many years, the Archaeological Survey of India has permitted only the use of dim lighting of a kind that has given reproductions an orangeish cast, in which the blues and greens are largely lost and much of the depth in the art vanishes.
Benoy K. Behl, a documentary film-maker, was given permission to photograph the paintings in the early 1990s on condition that he worked only with available light. "Rather than invading the spaces and snatching artificially illuminated details, his camera slowly gathers natural light, recreating the experience of the human worshipper's eye," observes Beach. "You have really conquered the darkness," the director-general of the Archaeological Survey told Behl on first seeing his transparencies.
The result is that now the Ajanta paintings are reproduced truly for the first time in all their actual ravishing colours and incredible flowing, loving detail. The ornaments of the men and women and the individuality of their faces are exquisitely revealed for all to wonder at. As the film director Satyajit Ray once said of Ajanta: "love, separation, joy, sorrow, anger, shame, envy, and other refined states of mind are apparent simply from the detail in the body's postures. Film directors can learn a lot from these early pictures." And the well-structured text genuinely illuminates the images, particularly through the summaries of the Jataka stories by Sangitika Nigam. Altogether, The Ajanta Caves is one of the most gorgeous and stimulating books of Indian art ever produced.
Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES.
The Ajanta Caves: Ancient Paintings of Buddhist India
Author - Benoy K.Behl
ISBN - 0 500 23753 0
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £42.00
Pages - 256