The inaccessible Chola murals at the Big Temple in Thanjavur have been captured in almost life-size photographs and displayed at the temple.
IN a remarkable feat performed in the face of overwhelming odds, two officers of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and a young photographer have photographed in minute detail four huge frescoes found in the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. What makes their work all the more creditable is the difficult location of the murals, their enormous size and their reflecting surface, all of which posed big challenges.
The murals, each 15 feet tall and 10 feet wide (4.5 metres x 3 metres), are about 1,000 years old. They are located in the narrow and dark passage around the temple's sanctum sanctorum. The great Chola king Raja Raja I built the Brihadisvara temple between AD 1000 and AD 1008 and the paintings were done between AD 1008 and AD 1012.
If most visitors had hitherto no access to these paintings because of their location, they can now relish the paintings' exact photographic reproductions, which are on display at the newly opened Interpretation Centre on the temple premises. The photographs measure nine feet by six feet.
The credit for photographing the murals in exact detail, capturing their texture and colour, goes to the team comprising Dr. T. Satyamurthy, who was Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, when the project was executed; P.S. Sriraman, Assistant Superintending Archaeologist; and N. Thyagarajan, artist and photographer.
The four paintings depict Siva as Dakshinamurthy, the story of Tamil Saivite saint Sundarar, Siva as Tripurantaka, and Raja Raja Chola and his family worshipping Nataraja (Siva) at the Chidambaram temple. The paintings, rich in detail, offer a lot of historical information. While all the frescoes in the Brihadisvara temple together occupy 660 square metres, these four paintings alone take up 110 sq m.
Photographing the murals was extremely difficult because they are painted on both walls of the dark, dingy and narrow passage, which has no ventilation. The space between the two walls is less than seven feet, so there is not much space for the photographer to step back and capture images. Since the paintings are 15 feet tall, one must crane one's neck to look at the top portions. Most visitors are not allowed to see these paintings because of the narrowness of the passage and the poor light and ventilation.
Satyamurthy said: "The ASI, Chennai Circle, therefore, undertook a project to photograph the murals, prepare photographic reproductions and display them in almost their true size and original colours. This effort required special techniques because of paucity of space, poor lighting and the enormous size of the murals. They had to be photographed in many small frames and then joined to make one frame. This effort needed high skill."
Sriraman said: "What is seen in the paintings is seen in the frames. We have assembled the photographs without loss of perspective. Anybody can see the paintings in their original dimensions in our photographs." He explained why the ASI decided to go public with the paintings: "Documentation is important because people of the next generation should know that these paintings existed. Recopying is important. In photography, you get accurate reproduction."
What prompted Satyamurthy and Sriraman to get the murals photographed was that while a number of books had been written about the Ajanta and Ellora paintings and research done on them, there was virtually no publication on the Chola paintings in the Brihadisvara temple.
It was in 1931 that these four, and other, murals in the temple were discovered by S.K. Govindaswami of Tamil Nadu. He wrote to The Hindu about it. The relevant news item in The Hindu of April 11, 1931, reads:"Thousand years old Chola frescoesReported discovery in Tanjore Big Temple
Mr. S.K. Govindaswami, M.A., Annamalai University, writes to us under date 10th instant: -
Close upon the discovery of the Pallava paintings in the Kailasanathaswami Temple at Conjeevaram by the French savant, the indefatigable Prof. Jouveau Dubreuil, it has been my great good fortune to bring to light the hitherto unknown frescoes of the Imperial Chola period, in the Brihadeswaraswami Temple, popularly known as `The Big Temple of Tanjore'."
When Govindaswami visited the temple in 1930, he found "in the dim religious light of a small oil lamp... the existence of some kind of paintings on the walls on either side of a dark, narrow circumambulatory passage around the sanctum sanctorum".
When he returned to the temple in 1931 and examined the place thoroughly with the help of a "Baby Petromax", he found that the bright light indeed revealed paintings. "But paintings of an undoubtedly very late and degenerate age, whose linear contortions and chromatic extravagances shattered in a moment all my wonderful dreams of discovering there the best and the only example of the art of Chola mural paintings. Still I chose a part of the western wall for close inspection and found the painted plastering there cracked all over and threatening to fall down. A gentle touch and the whole mass crumbled down, exposing underneath a fine series of frescoes palpitating with the life of the other days."
Govindaswami went on to describe the paintings in his letter to The Hindu, adding: "The discovery of these paintings is of great importance to the history of South Indian art. Hitherto, the Pallavas held exclusively the palm for mural paintings in the Tamil country. The Cholas may now be believed to divide the honours equally with the Pallavas not only in the South Indian architecture and sculpture but also in South Indian painting. For I have little doubt, judging from the excellence of the drawings, the colour scheme and the fresco-technique, that these paintings belong to the best period of Chola rule, to the glorious reign of Raja Raja the Great, and contemporary with the building of the Great Temple at Tanjore."
The paintings with "linear contortions and chromatic extravagances" of the "very late and degenerate age", which covered the Chola murals before Govindaswami discovered the latter, were those of the Nayakas and were done in the 16th and 17th centuries.
In terms of the area they occupy, the Chola paintings in the Brihadisvara temple rank next only to the Buddhist paintings at Ajanta in Maharashtra. While the murals at Ajanta come under the tempera variety, those at the Big Temple are called frescoes. The artists at Ajanta applied a coat of plaster on the wall of the caves and did the paintings after the plaster dried up. The paintings survive to this day because the painting material holds together the pigment in it and the plaster.
But the Chola-age artists used a more difficult technique at the Brihadisvara temple. They applied lime plaster on the wall and painted the murals on the plaster while it was still wet. This demanded that they should do the sketches and complete the painting before the lime plaster dried up. This is not easy given the humidity conditions in Tamil Nadu. In this technique, the paintings formed part and parcel of the thin lime plaster. Sriraman said, "Here both the plaster and the painting integrate together. The frescoes are, therefore, more durable but their execution is very difficult."
In the 1960s, Subbaraman, the Superintending Chemist of the ASI, discovered a technique by which he stripped the Nayaka paintings that covered the Chola paintings in such a way that the Nayaka paintings, too, could be saved. Subbaraman removed the Nayaka paintings and pasted them on another mount.
When Satyamurthy and Sriraman contacted Thyagarajan about photographing the Chola frescoes, he accepted the assignment because of the challenges that the work presented. Thyagarajan, a 31-year-old post-graduate (Master of Fine Arts) from the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai, knew how difficult it was to make a mural because he was an artist himself. The technical difficulties he faced in reproducing the murals in the form of photographs involved their size, their location and their reflecting surfaces. "We solved the problems one by one," he said.
Thyagarajan used the technique of montage in photography to deal with the enormous size of the paintings. "The only solution to the problem presented by size lay in photo montaging," he said. He took 40 to 50 frames of each painting, using digital photography, and assembled them in a computer to reproduce the whole painting.
But when he did the montaging, he found that the colours used in the murals differed from area to area. Besides, while the top portions were shadowy, there was light at the lower portions. "I had to balance the photo exposure from top to bottom [of the panel]," he said. The offsets created by the protruding pillars on the wall created difficulties because the murals continued on these offsets. Each panel had two offsets. It was not easy to photograph the continuation of the murals on these offsets.
The murals were photographed frame by frame. But there were difficulties in joining the frames on computer using digital technology because the frames ended with a fine line. He mechanically divided the mural into frames without sacrificing the artistic elegance of the paintings or their aesthetic value. For instance, if the arm of a person in a mural was across two frames, they were joined on computer in such a manner that the difference was not apparent.
"If we want to reproduce the aesthetic value of the paintings in the photographs, the montage should be 110 per cent exact. Only an artist who is technically qualified can do that," said Thyagarajan.
According to Satyamurthy, several pieces of interesting information came to light when the murals were studied. For instance, in the mural that depicts Siva as Tripurantaka, there is a portrayal of three men worshipping the Buddha. The three men were originally demons (Asuras) who had harassed the Devas. Siva could not destroy these three Asuras because they happened to be his devotees. So the Devas requested Vishnu to convert them to Buddhism. "This is a story of the native Tamil country. This story is found in Tamil Saivite literature. It is not found anywhere else in India. The story is carved not only in stone in the Brihadisvara temple but portrayed in the painting," Satyamurthy said.
He is glad that art historians who could not enjoy the Chola paintings in the dark corridor can now study their photographic reproductions in the Interpretation Centre. There are write-ups. Also on exhibition at the centre are the detached Nayaka paintings.
THE location was a nightmare. There was not enough light and space, and use of harsh lights was taboo. How to take photographs of the top portions of the murals?
The ASI men rigged up a platform that moved up and down like a lift. "The platform from which the photographs were taken had to move parallel to the panel. The lighting from the top to the bottom had to be uniform," said P.S. Sriraman, Assistant Superintending Archaeologist, ASI. There was a space of only six feet between the paintings and the camera.