The Art of India—a coffee-table book from Frontline

Published : Aug 02, 2017 12:30 IST

CHITRASUTRA, the ancient Indian treatise on painting, began in the oral tradition before it was recorded on paper sometime in the fifth century C.E. The renowned art historian Benoy K Behl set out to study this treatise in the process of documenting Indian art, beginning in 1991 with the exquisite paintings of Ajanta. He soon realised that Indian art had taken over his life. “I was deeply moved by the world which was presented in the paintings of Ajanta…. The thousands of figures, painted on the walls of the caves, each radiated a warmth and concern for others. It was a love for all beings which pervaded this body of art,” he says. His travels took him across the length and breadth of the country and Asia—ranging from the eighth century Sun temple at Martand in Kashmir, which in its time may have been one of the grandest structural temples standing in India; the trans-Himalayan Buddhist monasteries; the breathtaking architecture of the Ramanathaswami Temple in Rameswaram; the rock-cut Jaina reliefs at Kazhugumalai; the glory of the Konark Temple in the east; the Jaina temples in Rajasthan; to the Sun Temple at Modhera in Gujarat, one of the most profusely carved in the subcontinent.

Says Benoy Behl: “Much of the travel… was made possible by two assignments given to me by the Doordarshan National television channel. The first, in 2000, was to make a series of 26 documentaries on the history of painting in India, and the second, in 2006, was to make another 26 documentaries tracing the history of Indian sculpture. Both assignments took me on extensive journeys to all corners of India and to museums which had collections of Indian art in Europe and in the U.S.”

In this journey of discovery, he found, among other things, the “artistic traditions of different parts of the subcontinent to be deeply connected”. These connections find unique expression in “The Art of India: Sculpture and Mural Painting in the Ancient and Medieval Periods”, a special publication in two volumes of more than 500 pages from The Hindu Group. The book is based on two series of articles published over the years in Frontline magazine and on courses in art history that Benoy Behl was invited to give at Delhi University and at the College of Art, Delhi.

Says N. Ram, Chairman, Kasturi & Sons Ltd, in his foreword to the book: “This book is the culmination of a long, productive, and felicitous collaboration between Frontline and Benoy K Behl, who has been writing for our magazine extensively, in the long form, over the past decade-and-a-half.”

Frontline’s association with Benoy Behl began in 1991. On art, culture, and civilisation, he has contributed the following articles richly supplemented with photographs: Rediscovering Indian Paintings, Indian Art (25 parts), Buddhist Art (five parts), Buddhist Art in South-East Asia, Buddhist Art (six parts), Yoga, Temple Architectures, Hindu Deities in Japan, and Ramayana in South and South-East Asia (two parts). “Behl,” says Ram, “combines the most extensive legwork I know from anyone in the subcontinent with rigorous scholarship and a gift for deeply moving popular exposition of the spirit of Indian art and the philosophy which it enshrines.”

In more than 450 photographs that bring out the minutiae of Indian art as few have done, the two volumes are both a visual treat and a rare and compelling journey into the history of India through art. Among the photographs are artefacts and seals of the Indus Valley, whose art has not yielded a single depiction of warfare and is characterised by its smallness of scale; the female chauri, or whisk, bearer of the Mauryan period (322 BCE-185 BCE) at Didarganj in present-day Patna; a depiction of Shalabanjika, who represents fertility and abundance, in the East Gateway of Stupa I at Sanchi (first century C.E.); the rock-cut caves of early western India and the majestic later caves of western India in Ajanta and Ellora; the emergence of deities; the temples of the Chalukyas, the Pallavas, the Cholas, the Hoysalas; and so on.

The two-volume set, priced at Rs.5,000, will be released in August.

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