THE LEGACY OF AJANTA

Print edition : October 22, 2004

The sophisticated style of art that is seen in the paintings of Ajanta is also found in surviving wall paintings and in fragments of murals in many parts of south India.

THE early murals of India have been seen only by a few scholars. The tradition of painting in India has generally been known and studied from the medieval period onwards, with palm-leaf manuscripts and later miniatures. Ajanta has been considered a flash in the pan, as it was believed that India did not have a continuous tradition of painting from ancient times. Forty years ago, the late Dr. C. Sivaramamurti, a great art historian, wrote about most of the early sites of murals in South India and published a few line drawings and photographs of these. However, as these great paintings were not clearly or comprehensively photographed and published, they have largely been forgotten.

When photographs of early Indian murals are shown to art experts around the world, invariably their response is that these are amongst the greatest treasures of world art. These paintings are seen to have qualities of expression, and even technical virtuosity, far beyond what is expected anywhere in the world at their early date.

The murals of India have a special place among the art of the world, as these constantly take us to the essence of life and the grace that underlies the whole of creation. The paintings never attempt to depict photographic, optical reality. Their purpose is always to present that which is within; the spirit which flows through and connects all that there is in the world; that which is in every leaf, every blade of grass, every flower, every bird, every human being: the grace which may be called divine.

Have we ever thought about what makes a particular flowing line beautiful and not another? What is it that evokes our aesthetic response in a particular representation and not in another? What is it that makes us rise out of ourselves in a joyous response? It is this very essence of life that is the focus of the work of the ancient Indian artist. It is a view in which the whole of existence is seen as one. That which captures a glimpse of the `Truth' is what is considered aesthetic. It is this sublime purpose that makes the early murals of India important in the art of the world.

Siva, Kailasanatha temple, Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu, seventh century. The glorious paintings of the temple present the beginning of the regal grandeur in Indian paintings.-

The sophisticated style of art that is seen in the paintings of Ajanta is also found in surviving wall paintings and in fragments of murals in many parts of India. In fact, the wide spread of these great traditions of art is one of the marvels of the ancient period in India. It is a country-wide manner of painting, which carries on over many centuries and provides the foundation for the manuscript paintings and miniatures that come to us from medieval times.

Since early times, the art and technique of painting were carefully studied and put down in the Chitrasutra of the Vishnudharmottara Purana. This was an oral tradition, which was recorded on paper around the fifth century A.D. It is the oldest known treatise on painting in the world. As always, according to the ancient Indian tradition in which knowledge is considered sacred, this text is meant to be approached with reverence.

According to the Chitrasutra, paintings are the greatest treasure of mankind as they have a beneficial influence on the viewer. The text contains rules and suggestions on how to depict different themes effectively, the proportion of human figures, the use of colours to help in the communication of ideas, the fine details of movements and stances of the human body in different situations and in different moods, and so many other ideas and details to instruct the painter. These were carefully formulated, to be passed on from father to son over the centuries and through guilds of painters. The purpose of this documentation was to preserve the legacy of the collective understanding of the finest minds.

Lady and other figures, Badami, Karnataka, sixth century. The murals of Badami are the oldest surviving Hindu paintings. They reflect the compassionate feelings and deep, inward look, which is seen in their contemporaneous Buddhist art.-

Many remnants of ancient paintings, belonging to practically every century of the last 1,500 years and more, are found in all corners of the Indian subcontinent. These reveal a great and unified tradition of painting in ancient India.

Fragments of the art of the time of Ajanta survive in the caves of Pitalkhora, not very far from Ellora in Maharashtra. In these we see the fine fusion of the heart and the mind and the unbroken tradition of noble themes painted by hands of individual inspiration.

Very little survives of the mural paintings in the caves of Badami in Karnataka. However, what remains evokes the magic of a world of painted splendour, with all the walls and ceilings covered with murals. The paintings of Badami are among the earliest surviving in Hindu temples, just as the paintings at Ajanta and Sittannavasal are the earliest Buddhist and Jain murals.

King Rajaraja Chola and guru Karuvurar, Brihadeesvara temple, Tamil Nadu, 11th century. This is the earliest royal portrait in Indian painting. In keeping with ancient traditions, the guru is given importance and the king is shown standing behind him.-

IN the meantime, in the seventh century, the Pallava kings of Tamil Nadu gave exuberant and glorious expression to themes of Siva in the temple of Panamalai and Kailasanatha in Kancheepuram. The walls of the pradakshinapatha (the outer ambulatory path) of the Kailasanatha temple were once covered with paintings of brilliant colours. Their traces are still discernible and provide us a view of the excellent art of that period.

The Pallavas were fond of the theme of Siva's family. Siva is regal and yet a fond family man with a beautiful wife and child. Here we see the high quality of painting of the classical Indian style, with a beautiful rendering of form and volume.

At Kailasanatha, we see the tenderness and grace that come from the tradition of Ajanta as well as an expression of the glory of great kings. The theme of the family of Siva is also, at another plane, a representation of the royal family. There is an impressive quality in the crowns and in the painted figures, which are not seen in the earlier gentle beings of Ajanta. The idiom, which begins to develop here, is seen to blossom later into a grand imperial style of painting under the Cholas.

In the ninth century Jain caves of Sittannavasal in Tamil Nadu, we see some of the last paintings that continue the humble and gentle humanity of the Ajanta painters. The name Sittannavasal itself literally means the abode of the Siddhas, or Jain saints who have won their liberation.

Rama and Sita,Mattancheri Palace, Kochi, Kerala, 17th century. The paintings of the palace provide a panoramic view of the stories of the Ramayana. Here we see Rama and Sita, on their return to Ayodhya. The paintings of Kerala reflect an affinity to the dance dramas of the land in their head dresses and ornamentation.-

The cave has a marvellous lotus pond painted on the ceiling. It is a scene of the faithful gathering lotuses to place on the resting place of a tirthankara, a Jain saint. Elephants, buffaloes, geese and fish frolic in the waters overflowing with beautiful lotuses. The special qualities of the Indian artist are seen at their best in the paintings of animals, birds and plants: in the Indian vision, these share equally with human beings the essence of life and spirit.

The painter has used the occasion to present us a joyous world. He brings to us a sense of sublime happiness - a fish swims in the waters, an elephant appears to smile, and men gather lotuses that are larger than themselves. It is a gracious world. The lotuses are large and shaped with tender care, reflecting the beauty and grace of the human figures. In fact, this may be one of the most beautiful depictions of flowers in the entire realm of art.

The lotus pond at Sittannavasal is one of the miracles of man's creation in art. One is reminded of an inscription at Ajanta, which proclaims: "The joy of giving filled him so much that it left no space for the feeling of pain." And indeed, at Sittannavasal, joy fills the painting from wall to wall.

Rama and Sita, Padmanabhapuram Palace, Kerala, 17th century. These murals continue the unique idiom of the paintings of Kerala with a strong sense of design and the depiction of volume through a subtle darkening of colour towards the edges. At Padmanabhapuram, the gods are presented as icons, and are not engaged in narrative action.-

The magnificent Kailasanatha temple had been hewn out of a mountain at Ellora in the eighth century. This monolithic temple is one of the grandest works of man. The conception itself is staggering: a whole mountain is carved from top to bottom into a marvellous temple structure. The walls and ceilings of this temple were once covered with murals. The remaining fragments of the murals show the beauty and quality of the art. The tradition of painting in the Deccan is seen to flow here from the caves of Ajanta.

There are paintings of the late ninth century in the Jain caves at Ellora. Even as the chisel chipped on the stone to create the most stupendous temples out of the mountain, the painters continued the older tradition but with contributions of their own. Besides the naturalism and grace inherited from Ajanta, the painted figures are stylised and elongated.

This stylisation, increasing linearity and the protrusion of the farther eye, which extends beyond the line of the face, are significant changes that take place in the paintings of Ellora. In later years, these are reflected in paintings over the whole of India. This style, often referred to as the Western Indian style of painting, perhaps because the beginnings are seen at Ellora, is soon manifested in paintings in regions as diverse as Ladakh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Myanmar.

Venugopala, Mattancheri Palace, 16th century. The mural paintings of Kerala are among the finest made in India. The exquisite shading to depict the fullness and roundedness of form reminds us of the great paintings of Ajanta.-

AT Thanjavur, the grand temple of Brihadeesvara stands tall, reaching for the skies. The powerful king Rajaraja Chola built this majestic temple in the 10th century, to reflect the glory and grandeur of Siva. The temple also stands testimony to the great wealth and power of the Chola empire during the time of Rajaraja Chola.

In the heart of the temple, protected by massive walls of stone, are perhaps the greatest paintings on the theme of Siva ever painted. The murals, made on a spectacular scale across the walls of the dark inner ambulatory corridor of the Brihadeesvara temple, express the devotion as well as the power and grandeur of Rajaraja Chola. There are two layers of paintings here: of the Nayak period of the 17th century on top, and below that, of the earlier Chola period. Most of the Chola paintings were rediscovered when the upper layer was removed to be preserved separately.

The paintings reveal to us the life and the culture of the Chola period. The military visions and ideals of the Cholas, and of Rajaraja in particular, are symbolically expressed in the great masterpiece of Siva Tripurantaka on the walls. A forceful Siva as a warrior, on a chariot driven by Brahma, overcomes the demons, who are clearly recognised from their fearful appearance.

Worshipper gathering lotuses, Sittannavasal, Tamil Nadu, ninth century. The figure is made with a lilting grace, like the stalks of the lotuses he gathers. The flowers are painted with a great sense of tenderness and beauty and are as large as the humans and animals in the painting.-

In the Brihadeesvara temple, we see one of the earliest royal portraits in Indian painting - King Rajaraja Chola with his guru Karuvurar. It is an idealised portrait, quite unlike the formal depictions of kings to come in later centuries. The great king is also made standing behind his guru, portraying a sense of humility. There is, in this depiction, an importance given to teaching, which was lost in later times.

The painter in ancient India seems to have had such a deep mastery over his technical skills that his work appears effortless. There is a natural quality and grace in his work, which communicates instantly what he wishes to depict. One sees a perfect understanding of anatomy. The outline is strong and very sure and there is an easy and natural depiction of volume. Most of all, there are the touches, the details, that bring the painting alive.

In the 14th century, one of the greatest empires of the Deccan was founded, the Vijaynagar empire. (Vijaynagar means the `City of Victory'.) It was a proud empire and it prospered through trade with other lands. For two centuries the empire of the `City of Victory' nourished art and culture and dominated centre stage in south India.

The capital city of Vijaynagar was founded in A.D. 1336, on the banks of the Tungbhadra river. Harihara and Bukka, along with their spiritual mentor Vidyaranya, chose a site sanctified as a holy place, for the capital of their new kingdom. During the reign of subsequent kings, by the mid-15th century, the kingdom stretched from northern Karnataka to Kerala and from the Malabar coast to Orissa.

From the 14th to the16th centuries, Vijaynagar was one of the most prosperous cities in the world. People from distant countries rubbed shoulders with one another in the market places. Portuguese merchants brought the best horses from Arabia, diamonds came from Golconda and textiles and spices flowed in from all corners of the world. It was one of the most thriving and cosmopolitan places in the medieval world.

Trade and commerce bring the people of different lands together in a spirit of cooperation. Naturally, this leads to mutual understanding and appreciation. The exchange of ideas in prosperous trading centres leads to the development of vibrant and rich cultures.

The ceiling of the great Virupaksha Temple at Hampi is covered with paintings of the 15th century. As in the paintings of the past, the themes are mainly religious. There is a deep intertwining of the story of the Vijaynagar empire and its kings, with the stories of the gods they believed in. Along with epic themes, we see the procession of the revered sage Vidyaranya.

Deeds of valour and skill were obviously held in high esteem in such a society. A combination of bold action and deep religious belief are seen as prime impulses in the building of Vijaynagar. There is simplicity and vigour in the style of the paintings. A sense of movement and energy is caught in the painted figures, which exhibit a linear style.

The temple at Lepakshi was made in the 16th century by the Nayak brothers, Virupanna and Viranna, at a centre of trade and pilgrimage in the Vijaynagar empire. The ceiling of the mandapa has some of the finest mural paintings of the medieval period in India.

Lepakshi presents the richness and colour of a great cosmopolitan society. The paintings on the ceiling are arranged in broad bands. They chiefly illustrate themes of Siva. There is also a painting showing Viranna and Virupanna, along with their retinue. The paintings are also a valuable visual record of lifestyles in one of the greatest and most cosmopolitan centres of the medieval world. The crowns and the textiles exhibit the fashion of those times. There is a sense of liveliness, which is enhanced by the depiction of the protruding eye. As in some paintings at Ellora, in profiles we see the farther eye extending beyond the line of the face. A sense of liveliness is also conveyed by the angular features and by the peaked corners of clothes. We see such conventions spanning the course of many centuries, across the entire Indian subcontinent.

Worshipper, Pitalkhora, Maharashtra, fifth century. The gentle expressions of the surviving murals at Pitalkhora continue the sublime traditions coming from the paintings of Ajanta. The numerous Buddhist caves of western India would once have all been covered with exquisite mural paintings, of which very little survives.-

IN the far south of India, Kerala continued the tradition of mural paintings in a vital and unbroken tradition right up to the 19th century. In Kochi, the Mattancheri Palace was built by the Portuguese in 1555 and presented to the local ruler. Legends associated with Rama and Krishna were painted in some rooms in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The earliest paintings of the 16th century are on the theme of Venugopal (Krishna as a divine cowherd). These panels are interspersed with slightly later Ramayana paintings. The Mattancheri murals are a unique visual pilgrimage from Dritarashtra's yagna after which Rama is born, until the return of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita to Ayodhya. In the small room, the entire epic is played out in a panoramic drama of magnificent proportions. The stories and incidents are presented according to the ancient Indian norm of continuous narration, where the principle characters are depicted many times as they move through time and space, within the same panel. The scenes flow beautifully, merging with one another in a non-linear manner.

All of life is presented in these glorious paintings. The rich colours reflect the lush natural beauty of Kerala, while the strong voluminous figures with their beautiful head dresses have a close relationship with the dance dramas of the land. The mural paintings of Kerala are among the finest made in India. The exquisite shading to depict the fullness and roundedness of form reminds us of the great paintings of Ajanta and Alchi.

Painted ceiling, Virupaksha temple, Hampi, 15th century. The paintings of Hampi reflect the dynamic spirit and the ideals of the Vijayanagar empire. The figures painted in a linear style are shown mainly in profile. They are arranged in panels, with themes ranging from stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata to those of sage Vidyaranya, the spiritual mentor of the founders of the Vijayanagar empire.-

At Padmanabhapuram, the exquisite wooden palace of the Travancore Kings also has murals in the unique Kerala idiom. Made later than those at Mattancheri, the paintings are mainly on themes of Vishnu. Unlike the Mattancheri paintings, the gods are presented in their iconic forms and not in narrative situations. The paintings again reveal the close relationship between the styles of art in diverse regions of India. The beautiful textiles as well as some of the forms recall the paintings of Alchi in Ladakh.

The temples of Kerala present a deeply sanctified environment where ancient traditions still continue. In the Vadakkunathan temple, around which the city of Thrissur is built, are some of the finest paintings continuing the ancient Indian tradition. There is a tangible and supple quality in the figures, which is directly in keeping with the finest of Indian painting. One is reminded of Ajanta and Sittannavasal.

The early murals of India were painted by guilds of painters. The themes were Buddhist, Jain and Hindu. However, the dharma or duty in life of the painters was to create their art: to continue the legacy of their ancestors and to present visions of life which looked beyond the veils of the material world, to the divinity which underlies the whole of creation.

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