In a two-day intensive course, Benoy K. Behl discussed at length why we remain obsessed with medieval India and ignore the ancient India and its marvels.
History is replete with biases, often siding with the victors. But, if it is the history of ancient Indian art, it took much more to get into the books than a mere victory. While Taj Mahal, Humayun’s tomb, and Red Fort — all from medieval times — are well known and appreciated by the people today, ancient structures like Sittanavasal Cave, Gol Gumbaz, Talagirishvara temple remain obscure to so many of us. So, why is it that the medieval history is much celebrated whereas the ancient period remains rather unsung? “Well, it is because of the British (colonial rulers),” says art historian Benoy K Behl, who recently conducted a two-day intensive course on ancient Indian art at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in New Delhi.
The course highlighting the tradition of painting and sculpture in ancient India drew attention to several photographs and films on Indian art. Starting with the Ajanta paintings, Behl stressed on the constant inward look and the sense of humility that the artists possessed. For it was a time when artists didn’t write their names on the paintings. Further expressing his strong disappointment with the colonial rulers, the historian said, “Somehow we have not been able to break away from the points of view established by the British rulers. They focused on the Mughals and the culture of North India not giving much attention to the art and history of southern India. And, that is how it is today.” So, in an effort to undo the injustices of history, Behl highlighted the paintings of Mattancherry Palace in Kochi, the 10th Century paintings at Brihadisvara temple, and the Shiva rock-cut reliefs from Tripura.
“It is in the ancient times that the art and culture were graceful. There was beauty and gentleness in the works. Peninsular India, in those days, was truly cosmopolitan as there were many Greeks and Romans visiting,” explained Behl.
Moving on with the romantics of the ancient period he swiftly touched upon spirituality, theology, ethics and philosophy, all of which he related to the art of that period. Addressing a mixed group of some retired bureaucrats and government officials, executives from the travel industry, and research scholars, he pointed out the importance of “Chitra Sutra”, a treatise which not only categorised the paintings but also laid out instructions to the artists.
But isn’t the South Indian art all about Hindu temples as is the general perception? “No, in fact the term ‘Hindu’ also came from North-West of India. It is only as late as the 19th Century, that is, under colonial rule, that it gained much weight. So, what we generally don’t learn is that almost all Buddhist sites were made under Hindu rulers. In fact, there is a Buddhist heritage in Andhra Pradesh. Also, not many know that Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur is the largest dome in the entire Islamic world, or for that matter Kodungallur mosque in Kerala is one of the oldest mosques of the world. The only earlier one is at Medina. So, there was unity and oneness. There were no religious divisions around that time.”
Mesmerised by the glories of Indic art traditions and its marvels? Then this summer, explore the ancient in modern times. Visit Thanjavur, Mamallapuram, Bharhut, and Sanchi, splendid creations by unknown artists lost in history. For, if history hasn’t been kind to them, you can be.