Benoy K.Behl showed how the purpose of ancient Indian art was to carry its viewers beyond the optical reality to find truth

When Benoy K.Behl first visited the Ajantha caves 22 years ago with a team of art experts from around the world, they unanimously agreed that these paintings were perhaps the finest art of humankind. “And not just for their period, but of all the art of human kind,” he began, in a recent lecture on “The Murals of India” at the National Gallery of Modern Art.

“As far as the technical qualities were concerned, they found the paintings to surpass the achievements of the Renaissance. Yet far more than technical virtuosity, it is the vision of life which these paintings contained, which sees the same in you and me, in all the plants and trees, animals and birds around us. This automatically lends a sense of compassion to the people who have this vision.

At the same time, he drew attention to the fact that in the Indian philosophic tradition, in the Upanishads, there are not Gods, there are deities. These deities, Behl said were personifications of the qualities inside us.

“We look upon these deities brought before us in art. We mediate upon them, we respond to their grace which is supposed to awaken the same grace within us. As these qualities grow within us, they would fill us and at that point we have become the deity.”

Behl then pointed out to different photographs of paintings in the Ajantha caves from the 2nd century B.C and the 5th century A.D, showcasing various bodhisattvas.

The tranquillity of spirit is shown through elements such as elaborate crowns, signifying the glory of the spirit.

More significantly, he pointed out, the artist, using the edicts of the Chitra sutra, the ancient treatise that offers guidelines to artists on all aspects of painting, implores viewers to look within for the peace that they seek.

“For me what happened in these paintings was more important than the technical task. It is this quality of compassion which pervades this whole world of the paintings which affected me very deeply. It is, in fact, just what this art is supposed to do, which is to carry us far beyond the optical reality of the world to find that which is the essence of truth which underlies all that there is.”

Behl then showcased some of the early Hindu paintings from across the country, stretching from the Badami caves in the 6th century to the Kancheepuram Kailasanath temple in the 7th century. “There was nothing called Hindu or Jain or Buddhist art at that time. It was made by the same people and those of us who study ancient Indian history know it made in the reign of the same kings, who are in fact, worshipping Hindu deities.”

While the focus on ancient paintings, he said, was on a gentleness that melted your ego away, the medieval tradition evolved a new idiom with more abstraction, more dynamic movement and a slight protrusion of the eye. The beginnings of this new idiom can be seen in the paintings of the Jain tradition in 8th century Ellora.

“You will begin to see a new kind of grandeur, which will start coming into the art from this period. The period of the Pallavas is the period where for the first time in ancient India we see temples, which are being directly patronised and made by kings. One of the most wonderful things about the ancient tradition was that it was patronised the common people.”

The first known portrait of a king is found in the Brihadeeshwara temple built by Rajarajacholan, where the king is shown standing with his Guru Karuvurar.

“You will see in the painting that he’s seen standing behind the guru. The king is breaking away from early tradition where personalities were not meant to be depicted, it was the eternal themes, the distilled knowledge of the society which was important to be shared,” he explained.

“Now the kings have gradually started having their own portraits but it is behind the guru even as late as Konark, the king is shown worshipping or in some other way giving importance to he guru. But this then gradually changes, we reach a stage when kings are shown going around quite pompously.”

Behl also spoke at length about Buddhist art in the Ladakh region and how Indian murals influenced art and culture in the Asian subcontinent.