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Ajanta: An artist's perspective

For SHAKTI MAIRA, the reason why the Ajanta paintings are so great is that they have not got bogged down in the formalism of any text or manual of art making.

A dancing girl swaying to the rythms of courtely performers, cave 1 at Ajanta, c.600 A.D.

RECENTLY, there was an exhibition of stunning photographs of the Ajanta murals at Delhi's National Museum. The jewel-like paintings glowed in the darkened gallery. Taken in natural light with long exposures, the photographs revealed something that one does not see in the caves: true colours, minute details of artists' drawings, and the quiet moodiness of these early Buddhist paintings. What one saw felt like the seeing that occurs in that extraordinarily sensitive state when one slowly opens one's eyes after a long sitting in meditation, at the permeability between the end of space and the beginning of form, and between darkness and light.

Ajanta's paintings are seminal to Indian and Asian art. Their influence travelled to other parts of Asia with Buddhism, and can be felt in the paintings of China and Japan to this day. Their influence in contemporary Indian art came through the Bengal School, when Lady Herringham and her assistants, which included three students of Abanindranath Tagore: Nandlal Bose, Asit Haldar and Samarendra Gupta, spent three years (1909 to 1911), copying the paintings so that they could reach a wider world audience.

Needless to say, these paintings have received much attention from art historians. The same week that I saw the exhibition, I found myself at a talk given by an eminent art historian where there was the usual placement of Ajanta's paintings in the context of classical Indian texts on aesthetics and art making: the Natyasastra and the Vishnudharmottara. Art historians mostly tend to glorify this work and describe it as an example of an art tradition that was highly developed and formalised.

As an artist, that was not what I gleaned from the Ajanta paintings. I did not see the figures as having been rendered in a particularly formal way. Their proportions were usually off — head and upper torsos too long for the rest of the body, arms out of proportion with lower limbs, there was hardly any evidence that the strict rules of drawing in the Vishnudharmottara had been followed! What I saw was a powerful freedom and looseness in drawing, what we artists hope to achieve after we have learned all the rules of drawing. These illustrative images were free from formalism, and that is the strength of the expressed emotions and lavanya in this work.

For me, the reason why the Ajanta paintings are so great is that they did not get bogged down in the formalism of any text or manual of art making.

Two other things struck me about the work — drawing in perspective and colour theory.

These were absent in Indian art, I had been told by western art historians, till India's contact with western art, as these were progressive developments that occurred in the European Renaissance. In the Ajanta paintings, I found a clear use of foreshortening and the vanishing point, and an understanding of the use of warm (reds, yellows, browns) and cool (blues, greens) colours to establish colour vibrancy and harmony.

Apsara, divine figure playing the cymbals, cave 17 at Ajanta, c.600 A.D.

Art historians are forever trying to decipher and present art to us. They place themselves as experts, the pundits, and tell us what to see.

While this is useful to a point, it also is a barrier, something an artist understands better than the art historian. When we artists create, we work at two levels: the cognised level, where we make images of things or ideas using symbols of some sort, and the other level is where we work at the edge between cognition and feeling and cognition and awareness. Working at this second level is a search for us, and what we hope to share is not information but experience. By decoding and narrating art, art historians make the art experience one of receiving information and disable viewers from the direct experience of that ineffable edge that is beyond analysis and intellect.

As an artist, I would urge you to see the Ajanta paintings, and all art, both as an act of knowing, getting the information provided in the art, and as a direct experience of the mysteries beyond cognitive intellect. Don't just try and understand the work, try also to experience it directly. That is where the real rasais.

The punditry of art historians usually exists in an unstated hierarchy of them at the top, followed by the artists, then the craftsmen, with the viewer definitely below the art historian.

It is interesting to understand how this happened. It has to do with the advent of Freudian psychology and its separation of the id from ego, of the conscious and subconscious. In the western art world, there developed an art theory that saw art as being connected with the artist's subconscious. So the artists could obviously not understand their art as it came from a part of them that they were not conscious of. The art historian or critic was therefore needed to decode or decipher the art, and many even claimed that it was they who really made it, and not the artist. This was the position of the "viewer-response" theory that was popular for some time in New York in the last century. Post-modern "deconstruction" took the viewer-response theory of art to another level requiring the intermediation of the art historian/critic in stating that all images belonged to a cultural context and the decoding of that context was what revealed the meaning and value of art.

Another present day hierarchy in art places conceptual art at the apex, followed by paintings, then sculpture, and at the bottom the crafts. Part of the logic of these hierarchies is the placement of abstract mental functioning and imaging at a higher level than the less abstract. Thus painting, as a more abstract two-dimensional form, can communicate and articulate space, distance, time and more complex ideas than sculpture which is more bound by the inconvenient realities of the three dimensionality of real life.

While there is some logic to this idea, it completely fails to recognise the actual artistic process, which is much more integrated. It also does not understand that reducing dimensions makes it easier, not harder, to make images. Only someone who makes both sculpture and paintings, as I do, knows that making sculpture can be infinitely harder than making a painting. Abstract or today's "virtual" realities are easier to create than to create integrated realities that combine the physical and the abstract.

Think of it this way — isn't it easier for you to dream up thoughts and ideas than it is to put them into action?

I bring this up because what saddens me is the lack of recognition of handwork. The greatest handwork, that was not mentioned in the Ajanta exhibition, nor by the art historian, was the amazing work of the stone masons, who with simple hammer and chisels created these incredible cave chaityas, viharas and temples of which the paintings were but the surface decoration. It's time we flattened out these hierarchies in art. And in life too.

Shakti Maira is a noted artist who can be reached at

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