An exciting discovery

William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple  


At a Tasveer foundation lecture, William Dalrymple talked about the first paintings of Indian faces discovered at the Ajanta caves

As author and historian William Dalrymple delivered a lecture on the murals of Ajanta to a packed house at the Tasveer foundation lecture in the NGMA, one is transported back in time, to the first century BC, when the earliest of these paintings were drawn.

In the course of his lecture, he said, “I saw these extraordinary but unfamiliar paintings in caves nine and ten on a trip to the caves in March. I could not recall having seen their photographs anywhere, in any books on Ajanta. Although badly damaged, I could make out that these paintings were in a different style and bought out a sense of realism into the pictures.”

After some research, William made the startling discovery that the paintings in caves 9 and 10 predated the more popular Ajanta paintings by almost six centuries. “The time lag between the first paintings and the later ones is the same as the time gap from the Lodhi buildings to the skyscrapers of modern day Gurgaon.”

He adds, “I realised that these were probably the first paintings of Indian faces. The misadventures of a group of Italian restorers in the early 20th century had meant that the paintings were lost to the world and covered in bat droppings. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) under the stewardship of Manager Singh, an ASI official was working towards restoring these paintings, though it had been very secretive about the project. Most of the restoration work has been conducted by Singh alone.”

He quips, “When the Vatican restored the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, they invited the world's media to come take a look; there were front-page photographs in all the leading newspapers. But the ASI kept quiet about finding the oldest representations of Indians anywhere.”

William believes that the paintings date back to the first century BC, a time of great political turmoil in India. “Despite extensive damage, these pictures give an account of life in that era and gives a glimpse into the dresses, headgear and the pastimes of the people who lived and died in central India almost 2000 years ago.”

He says, “The most marvellous thing is, you still see these faces, these same features, and sometimes even the same designs in jewellery and dress, even today in western and central India. The faces are drawn clearly and most of them appear to be a series of tales from the Jataka fables. The paintings also contain pictures of the Buddha at Sarnath, one of the first such paintings.”

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 7:40:42 PM |

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