Remembering Ajanta Scholar Prof. Walter Spink (1928-2019)

The academic world has lost someone who for over 60 years delved into every detail of the Ajanta caves

November 30, 2019 02:54 pm | Updated 02:54 pm IST

Walter Spink has to his credit nearly 100 publications about the Ajanta Caves.

Walter Spink has to his credit nearly 100 publications about the Ajanta Caves.

“Are you talking about the door or doorway? Door is something you fix on a doorway,” said Professor Walter Spink during a seminar on the Ajanta Caves. The student replied that he was referring to the doorway, and the discussion then proceeded to the “T” shaped doorway to Cave 1. Prof. Spink was my adviser in the late 70s when I wrote a dissertation on the ‘Paintings in Tamil Nadu of the Vijayanagar Period’. He was a busy man, yet he read every word I wrote and helped me hammer my research into a dissertation. His hair may have been dishevelled and the sleeves of his coat frayed but when it came to matters of scholarship, precision was everything to him.

The Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Michigan, known for the depth of his scholarship, his attention to details, and care for his students, passed away on November 23 in Ann Arbor. He was 92. The scholarly world lost someone who for over 60 years delved into every detail of the Ajanta caves: their cultural and religious histories, their sculptures and paintings.

From the time he finished his doctoral dissertation on the Ajanta Caves at Harvard University in 1950 up to his retirement in 2000, he made more than 50 extended trips to the site, staying in spartan accommodations, eating local food, and drinking the water collected for the monks in those caves. During the late 70s, he started a month-long ‘Ajanta Site Seminar’ for his graduate students. He would bring about eight of them and select an equal number of Indian students from Pune University. Each day he would assign them a research topic, for instance, the iconography of the deities sculpted on the doorways. In the evening, the group would discuss their findings together. It was always a struggle to get funds for this programme; yet he had a reputation of securing money from somewhere or the other. Even though he repeatedly went to the same funding agencies for support, the agencies, knowing his frugality and the legitimacy of his requests, found ways to accommodate his requests. On occasion, he would use his frequent flyer miles to enable a student to travel to India.

His scholarship on Ajanta is evident from the nearly 100 publications about the site culminating with his magnum opus, the seven-volume Ajanta: History and Development published by E.J. Brill, Leiden (2005-2008), the most prestigious art publishing house in the academic world. He was known for what is now known as ‘Spink’s Short Chronology of Ajanta’. Earlier theories on Ajanta held that the Mahayana caves were sculpted over a period of 200 years, from the 5th to the 7th centuries. Spink contradicted this belief, arguing that it took place not over two centuries but within two decades, between the years 462 and 477, under the patronage of the Vakataka king, Harisena. He, his courtiers and monks vied to create something magnificent on the site. In ca. 486, the neighbouring Kalachuris overran the Vakatakas and, with the accession of the Hindu dynasty, work at Ajanta ground to a halt.

Spink’s personal attachment to the caves often brought him into conflict with the authorities, especially when he was critical of their restoration work

Spink arrived at this conclusion after a meticulous study of the dedicatory inscriptions; the location and the plans of the caves; decorative elements on the doorways; the subject and sophistication of the paintings, and a comparative study of the caves of Bagh, Kanheri and Pithakora. He proved his theory with charts and timelines. Some scholars, unable to rebut the short chronology on factual grounds, simply dismiss it as “unbelievable”; for Spink, however; what is “unbelievable” is the amazing accomplishment of Harisena and the speed and creativity of his artisans. Patrons, Spink used to insist, wish to see their projects completed in their lifetimes.

His personal attachment to the caves often brought him into conflict with the authorities, especially when he was critical of the manner in which restorations were carried out or when erroneous information was posted on the signage. ( Conservation Questions at Ajanta , Frontline , Nov. 7, 1998.)

Spink was also keenly interested in the Krishna theme in Indian art, as seen in Rajasthani and Pahari paintings. In his Krishnamandala (1971), he explored the concept of Krishna, “The Dark One”, from an abstract philosophical perspective. As he wrote in its introduction, “The story of the god is conceived as a mandala , a mystical and recurrent diagram. In it, as in the story of the cosmic cycles, history becomes peripheral. Within a mandala , time neither dances nor does not dance.”

Even when he held the rank of a senior professor, he would offer a survey course on Asian art for undergraduates. The students were almost all Europeans, and he showed them the similarities and dissimilarities in the approaches to the divinity in Eastern and Western traditions. This course resulted in his The Axis of Eros (1973), a book “that was intended to suggest how man, over the ages in two disparate cultures has focused his expectations, his aspirations and his fears into revealing imagery.”

He was the recipient of numerous fellowships, grants and awards; he also held the principal position in more than 30 scholarly organisations. He was a warm human being with deep concern for those around him — students and colleagues. During his years, the University of Michigan had the largest Indian art history programme in the U.S. He also facilitated the visit of Indian musicologists for training to the university’s Museum of Art.

He had a quirky side as well: he would collect huge mushrooms and to the vexation of his ever-patient wife, Nesta, stuff them inside the refrigerator after emptying their insides. And when in India, he would send regular postcards back home to Punch, his Labrador Retriever.

The writer is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Davidson College, North Carolina, and was Prof. Spink’s student in 1983-88.

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