Showcasing the Ajanta Caves murals to the world

  • Arts
  • Monday, 02 Dec 2019

Palace maids (Abhishek, Mahajanaka Jataka), Cave 1.

Whilst the Ajanta Caves receive a constant influx of visitors today, there have been several attempts to introduce its paintings to the world as early as the 19th century.

The first scholarly report on the Ajanta Caves was done by Scottish architectural historian James Fergusson (1808–1886) who, in 1843, read a paper on Ajanta at the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

Describing Ajanta as “rock-cut caves”, Fergusson is best remembered for his interest in Indian historical architecture and antiquities, and credited as an important figure in the 19th century rediscovery of ancient India, said photographer Benoy K. Behl.

Spurred by this report, the British government at that time sponsored three major attempts to make reproductions of the cave paintings so that they could be brought before the world.

The three people involved were Major Robert Gill (1844–1863), John Griffiths (1872–1885) and James Burgess (1877–1882).

Gill was an army officer, antiquarian, painter and photographer in British India and well known for his paintings on the frescoes of the Ajanta Caves.

Behl said, “Gill’s paintings were displayed at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, London in 1866 but most of the works were destroyed when the exhibition caught fire. Only four surviving copies are presently in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

“Unfazed by the incident, Gill returned to Ajanta and took up his labour of love again. Unfortunately, he then fell ill and died at Bhusawal, India. His work was not fated to be completed. One can visit his tomb, which is not very far from Ajanta.”

Palace scene (Mahajanaka Jataka), Cave 1.Palace scene (Mahajanaka Jataka), Cave 1.

Griffiths, superintendent and later principal of the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art, Mumbai, along with many of his students, then took up the challenging task, said Behl.

“Foreseeing the impact of Ajanta on the future art of India, Griffiths undertook his work with great enthusiasm, ” he added.

Misfortune also struck when many of Griffiths’ works, which were displayed at the Indian Museum, South Kensington, were damaged in a fire.

The surviving paintings were published in 1896 and drew the attention of art historians more than ever before to the importance of the Ajanta paintings in world art.

In the meantime, Fergusson and Burgess of the Archaeological Survey of India conducted a systematic study of the paintings, architectural details, sculptures and inscriptions in the Ajanta Caves.

“All the remains of the comprehensive reproductions of Burgess in black and white prints are in the India Office Collection of the British Library in London, ” said Behl.

King Nanda begging for alms, Cave 1.King Nanda begging for alms, Cave 1.From 1909 to 1911, Lady Christiana Jane Herringham (1852–1929) and her assistants spent long hours in the Ajanta Caves and arduously produced a set of some of the paintings, which were published by the India Society in 1915. Lady Herringham was a British artist, copyist and art patron.

Behl related, “She writes, ‘in reality, the technique of original work was so sure and perfect that none of us were good enough executants to repeat it’.”

Lady Herringham’s book (Ajanta Frescoes, 1915) and the works of her predecessors did help to bring the paintings to the attention of the Western world.

More than a century after their discovery, the murals burst into Western consciousness. Britain’s Burlington Magazine declared the paintings as “perhaps the greatest artistic wonder of Asia”.

In 1923, renowned ballerina Anna Pavlova performed an Ajanta Ballet at Covent Garden in London. Her dance movements were based on the gestures of the figures in the paintings.

At the end of the 19th century, Sri Lankan painter Solias Mendis travelled to India to study the paintings of the Ajanta Caves. When he returned home, he created a new style of art, which has its roots in the gentle expressions and exquisite grace of the great Ajanta paintings. His work is a continuation of the ancient style of Buddhist paintings.

“It is most wonderful to see the similarity of exquisite art and themes, across thousands of kilometers, from Ajanta in Maharashtra to Kelaniya in Sri Lanka. These deep cultural bonds do not know any geographical or political boundaries, ” said Behl.

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