Clock companies, apartment buildings, beer bars, inns and lodges, toothbrushes and the Indian art world all pay homage to it because the word ‘Ajanta’ is emblematic of Indian art and beauty. It is so steeped in modern Indian consciousness that ‘Ajanta’ keeps appearing in books, novels, songs, movies and every other form of popular culture.
But we owe the popularity of the Ajanta cave paintings to the work done by one of the country’s premier art schools – Mumbai’s Sir J J School of Art – whose extensive documentation of the murals helped give Indian art an identity and went on to revolutionise it. It also changed the parameters by which the world began to look at Indian art.
This documentation exercise started a couple of decades after the murals at Ajanta were rediscovered in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district. Dated to between the 2nd century BCE and the 5th century CE, and regarded as one of the finest picture galleries from the ancient world, the murals were rediscovered by a British officer in April 1819. Soon after, Ajanta became a hotbed of exploration and writing by British officers, and it drew scholars, travelers and researchers to the caves.
But the actual study of these astonishing murals, of Buddhist religious art, started with the spread of facsimiles of these paintings and is a fascinating story. Copies of Ajanta’s murals were used as teaching material in art schools, and went on to influence everything, from painting to sculpture and even pottery produced by students in art schools in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.
There were three premier art schools in India at the time, the first to be established being the Government College of Fine Arts in Madras, in 1850. Then there was the Government College of Art in Calcutta, set up in the 1850s, and later Kala Bhavan in Shantiniketan in the 1920s. Both these institutions were at the forefront of the art movement in Bengal and popularly came to be known as the ‘Bengal School’.
In Bombay, Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, a Parsi industrialist and philanthropist, felt that Indians could achieve exceptional heights in painting and sculpture if they received proper training. Towards this end, he donated funds to the British government to establish an art school in Bombay. Renamed the Sir JJ School of Art after his passing, the institute was at the forefront of the art movement in the country for much of the 19th and 20 centuries.
The rediscovery of Ajanta and artefacts like the Didarganj Yakshi in Patna in the early 20th century completely changed the way Indian art was perceived. Until then, it was considered inferior and unsophisticated compared to the Western canon.
The Ajanta paintings and the Didarganj Yakshi, which exhibited a very sophisticated and highly refined degree of artistic and aesthetic merit, gave Indian art an indigenous style. Most importantly, they were considered at par with art works in the Western world. The forms, figures and palettes were, in fact, considered no less sophisticated than the Renaissance art of Europe and the fact that these Indian works preceded them by a thousand years only heightened their excellence.
In time, Ajanta’s murals grew increasingly famous, and many artists and photographers started reproducing them.
The very first reproduction of the paintings was commissioned by the Royal Asiatic Society in London and executed by Major Robert Gill, who was also an antiquarian and painter and who stationed himself in Ajanta between 1844 and 1863.
He executed 30 large-scale canvases of the paintings, which were displayed at the Sydenham Court of the Crystal Palace. Sadly, most of them perished in a fire in 1866. Only four of them survived and are in the possession of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Shortly thereafter, one of the longest and most productive associations between Ajanta and the art world started, with the Sir JJ School of Art. The relationship between the two wasn’t limited to just the documentation of the paintings by the students. A large number of students from this school have been influenced by the paintings and have paid homage to them, directly or indirectly.
The first contact between the Sir JJ School of Art and Ajanta was made in 1872, when the British government asked the school to document the paintings at the caves. John Griffiths, who was the principal of the school and also a muralist, was in charge of the mission. He selected seven students led by Pestonji Bomanji, who would go on to become a prominent artist.
The students returned to Ajanta every winter, from 1872 to 1884, and faithfully documented the murals there.
This exhaustive exercise produced 300 works and most of them were shipped to the then newly opened Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The project was completed at a cost of 30,000 pounds.
The paintings were displayed at the Imperial Institute in London, now the site of the Imperial College. However, a fire broke out in one of the stores of the institute, destroying over 100 of these canvases. Interestingly, the Victoria and Albert Museum still has 166 of these paintings in its possession, but they were last displayed in 1955 and the entire set has been in storage since then.
Twenty-one of these works stayed with the Sir JJ School of Art and include works by some prominent artists. They are also displayed by the school only occasionally. Griffiths would also go on to publish the two-volume The Paintings in the Buddhist Cave-Temples of Ajanta in 1896.
But this was just the beginning of the relationship between the Sir JJ School of Art and Ajanta.
In 1895, Griffiths returned to Ajanta with a new batch of students. They included the noted painter M V Dhurandhar and many others who went on to become huge names in the Indian art world, like Pithawala, Satavalekar, Taskar, Agaskar and Sokarji. Dhurandhar, in fact, painted a panoramic scene of the caves in a sepia tone.
The influence of Ajanta can be seen in the works of all these artists in various ways, from their representation of the human form to the drapery of the clothing in the works, to even the architectural elements seen in their paintings. Shortly after the expedition to document the caves, students from the school came up with a pottery range inspired by the colours and designs at Ajanta. One can still see some of them at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.
One of the most interesting ways in which Ajanta has served as an inspiration is in the works of Rustom Siodia, who used the exterior architectural elements of Ajanta as quasi-Achaemenid structures in his illustrations of Legends of Persia. However, this was at a much later date, in the 1920s, after yet another documentation exercise by the school.
Besides the Sir JJ School of Art, the Bengal School too has an important relationship with the Ajanta Caves. The third major documentation of the caves was in 1909-1911 and was led by Abanindranath Tagore in association with Lady Christiana Herringham, a British suffragette and art patron, who felt that the previous documentation exercises weren’t sufficiently faithful to the original paintings.
Abanindranath Tagore, in fact, called his Ajanta mission a ‘pilgrimage’ rather than a study tour.
His team included Nandalal Bose, who would later become a navaratna of Indian art, and Asit Kumar Haldar, who would go on to become a seminal artist of the early 20th century.
Haldar, in fact, contrasted the spiritual context of the Ajanta paintings with the more regal and courtly arts prevalent during the Mughal period. Although Nandalal Bose did not elevate the ideas of Ajanta to such an extent, one can see the impact of the same in his own works, like the figures he drew or his brushwork. One can see a hint of Ajanta in his grand project of creating murals on the walls of Shantiniketan along with his students.
The next significant attempt to reproduce the murals at Ajanta was made by Japanese artist Arai Kampo, who had been invited to India by Rabindranath Tagore. Kampo made tracings of the paintings on fine Japanese paper from 1916-1918. Many of these paintings were sent to the Tokyo Imperial University but perished in fires in the 1920s. This influenced many other renowned Japanese artists to visit the caves and sketch and paint there.
Subsequently, around 1920, the Nizam of Hyderabad along with the Oxford University Press carried out a monumental project to photograph the caves in colour along with drawings and outlines of the paintings. The photography was carried out by E L Vassey and a four-volume book was published under the guidance of Dr Ghulam Yazdani, archaeologist and art historian who was the Director of Archaeology of the Hyderabad government in the 1920s.
The most recent of these academic documentation exercises was conducted in December 2019, when the current batch of students at the Sir JJ School of Art continued the tradition started by Griffiths by visiting Ajanta and sketching and painting at the site. We spoke to Prof VD Sabale, the Dean of the Sir JJ School of Art, who told us that the exercise was an exceptional learning opportunity for the students.
Interestingly, no artist who has visited Ajanta has returned uninfluenced by the ancient murals. In the 1930s and ’40s, the influence of Ajanta can be seen in the works of Amrita Sher-gil, one of the most prominent Indian artists of the 20th century. Some of her most loved works, like ‘Brides Toilet’ or ‘Veena Players’ were created shortly after she had visited South India as well as Ajanta. The Ajanta influence can be seen in her line work as well as her earthy palette.
The paintings at Ajanta are such a huge part of our popular culture and the Indian psyche that one doesn’t need to be a connoisseur to recognise or appreciate them. The images on the walls of these cave temples have permeated our consciousness like no other work of art has. This is what makes Ajanta stand out. It is one of those few works of art that blur the distinction between the connoisseur and the common man. Amazingly, this sheer aesthetic brilliance is open and accessible to all.