Documenting Indian art has taken Benoy K. Behl from the mystical painted Ajanta caves to the Tibetan Plateau of India, and around the world. Behl is a New Delhi film-maker, art historian and photographer. He has taken over 50,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage and made 138 documentaries, which are regularly screened at major cultural institutions worldwide.
Benoy has extensively photographed Buddhist art and sculptures in India as well as in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, Japan, Mongolia, Siberia, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Tibet and Uzbekistan. His photographic exhibitions have been warmly received in 54 countries around the world.
A Breakthrough in Documenting Indian Art
In 1991, Benoy made a major breakthrough in photographing important and ancient paintings under conditions of extremely low light. That breakthrough occurred in the Ajanta caves, located in the Deccan plateau in the Aurangabad district of the Indian state of Maharashtra. The approximately 30 rock-cut cave monuments date from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 or 650 CE. Textual records suggest that these caves served as a monsoon retreat for monks, as well as a resting site for merchants and pilgrims in ancient India.
Ajanta is home to exquisite Buddhist murals depicting the Jatakas (tales of previous incarnations) of Lord Buddha, scenes of princely processions, ladies with their handmaidens, bejewelled animals, ascetics in monasteries and fantastical birds and beasts, all with a startling degree of sophistication.
These cultural treasures had long been obscured by jungle growth and the mists of time, and were re-discovered in 1819 by a group of British soldiers who chanced upon the Ajanta caves, lying in a ravine of the Waghora river some 200 miles north-east of Bombay. Ajanta provides virtually the only extensive evidence remaining of painting styles that first developed in India and then travelled with the spread of Buddhism.
Transformative Experience of Photographing Buddhist Art of Ajanta Caves
Benoy addresses the Indian tradition of painting from pre-historic times up to the present day in "The Paintings of India,” a 26-part documentary series made for Doordarshan, one of India’s largest broadcasting organizations. Benoy holds the honored position of Chair, Buddhist Art, Architecture and Philosophy, Centre of Indology, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and is a Visiting Professor, College of Art, University of Delhi.
Read on for a fascinating journey with Benoy from the Ajanta Caves to the Tibetan Plateau, exploring epochs in Indian history ranging from the days of Buddha to British Colonialism, and touching on themes from grace and compassion to ego and materialism.
In Conversation with Benoy Behl
Meg: What sparked your interest in art history?
Benoy: I started making documentary films after my college graduation in 1976. The turning point, which crystallized everything and made me concentrate on art and historical art, pulling me completely and forever, really came when I photographed the paintings of Ajanta, first in 1991 and then again in 1992.
Meg: I understand you were able to capture images beautifully without the use of any light and that you received a great deal of acclaim for that. Did you have any sense as you were photographing Ajanta that it was going to be a pivotal experience for you?
Benoy: It was a technical challenge to begin with, photographing in the darkness, capturing details and colors. But what was happening in the process of my spending long, long hours with these beautiful paintings was something else, which was actually more important than technical achievement. That was this exposure to ancient art.
As I understand so well today, which I didn't understand so much then; an artist can only make himself, in every line that the artist makes. If he is distraught, distressed, the work of art will show it. If he is at peace and compassionate, the grace of the work of art will show that. Whatever the state of his mind and his state of development, it comes into what he's making. And the painters here were sublime; these painters were people who walked full of grace, people who were full of compassion, people whose very lives were graceful. And I was spending hour after hour after hour, day after day after day, being exposed to this art. That is what was truly a great influence in my life; a transforming experience. And I would come out of those caves with clear knowledge that compassion is all there is.
Changing Perceptions of the History of Indian Art
I also subsequently had the opportunity to document the 10th century paintings of the Brhadiswara temple at Thanjavur, the end of the 10th century. Now, these had previously not been photographed, owing to many difficulties in photography within the narrow and dark confines of the temple, where they were painted. I had the good fortune to carry out complete documentation of these marvellous paintings in about 1,000 photographs.
I remember the occasion when I was showing these to Dr. Milo Beach, who was the Director of the American National Galleries of Asian Art, the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian Institution. This was in the year 1993. Milo, who was supposed to be one of the leading experts on Indian paintings, responded to say that “I will have to change my understanding on the history of Indian paintings”. I said, “Milo, why do you say that?” He said “You know we knew about Ajanta paintings, but because we did not know about paintings in India before Ajanta, or for the next 800 years after Ajanta, the Ajanta murals were treated as a flash in the pan. Somehow, we never studied them as a part of a tradition of painting. But what you are showing me now are 10th century paintings, which have again that marvellous technical virtuosity which we see at Ajanta. Therefore, it seems that there is a continuous tradition of paintings in ancient India that is of very high quality.”
So that was a very significant moment, to see the response to my work. I went on thereafter to photograph and document other paintings of the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, which established a very beautiful and important tradition of the art of the world.
These ancient paintings were also the roots of miniatures to come in later times. This revelation of a great tradition of painting was the reason for doing a series of 26 documentaries on ‘The Paintings of India’.
"Painting of India - Enchanted Ajanta" produced by Benoy K. Behl for Doordarshan National, the Indian public service broadcasting corporation. Video: DoordarshanNational
Buddhist Art of Ajanta Inspires inner Journey
My work at Ajanta became an inner journey, understanding what life is truly all about. It became vivid to me. I came out of the caves, now I was a person who had something to share. I had come to realize that, much beyond individuality and much beyond the personal needs and egos, there was something more important. There was this marvelous, marvelous, marvelous philosophical understanding of the unity of all living things.
When I work, I just work constantly, taking one shot at a time. I am not a religious person, but the work was like a spiritual experience. The caves of Ajanta was a world which was far beyond the cares and confusion, far beyond the noise and clamor, of the material world. This was a time in India before any major commercialization, and this was a remote area. With the people who worked in the caves, coming from the villages around there, the people with whom I rode the buses coming to work and going back, displayed a constant sense of caring, kindness, gentleness. All of this blended so completely with the world of the painting inside. The gorge of the river Waghora, where the caves are located, is a marvelous place. It’s a place of a wonderful greenery in the rainy season. It’s a place where you get parrots calling, other birds calling. There is a marvelous peace.
The world of nature, of kind people all around and the exquisite, classic art inside. The warmth and compassion of the people with you. And you're lost, you're lost in documenting the beauty and grace of the art.
Sophisticated Culture of Ancient India
Meg: It sounds lovely. You’ve spoken about the compassion and the grace of the Buddhist art presented at Ajanta. Is there anything else you feel the paintings can say about the moment in time in which they were created?
Benoy: The times were very developed. You have ‘ikat’, for instance, which is a form of weaving, which continues today here in India, which is seen in the paintings. You also have evidence of very fine, translucent textiles. You have jewelry that is absolutely exquisite. It was a pretty advanced and comfortable lifestyle. The style of the paintings convey a very urban and very urbane culture.
As a matter of fact, the whole Deccan region from the coast of Maharashtra to the other coast of Andhra Pradesh on the eastern side, was surely the most cosmopolitan and one of the most prosperous regions in the world at that time. There were colonies of Greeks that were living there in the B.C. period. You have inscriptions of Greek devotees in Buddhist Caves in Maharashtra, where they are marking donations. You have colonies of Romans subsequently in the Andhra Pradesh region. And you have Pliny the Elder in the 1st century BC writing that Roman coffers are being emptied for buying far too many textiles from India. A century after that, you have the Roman Emperor Vespasian saying much the same thing.
And of course, cotton was grown in this region for a very long time. Cotton was a very important product. In fact, in the 4th century B.C., Magasthenes, the Greek Ambassador in the court of the Indian King Chandragupta Maurya, was writing that he has noticed very strange bushes on which wool grows. So this must have been cotton. He may have been using cotton clothes, but he may not ever have seen cotton growing before. Cotton has been growing in this region and used in textiles since at least the 4th century B.C. and perhaps much earlier. I think the growing of cotton and textiles is one of the important foundations in the building of culture. This was a very, very sophisticated culture. There were large cities. And the best of it was the making of the most sublime art.
Epic Undertaking of Documentary Series on Paintings of India
Meg: Can you provide a bird’s eye view of the production of the series “The Paintings of India”? I imagine it was a massive amount of logistics.
Benoy: At the turn of the millennium, the major television network in India called Doordarshan had turned to me to urgently make a film about architecture in India, which I had done for them, at very short notice. They were extremely happy about the work and the CEO of the company now asked me “What would you like to do for Doordarshan?”
So that’s where I suggested that why don’t we do a series of 26 documentaries on the history of painting in India. I was asked to prepare a proposal, which I did and it was approved by their Board.
The logistics of that project were mind boggling. In fact, I remember that the shooting schedule was like a small book. Eight months of shooting. My later series on ‘The Sculpture of India’ was also shot continuously for eight months. More recently, my crew and I travelled the length and breadth of Indian once again for a series which was entitled ‘Spectacular India’.
So for ‘The Paintings of India’ there was eight months of shooting. Thousands of persons had to be written to in advance, in order to take permissions and to make preparations for the shoot. So you know one would know that on the 160th day, for instance, where we will be waking up and where we will be shooting in the early morning, later in the morning, then in the afternoon and finally where we were going to sleep that night.
And so on and so forth. The journey covered all corners of India, India is a pretty vast sub-continent. It included very remote places and it also included an around-the-world journey. I remember we shot in some 14 countries, including museum collections in Europe and USA. We also shot paintings that showed the Indian influences, in countries like Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and Bhutan.
We would touch down back in Delhi for three or four days at a time, on an average once in about five-six weeks. For the rest, it was continuous traveling. While traveling in India, on average we’d wake up in the morning around 3:30. Every night we would sleep in a different place because we had to keep up with the movement for shooting. One would have imagined that we would have gotten tired. Quite to the contrary. When the shooting ended, we were all disappointed. It was a great journey.
Every Day Was a Unique Adventure
Meg: Any experience you would characterize as an adventure?
Benoy: I would say every day was a unique adventure. To give you an idea, we woke at 2:00 a.m. in the morning at a place called Shimla, from where we were going to drive through Kinnaur to a place called Spiti, which is part of the trans-Himalayan Desert, part of what’s called the Tibetan Plateau. We were going to shoot in some monasteries. This of course was a very long and difficult drive, through a completely mountainous region. We wake up and find that there were some landslides in Kinnaur, so instead, we decided to go in the opposite direction, on another, much longer route. Here I must mention the entire concept of time and travel time completely changes on these extensive shooting tours of ours. We find that actually nothing is very difficult.
So we turned to another direction and went through a place called Manali and a place called Rohtang Pass and then, through an altogether different part of Kinnaur, headed towards Spiti. Now this area was completely new to me. Subsequently, I have gone into that area, at least 10 times. But that was my first time. In fact, I had by then gone to the trans-Himalayan region at least 20 times, but no to Kinnaur or Spiti.
Oxygen becomes quite scarce in the air by the time we cross an altitude of 10,000 feet. This entire region is well above that altitude, with only an extremely rough dirt track road. So, it had already become dark by the time we reached there after about 16 hours of hard driving from Shimla where we woke up. On either side of the rough dirt track we were on, were huge boulders, looming large.
Nobody was around for miles and miles. No houses, no person, no kind of habitation. And the driver had never seen this area. The vehicle and driver had been picked up from Amritsar city in Punjab. And he had continued with us through Himachal Pradesh and other places. He had never seen this kind of place or terrain ever before.
Traversing the Tibetan Plateau
This area is described as Tibetan Plateau. It’s rather unusual. It’s a desert, its a cold desert. It becomes very cold even during the summer. People would regard it as a hostile environment, and there’s nobody around to help if you get into trouble or if your vehicle breaks down. Owing to the scarcity of oxygen in air, there is the constant danger of sickness related to the deprivation of oxygen. Unfortunately, such a condition can even be fatal, as hospital facilities are not available.
So here we are, and we’re driving through it all in the middle of the night. It must have been around 11 p.m. when we spotted a very small little Public Works Department, two-room guest house. And that’s all that there was, nothing else except this for miles around.
So I took the decision that it is better for us to get in two or three hours of sleep at that point, because if anything happened to the vehicle, the early hours of the morning would be safer than the night…. So we stopped.
We slept for about three hours or so. Then perhaps about three or four in the morning we started. We saw immediately the road was on its way up again, to a Pass through the mountains. The road must have taken us up to about 13,500 feet at the Pass. A full moon was out. Ah! It was very nice. In fact, there was snow on the mountains and we were able to set up and take shots at night of the full moon. Though we were cold; we were extremely cold.
But in all this, and in every moment, we were also excited. Full of desire to do something. Full of a feeling that you were in fact standing at the top of the world. So we did that shooting by the light of the moon and we moved further on the road. We saw distant water streams. We came to a border check post. There was a small shop next to it where some food was available. We ate some hot noodles, and we felt good. It was morning. We were warmed up by the sun. It was absolutely wonderful. Then we were able to move on and eventually reach the monastery called the Tabo of the 10th / 11th century. So that was a lovely experience.
Snow Blindness at the Spiti Pass
There is another experience which comes to my mind, a visit to the same region, about five years later. It was summer but there was an unexpected amount of snowfall. The passes got blocked--there was glacial movement of the ice across the roads. There were a lot of vehicles which got stranded near a mountain Pass in Spiti, blocked by a huge glacier of ice which had come on the road.
It became night. Eventually, the Public Works Department bulldozer managed to reach the spot and very gradually, he began to lead the way down from the Pass. Slowly, we came down to 10,000 feet and then the bulldozer stopped. It became a freezing cold night that we spent inside the vehicle.
Then, the next morning, the bulldozer again began to move and we gradually moved forward behind it. A lot people in the convoy were suffering from a kind of snow blindness because all around it was all white. It was difficult to see very much. You had to shade your eyes. There we were, we were moving forward, and managed to reach a small guest house.
We spent the night with ten people at least sharing each of the two rooms in the guest house. Started again the next morning and found that we had to turn back because there was a chasm in the road about 14 feet deep and 14 feet across, where the road had been swept away.
There seems to be no way of crossing that gap and going further. All in our little convoy of vehicles felt disheartened and began to turn back.
Filling the Chasm By Throwing Rocks
I was standing there looking at the chasm and was reminded of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, which is the oldest standing grand structure in India. It was made in the mid-5th century and no other structures of that period have survived in the northern plains of India. This was because ancient temples in that region were destroyed by Islamic invaders from the 10th century onwards.
The Mahabodhi Temple was found by a British Archaeologist, with just the top section sticking out of a huge mountain of earth. I wrote the application for the World Heritage Listing of this temple with UNESCO, on behalf of the Government of India. At that time, I did considerable research into the history of the structure and came to the conclusion that this temple had survived while others were destroyed because it was actually buried underground by human effort.
Thousands of people must have piled mud and stones and made a huge mountain which covered the 52-meter-high temple. That appears to be the only explanation for the tall mountain of mud. A careful study of the history of the region, as well as the geography, does not indicate any measure of natural upheaval, which could have caused the temple to be buried intact.
Human Beings Can Do Anything!
So I was looking at that 14-foot by 14-foot chasm and I said to myself, “Why can't it be filled? If the Mahabodhi Temple could be covered through human effort, it was surely a much lessor task to fill the chasm in front of us.”
I called upon all the people who were stranded in that spot to come forward, and start putting stones into the chasm. The tourists who were part of the group started laughing, and turned back. But a lot of the local drivers came forward and all of us began to throw stones into the hole. Much to even to our own surprise, the hole got filled up. It got filled up and eventually we were able to drive all 14 stranded vehicles over the new patch of road which we had created.
To my greater surprise, the next year when I was in that same area, I found that the Public Works Department had put wire netting on the side of the wall of stones which we had created. Our little temporary patch of the road seemed to have become permanent. It was an amazing feeling to see that human beings can do anything, once they truly decide to do it. It’s an event that the people with me said they were going to remember for the rest of their lives.
"Painting of India - Cradle of Culture" produced by Benoy K. Behl for Doordarshan National, the Indian public service broadcasting corporation. Video: DoordarshanNational
Meg: Did it get filled up by all of you throwing stones or did it set off some kind of avalanche that filled the area in?
Benoy: No, no, just from all of us throwing stones.
Meg: How long did that take?
Benoy: Not as long as you might think. Total, about six hours, which appears to be a miraculously short time for such a Herculean feat. I always find that once human beings decide to do something, it happens.
Meg: Yes, that’s been my experience, too, and it’s lovely to be reminded of that. Wonderful story.
Benoy: The spirit of doing the work has always driven me on. I'm asked very often about the difficulties I've had in my work and I'm not able to think of any difficulties, because its all about things that have to be done and things that you get up and do.
Common People Were Patrons of Indian Art For More Than Millennia
Meg: Fantastic, I love that! Were there any patrons who left a legacy within the history of Indian art?
Benoy: When it comes to the ancient period, the most wonderful thing is that there were no patrons who are remembered or who sought to make themselves remembered. The marvelous thing about at least 1,500 years of Indian art is that there are no personalities depicted. There are hundreds of thousands of works of art that depict deities, animals, common people, flowers, trees, and birds, yet there is not a single portrait. Not even of the king who had been ruling in that period.
The patronage is of the people, and that’s the great thing. All the stupas and early temples of the ancient period have inscriptions, which show that the monument had been dedicated by the people.
For instance, if we take the Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh, it has 631 inscriptions that still survive, out of what must have been perhaps 2,000 inscriptions to begin with. One inscription says, “I am a farmer and I am patronizing the making of this stupa.” Another one says “I am a housewife, and I’m patronizing the making of this pillar of the stupa railing” Another one says, “I am a tailor and I’m patronizing the making of this architrave of the gateway.” And so on.
So, even though the colonial historians tended to write in their school and college histories that such-and-such stupa was made by so-and-so king, if they had walked into their research libraries and looked at the inscriptions on the stupas, they would have realized that not one of them was made by a king. It is the common people who made all of them. In the ancient period, in the sub-continent, the art and monuments were made by the people.
No Religious Divisions in Ancient India
The other wonderful thing that comes through is that there were no religious divisions. It is the colonial rulers and their historians who created Hindus and Buddhists and Jains, as separated and divided religions.
In all these thousands of donated inscriptions, it becomes clear that within every single family we know about from ancient India, there were people worshipping a so-called Hindu deity, a so-called Buddhist deity, and/or a so-called Jain deity. We do not know of any single family in ancient India where everyone in the family were all either Hindu or Buddhist, or Jain, or Ajanta, or other things that existed. So what becomes startlingly clear is these are much later superimposed colonial constructs of religion. There were actually no religious traditions.
The ancient history of India is known, almost all of it, only from donative inscriptions on the thousands of monuments. The fact is that, despite having an enormously sophisticated language and expression, ancient Indians did not believe in writing histories. They did not believe in the writing of stories about ephemeral individual personalities, as the focus was always upon the eternal truth, which was beyond the passing illusions of the material world.
In all these thousands of donative inscriptions which have survived, it becomes clear that within every single family we know about from ancient India, had in it people worshipping deities of different faiths. We do not know of any single family in ancient India where everyone in the family were all either Hindu or Buddhist, or Jain, or Ajivika worshippers. So what becomes startlingly clear is that these ideas about divided religions are a much later colonial construct.
The philosophic life was always considered more important than the material life, and the losing of the ego was always considered more important than developing personal wealth or fame. Therefore, kings did not even use their names in their own inscriptions. There are edicts going back to the third century B.C. in which kings suggest moral and other good values, for administrators and for the common people. Those kings don’t even mention their own names below the inscriptions. So, in this climate, what comes through and provides us historic information are only these donative inscriptions.
Portraits First Appear in Indian Art in the 10th Century
Meg: That's certainly very instructive, giving the environment today, particularly in the U.S. where ego seems to be ruling the day. Would that mindset have begun to change with the advent of the Moguls? At what point did ego come back into the picture?
Benoy: It’s a gradual change that I discern; starting in the B.C. period, in which it is all truly sublime. There’s a very gradual change. The earliest surviving painted portrait is from the end of the 10th century, and the earliest surviving sculpted portrait is from the 8th century. While we say this, we should always mention that in the first century, the Kushana rulers, who had come in from Central Asia, had portraits made of themselves in their temples. But after the Kushana rulers, the Indian tradition immediately reverted to itself, and it wasn’t until the 8th century and 10th century that these first portraits in sculpture and painting were made. An interesting trait of the early painted portraits from the 10th to 13th centuries is that whenever the king was depicted, he was always seen standing behind his guru, or in an act of worship, or extremely small in size as compared to his guru. So, it’s clear that the king is depicting himself in a very tentative manner; he is a little afraid of breaking the tradition of not showing personalities in art.
Also, the artist in ancient India never signed his name on the work of art. The personality was considered so unimportant that none of the homes made for ephemeral human beings, were made out of lasting material. It was only structures made to honor the eternal within us: temples and Stupas, etc., that were made out of stone. Habitations, even those of kings, were made out of ephemeral materials and were not lasting. It wasn’t until the 14th century when the plinths of royal structures began to be made out of stone. Then, gradually, the superstructures were made out of stone. But I’ve clearly seen through the course of this art, a steady decline in human values from the B.C. period up through modern times.
In the early period, from about 2,500 years ago till the 6th century AD, we see a marvelous culture in the Indian sub-continent, where kings do not directly patronize the making of any monuments to any faith, even their own. As stated a little earlier, we see that it is the common people who patronize the making of such edifices. However, the kings provide the indirect support of grants for the maintenance of the temples of all faiths.
From the earliest period onwards, we see a gradual change in human values, which is reflected both in the subject and in the grace and quality of the art. This appears clearly to be linked with the development of concepts of hereditary kingship and organizational changes which occur in society. 2,500 years ago it is democratic republic that existed in India. Gradually, it became the rule of kings and the kingship became hereditary. By the 7th century AD, kings began to directly patronize the making of temples and this was reflected in the art and temple structures. Whereas early temples had been very small, those directly patronized by kings developed into tall and majestic structures, which announced the majesty of the lord and also the king who made the temple, from afar. However, the art inside the temples became comparatively wooden. It lost the sublime grace of ancient art.
Much of this history has been obscured by the incorrect writings and assumptions of colonial rulers and historians.
Ancient Indian Art Teaches How to Live Life
Meg: I think that in trying to define a culture that’s not your own, you run the risk of mischaracterizing it. It really is a sacred responsibility to try to present a view of a culture. It’s never going to be all-encompassing. Sometimes it’s arrogance, and sometimes it’s with the best of intentions, but you just can’t fully grasp something which isn’t necessarily your own. But it certainly sounds like ancient India could teach the world quite a lot today that it needs.
Benoy: Philosophically and in the science of life, I believe, yes. Probably all of the ancient cultures have a lot to teach.
Meg: Yes, I think that’s true.
Benoy: Today we are a very materialistically-driven culture, where the world appears to be very shiny and glitzy on top with very little substance within it. We no longer have a meaningful education or importance given to the science of life. What passes off for education these days is really a learning of how to make money. How to live life, which is far more important, appears to be forgotten.
Meg: I think there’s a groundswell of recognition that there has to be more to life than materialistic things. Among many people I encounter, there is that recognition, and while it still has a long way to go, that encourages me. Are you able to talk a bit about the Jainas in the context of Indian painting?
Legacy of Colonial Historians on Indian Art
Benoy: To begin with, I would like to mention that the Jainas also had the stupa, as the Buddhists did. For some reason, the colonial historians wrote a great deal about the Buddhist stupas, creating a worldwide understanding that the stupa is primarily a Buddhist structure. They did not talk about the Jaina stupas, which were exactly the same. Nor did they speak about the Ajivika Stupas, which predate all the Jaina and Buddhist stupas.
The other thing is that in the Indian art itself, an artist would have sculpted for all the so-called different traditions, and the traditions were essentially the same, based upon philosophic concepts which had been crystalized by the 9th or 8th century BC in the Upanishads.
The classification of art styles according to religion is really something we’ve inherited from the colonial historians. The art is the same across religions in the different periods. What is more surprising is that, if you were to choose a period of time, say the 10th or 11th century, and look at the Buddhist paintings, then go to the other extreme of the country and look at Jaina art, it would depict very similar motifs. It’s extremely similar in style. So, what I find is that it is the development of philosophy at any given time or century in the Indian sub-continent, which is reflected in all the faiths and is seen in their art.
Interested in seeing more of Benoy Behl's work?
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