I am sharing the story behind the challenging photography of the inner ambulatory paintings of the Brhadiswara temple at Thanjavur. The documentation of the narrow and dark inner ambulatory was done using long exposures. In fact, IGNCA had approached me in 1991 because they as well as French photographers were finding it difficult to photograph these paintings using lights. This was because of the surface reflections of the paintings, in the extremely restricted spaces of the ambulatory. These paintings had been recently uncovered by the Archaeological Survey of India, by removing the plaster and the later 17th-century Nayak paintings, which had covered these end-10th century Chola paintings.
This was one of my most challenging documentations, as there was only five and a half feet of space between the inner and outer walls of the ambulatory. The paintings went up to a height of 20 feet on these walls, making it difficult to get a proper perspective in the restricted space. I did this documentation in 1992, taking about 1,000 photographs. To photograph the paintings with the correct perspective, I had made a collapsible aluminium platform to take me up to various levels. This was taken inside the ambulatory and then assembled.
While photographing from the top level at about 20 feet, I discovered more than 200 sculptures which had not been seen before. The people of Thanjavur and the newspapers were ecstatic about this discovery. It was a wonderful few weeks inside the ambulatory.
A few months later, in 1993, when I showed these photographs to Dr Milo C Beach, then Director of the US National Galleries of Asian Art and the known American expert on Indian paintings, he said, “After what you have shown me, I have to revise my understanding of the history of Indian paintings.” He explained to me that art historians around the world had not been aware of a continuous tradition of painting in ancient India. The Ajanta paintings of the 5th century were known, but no other paintings before the Ajanta paintings, nor after them for the next 700 years, were known. Therefore, the Ajanta paintings were treated as a flash in the pan and not a part of a known tradition of art. All studies and courses in Indian painting took up the history only from the medieval period onwards.
In his words, “The paintings of the 10th century which you are showing me have the same quality of art as the Ajanta paintings of the 5th century and this proves that there would have been a continuous tradition of painting in ancient India.”
I subsequently went on to document many other remains of Indian paintings of every century, from the 5th to the 12th century and was able to clearly establish a continuous tradition of ancient Indian paintings. These ancient murals are also seen to be the foundations of the miniature paintings to follow in the medieval period. Universities and museums around the world have responded very warmly to the exquisite quality of this artistic tradition.
Text and photograph Benoy K Behl