How a historian uses new technologies to preserve ancient Indian art

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For decades, photographer and art historian Benoy K Behl has used his camera to illuminate dark, mysterious and even forgotten corners of ancient Indian history. He has a lifetime of experience documenting India’s rich artistic heritage and presenting Buddhist art from around the world, including Thailand, Siberia and Uzbekistan.

He is now set to expand on those experiences in December at the India Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, in a talk titled Forgotten Tradition of Ancient Art, which discusses the first 700 years of Buddhist paintings around the world.

Behl realized that he had a passionate interest in photography, history and philosophy when he was in high school in 1970. The first documentary he made on 16mm film was in 1976 – Delhi: the endangered city was on the lost monumental heritage of the famous territory of the capital of India. Since then, he has produced nearly 150 documentaries on Indian art and history.

In 1991, Behl spent months capturing the rich color and detail of ancient cave paintings in Ajanta, India, which he describes as the most revered in Buddhist tradition. A Unesco World Heritage site 100 kilometers north of the city of Aurangabad, the Ajanta Caves were once a retreat for Buddhist monks and the exquisite murals drew 5,000 visitors a day before Covid-19. “These paintings were of immense importance to the world, but had never been clearly photographed before,” explains Behl.

One of the difficult aspects of the project, says Behl, was that photography couldn’t involve the use of light. A camera flash could damage the delicate artwork dating back to 200 BC. He used long exposures to capture natural ambient light. The technique has been praised by art historians because it brought out rich colors that were difficult to capture effectively on film and this gave a unique dimension to the work of art.

Behl’s mastery of low-light photography allowed him to effectively capture paintings, but it meant long hours in total darkness, documenting every nuance of the murals. He only left the caves for 10-minute breaks that punctuated these long hours of filming. He later reconstructed the paintings digitally, in great detail, over several months.

The ultimate goal of art is to discover the peace and joy that can be found deep within us

Benoy K Behl, photographer and art historian

“Ajanta’s paintings have changed my life,” says Behl. “I was overwhelmed, not only by the beauty and technical perfection, but by the grace, warmth and compassion that I saw in the pictures.”

The thousands of figures painted on the walls of Ajanta caves fascinated him. “These paintings have taught me kindness in a way that goes way beyond what we can learn from any book or writing,” he says. “In fact, according to the Chitrasutra, the oldest known treatise on artistic creation, this is precisely the effect that great art is supposed to have. The aesthetic experience – when we respond to something truly beautiful – is a time when the veils of illusion (maya or mithya) are lifted and we see the grace that underlies all of creation, ”he says.

Photographing the paintings sparked in him a desire to seek out the larger philosophy behind them and which sparked his journey to other Buddhist heritage sites around the world.

Two photographs Behl took and restored of Ajanta cave paintings found their way to the Arctic World Archive (AWA), a for-profit project that began in 2017 in Norway. The AWA uses AI-based nanotechnology to preserve digital data of historical and cultural interest from around the world. Fifteen countries have contributed to date. This data is buried in a steel vault at the bottom of a mountain in Norway. Among these digital documents are manuscripts from the Vatican Library, masterpieces by Rembrandt and Munch, political histories and scientific breakthroughs.

In 2020, Behl’s restoration of a 5th-century painting depicting Bodhisattva King Mahajanaka, believed to be an avatar of Buddha, was deposited with the AWA. “The painting captures the remarkable moment when the king leaves the palace after giving up all the pleasures in the world,” Behl explains. In May of this year, a second painting titled Queen and attendants, dating from the 6th century, was also sent to the archives. The painting depicts the queen as a royal figure expected by her servants and is the oldest known form of Hindu art. The actual fresco is located in the rock temples of Badami in Karnataka.

The preservation of these two images is funded by Sapio Analytics, a technology consultancy firm working with the Indian government to assist in its efforts to restore ancient heritage. “Images are now safe from cyber attacks. Digital film has a lasting lifespan, even though real monuments are heartbreakingly fragile, ”explains Behl.

Among the thousands of photographs of ancient Indian art and sculpture he has photographed and documented, one of Behl’s favorites is the Padmanpani painting called The bearer of the lotus found in the first group of Ajanta caves. “Representing peace and divine grace, it is a masterpiece in the art world,” he says.

Behl’s work in Ajanta had a wider impact in the art world. “Milo C Beach, director of the two national American Asian art galleries [in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC], told me that he should revisit his understanding of the history of Indian paintings after studying my work, ”he says.

“Ajanta’s paintings were kind of treated like a flash in the pan,” says Behl. “It has not been seen or studied as part of an ongoing artistic tradition. However, as I was now showing him the 10th century art, which had the same technical virtuosity as the 5th century Ajanta paintings, it showed that there was a continuity and a great tradition in the art.

Behl went on to photograph other murals from the ancient and medieval periods, and between 1993 and 2020 he lectured at hundreds of cultural institutions, universities and museums around the world on the divine nature of murals from India.

“My life has unfolded like a labor of love, seeking grace beyond the noise and bustle of the material world. The ultimate goal of art is to discover the peace and joy that can be found deep within us, ”he says. This idea will fuel his presentations at Expo 2020. “I look forward to sharing this with as many people as possible in the days to come.”

Benoy K Behl’s presentation, Forgotten Tradition of Ancient Art, will take place at Expo 2020 Dubai on Wednesday December 8 at 6 p.m.

Update: November 8, 2021, 3:36 a.m.

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