By William Dalrymple
Outlook Magazine - November 24, 2014
The oldest classical Indian paintings, retrieved from time, and decay.
..."More exciting still, this earliest phase of work is not just very old, but very fine indeed and painted in a quite different style, and using markedly different techniques to that used in the rest of Ajanta. The murals of caves nine and ten, reproduced here in colour for almost the first time, represent nothing less than the birth of classical Indian painting. Anywhere else in the world a rediscovery of this importance would be the subject of nationwide headlines, TV documentaries and triumphant exhibitions; but in India the remarkable work of Manager Singh has so far gone virtually unnoticed."
In 1999, Manager Rajdeo Singh, the ASI chief of conservation and head of science at Aurangabad, began work on the restoration of the murals in Caves Nine and Ten at Ajanta. Manager Singh, as he is always known, had been in charge of conserving the murals of Ajanta for a number of years, but the work in caves nine and ten was, he knew, especially difficult, and of the greatest importance. This was partly because these two caves contain the most severely damaged of all the Ajanta frescoes: “The paintings were so fragile that in some places there was a great fear even to touch them with the hand,” he wrote later. “At some places the pigment was found completely detached from the ground plaster and stone surface.”
But largely Manager Singh was concerned because the murals in those two caves are recognised to be not only the oldest images at the site, but the oldest Buddhist paintings in existence—dating from only 300 years after the death of the Buddha. These masterworks of early Buddhist art are, in other words, the prototypes of the forms which would later spread with Buddhism over the Himalayas to Afghanistan, China, Japan and the rest of Southeast Asia. More remarkable still, with the exception of a few prehistoric pictograms of stick men and animals left by palaeolithic hunters at Bhimbetka in the wilds of Madhya Pradesh, they are also the oldest pictures of India and of Indian people to have survived from the ancient world.
The work took over a decade and proved to be even more difficult than guessed. Early British art historians who had worked on copying the murals between 1844 and 1885 had coated the murals with layers of varnish to bring out the colours, and they left the varnish in place after their work was finished, leaving a thick layer of discoloured glaze intermixed with soot and dirt. Moreover, these earliest murals were not only more fragmentary, they were also considerably more smoke- and incense-blackened in antiquity than the relatively pristine later murals elsewhere in the site, and perhaps for this reason seemed, blackboard-like, to invite the attention of early graffiti artists and tourists who wanted to leave an inscribed record of their visit. By the time the Nizam of Hyderabad had sent the leading art historian of his state, Ghulam Yazdani, to produce the first photographic survey of the murals in the late 1920s, the murals of caves nine and ten already looked irreparably damaged.
At the same time as the Nizam dispatched Yazdani to study the murals, he also sent two Italian conservationists to help restore them. Unfortunately. their efforts only obscured the murals further: they coated the pigments with a thick layer of unbleached shellac which sat on top of at least two existing Victorian layers of varnish. The shellac attracted grime, dust and dried bat dung and quickly oxidised to a dark reddish brown which totally obscured the images from both travellers and scholars. Less than a century after being rediscovered by a British shooting party in 1819, the figures of caves nine and ten had been lost again. For the entire length of the 20th century they remained effectively hidden, invisible to the naked eye, forgotten by all.
However, a slow and painstaking restoration of the paintings by Manager Singh from 1999 onwards using infra-red light, micro-emulsion and cutting-edge Japanese conservation technology succeeded in removing 75 per cent of the layers of shellac, hard soot and grime from 10 square metres of the murals. “Particular care and precautions were taken not to alter even a grain of pigment,” he wrote. Manager Singh’s remarkable work revealed for the first time since the 1920s the extraordinary images which lay beneath and are now on open display. I happened to stumble across them on a visit to the caves in March. The ASI does not have much of a tradition of PR work, and even internally there is perhaps no full recognition of what Manager Singh has actually achieved and uncovered. For his work is nothing short of a revelation. Peeling off the successive layers of shellac, varnish, dirt and bat dung, Manager Singh has uncovered not just the oldest surviving Buddhist paintings, but the oldest paintings of Indian faces in existence.
More exciting still, this earliest phase of work is not just very old, but very fine indeed and painted in a quite different style, and using markedly different techniques to that used in the rest of Ajanta. The murals of caves nine and ten, reproduced here in colour for almost the first time, represent nothing less than the birth of classical Indian painting. Anywhere else in the world a rediscovery of this importance would be the subject of nationwide headlines, TV documentaries and triumphant exhibitions; but in India the remarkable work of Manager Singh has so far gone virtually unnoticed.