In seventh century A.D. Hieuen Tsang wrote about this caves which will be our entry point to the subject. “In the east of this country(Mohalach’a= Maharashtra) was a mountain range, ridges are above another in succession, tries of peaks and sheer summits.Here was a monastery the base of which was in dark defile and its lofty halls and deep chambers were quarried in the cliff and rested on those track and faced the ravine. The monestry had been built by A-Che-lo of West India. Within the establishment was a large temple above 100 ft height in which was a stone image of the Buddha above seventy feet high.The image was surmounted by a tier of seven canopies unattached and unsupported, each canopy, separated from one above… the walls of this temple had depicted on them the, incidents of Bhuddha’s bodi and small omens attending all great and swmall were here delinated…’. This is one of the earliest descriptions of Ajanta cave .However this world heritage was accidently re-discovered by Madras Army in 1819 and initial works were carried out by archeologist James Burgess and Major William Gill, who exhibited their work in 1866. Since then much has been written on Ajanta and volumes of reports and monographs have surfaced over the century. Thus today we would only touch upon the aesthetic punctuations of Ajanta Fresco to refresh some of our lost memory.
Whether Ajanta paintings are really fresco? The explanations are found in the words of Benjamin Rowland who wrote about the fresco elements and making of surface for Ajanta cave paintings.In the book AJANTA CAVES he recorded “fresco in its true sense implies the application of colors to a layer of moist lime plaster, Indian and all other Asian murals were painted on a dry wall. At Ajanta the rough surface of the rock wall was covered with a layer of earth or cow dung mixed with chopped straw of animal hair as a binding medium to a thickness of an inch or an inch and a half. When this surface has been completely smoothed off, it was covered with a thin layer of finely sieved gypsum or lime plaster, and it was upon this surface that actual painting was done”
In one of the celebrated analysis of Ajanta Paintings Nalini Bhagwat wrote “It is very significant that the available space at the disposal of Ajanta painter is not restricted like that of Sanchi, Bharut or Amravati sculptures, but is comperatively extensive. The complete wall is at the disposal of the Ajanta artist. There is no limit of frame work except the break up of the area by the doom looms often the wall is fully covered with the composition and sometime when the whole wall is covered, the painting continues at right angle on adjoining wall too” . Thus we see the canvas for Ajanta painters were wide open and the continuance remained the key word of inter-connectivity from theme to theme and then to the culture temperatures. On this given wide unrestricted wall ‘canvas’ painter worked out variety of arrangements mainly horizontal band and differentiation came to the fore with weavy lines. The movement of themes ran from left to right and otherwise as well. Sheilal Weiner observed that “… the paintings, on the otherhand, appear overwheliming, it is due to their close proximity. The slender and elongated figures and the painted Jatakas scenes present no more of a contrast to the colossal and weighty qualities of the principal sculpted deities that do the minor carved deities to the principle shrine images.”
The No.10 Ajanta cave is said to be oldest and dates back to first century A.D. In this one can see the depiction of Jataka stories which are indication of previous births of Buddha before attaining Nirvana. The paintings are so arranged in the form of a long freize and theme to theme are linked with frame to frame. However, in some frame the Boddhisattva played the axis which are encircled with various motifs without the classical element of harmonising, nervertheless,the motif and decoration are so placed that one explores one detail to another in an interrelated fashion, without compromising at the axis prominance.
The composition generally confine to single band of ornamentation though in later years paintings overspread the entire surface of the rock canvas. Benjumin Rowland wrote “These paintings overspread the entire surface with human beings in the enactment of Indian Aesop’s fables, have the same sense of teeming life and vitality we encounter in the densely crowded relief of the famous gateways of Sanchi”.
At the level of composition, the ‘eye’ of human compassion is almost universal and motifs like human being to animal are punctuated in a manner without loosing its balance or character. Ornamentation and hemming with flower and foliage are depicted with ‘dancing rhythm’ .Vartana or shading on the leaf are uniquly copy-book of ancient aesthetic dictum.
The famous queen depiction in palace (cave I) is one of the unique example lavanya or grace one of the six elements of art mentioned in Kama Sutra. In this composition one finds the lyrical eyes looking downword with compassion. Though the painting has faded but the highlight and shades stands out prominently. Jewels and ornamentations from necklace to arm-band are prominently placed without undermining the flow and movement of the gesture. If we compare this posture with the cave XVII where Indra and his celestial nymphs are shown one can find the contrast. Though both are in their ‘grace’but colour temperature changes rapidly. Indra is given a movement with the puffing air like white and blue shades. The detail of ornaments are given a secondary treatment. But the bhava of compassion is never lost.
In the cave XVII we find a depiction of Jataka “Visvavantra”. Here the queen and her associates seen in the palace garden.T he tree with powerful stem and longish leaves are the reliefs. But the window, from where two females are peeping makes it an interesting as if those are wall hanging! The intricacies of any character is not neglected, but again the queen with her standing posture becomes an axis. This is the uniqueness, as none of the character is diluted to enchance one depiction. All are in those isolation got enough highlight without defeating the theme.
If you analyse the eyes of Ajanta fresco, its really unique. The eyes of the princess, kings and celestial gods are drawin with weavy eye-lid of meditative nature to depict the sulime look of grace and compassion. Similarly the eyes of the beggers(Cave XVII) are ‘soothing’ but has an element of pain and suffering. Then in the same cave where a Brahman receiving ‘alms’ is shown with anxious ‘eyes’with the addendums of creases and twitchings. Again in the same cave the eyes of the maid is seen with the ‘element’of action. So the essence of resemblance true to the mind and nature stood prominently in those fresco.
These are some punctuations. But delving deep into the figures, the ‘compsit’compositions and the posture swings with the character and theme of the frame which differed to create style within style, and at times set out trends of super imposition in a tier system .of characters without howerver loosing the sublime purpose of aesthetic compositions.