The Muralist of Antiquity: Ganesh Haloi and his tribute to lost greatness of Ajanta Caves

The classical paintings depicting the past lives and rebirths of the Buddha and the Jataka tales had almost faded under the assault of disastrous colonial restoration efforts and vandalising tourists.

Published: 20th June 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th June 2021 09:32 PM   |  A+A-

Interiors of one of the caves in Ajanta

Interiors of one of the caves in Ajanta. (Photo| EPS)

Ganesh Haloi was 22 when he arrived at the Ajanta Caves in Sahyadri Hills in 1957. A year before, after graduating from the Government College of Art & Craft, Kolkata, he had visited Bodh Gaya where the Buddha's 2,000th birth anniversary was being celebrated. There, he learnt about the celebrated artist Nandalal Bose's attempts to copy a Buddhist mural in the Ajanta Caves in the light of just a petromax. The story inspired him.

He got a job with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which assigned him to make copies of the Buddhist murals on the cave walls. The classical paintings depicting the past lives and rebirths of the Buddha and the Jataka tales had almost faded under the assault of disastrous colonial restoration efforts and vandalising tourists. The first vandal was John Smith, an English cavalryman who discovered the caves in 1819. On the figure of a Bodhisattva, he inscribed, "John Smith, 28th cavalry, 28 April 1819."

Haloi's exquisite reproductions on paper are now part of the Ajanta collection of the National Museum, Delhi. Now, two large hard-bound scrapbooks of his drawings and photographs of the surrounding villages and caves circa 1968, accompanied by his own text with elaborate captions and footnotes, are being published as a book.

It is a seminal work that provides fresh insights into the murals, the earliest of which dates back to the 2nd century BC. His familiarity with the art and the region is so deep that his imaginary bird’s eye view of the caves is a significant piece that acts like a time machine taking us back to an earlier period of history.

It shows the Waghur River's seven descents down the rocks before forming a concurrent crescent along the gorge above which the caves stand. The lavishly illustrated book is being published by Bhubaneswar-based Artistmindz. 

Haloi says, "Drawings are the mainstay of the book. They may not be clearly visible because they have blurred, darkened in tone and fragmented over time, but the text focuses on the technical know - how of the nameless artists." The illustrations are supplemented with photographs and diagrams.

Haloi's reproductions cover the earliest Buddhist schools (Hinayana) when the Buddha was not worshipped in human form and the second period (Mahayana) where this changes. Haloi is living proof that you are never too old to handle software. Born in 1936, Haloi was already in his 70s when he took computer lessons from a former student.

It took him over four years, hunched over the computer ignoring severe back pain to produce the two volumes. They are historical documents in the sense that they reveal Ajanta as it looked over half a century ago. Haloi writes in the preface, "The figures of Ajanta paintings are mainly based on line drawings with tonal depth generally found in relief sculpture… This has resulted in various mistakes in interpretations." He challenges many earlier interpretations of the murals.

The book opens with a detail of the jewellery in the murals. The artist had to master Photoshop to get the details right. Haloi is an interpreter of the Jataka tales - close-ups of Buddha’s hands in 'bhumisparsha mudra'.

Enlarged, the pensive expression in Mahamaya's eyes becomes clear when she dreams of the white elephant that predicts her son's destiny as the Enlightened One. The devil Mara tries to tempt Buddha. His beautiful daughter tries to interrupt his meditation.

A deer listens to a sermon, one ear cocked. Gravity-defying dancers, celestial beauties and musicians accompany Indra. A king is being bathed before his coronation. Teeming with natural life, flowers and foliage abound in the work. 

Much before Haloi entered the picture, the art of Ajanta was mutilated, defaced and damaged, in some sections, beyond recognition. Haloi’s deft strokes with pencil and brush bring back to vivid life the rhythm, exuberance, grace and sensuous beauty of the figures.

The book is 260 pages in all, displaying 200 sketches. On the last page is a photograph of a massive sculpture of Buddha in Nirvana. The first to document the Ajanta murals was Major Robert Gill between 1844 and 1863. Thereafter, students of Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai undertook a similar project from 1872.

The third was in 1910-1911 by a team led by Sister Nibedita in association with Lady Christiana Herringham that included Nandalal Bose and Asit Kumar Haldar. Japanese artist Arai Kampo, who was invited to India by Rabindranath Tagore, made tracings in 1916-1918.

Around 1920, EL Vassey had photographed them in colour at the behest of the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Oxford University Press. Unfortunately, the Nizam’s two Italian restorers coated the mural pigments in Cave 10 with unbleached shellac. During the Victorian age, the British had varnished them over at least twice.

The dirt and bat dung that stained the shellac oxidised and almost hid the images. Efforts were made by Rajdeo Singh, the ASI chief of conservation and head of science at Aurangabad in 1999, to save the murals. 

He used infrared light, micro-emulsion and sophisticated Japanese conservation technology. But important sections have vanished. Haloi’s work will help recreate the lost glory.


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