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Key digitally restored painting spotlights India’s ancient tradition

The restored "Queen and Attendants", photographed and digitally restored by Benoy K Behl

Renowned art historian, photographer and filmmaker, Benoy K. Behl, has unveiled one of the earliest surviving paintings that he clicked in a Hindu temple, spotlighting India’s lesser-known art tradition rooted in antiquity.

Titled as “Queen and Attendants”, the photograph depicts the earliest surviving Hindu painting in Cave 3, Badami, located in Karnataka. The 6th century CE , clicked by Behl in 2001 was digitally restored recently. It is now being preserved in the Arctic World Archives (AWA) by Sapio Analytics.

The AWA is a facility for data preservation, located in the Svalbard archipelago on the island of Spitsbergen, Norway. It houses data of historical and cultural interest from several countries, in a deeply buried steel vault, with the data storage medium expected to last for 500 to 1000 years.

The unrestored "Queen and Attendants", Badami (Photograph by Benoy K Behl)

The descriptions of the Badami paintings in the 1950s included many paintings, which were lost by the time he reached there to photograph them in 2001, Behl observed during a recent virtual event. In fact, the National Geographic Magazine, who were doing feature on his work in 2008, could hardly even see them.

The digital restoration of “Queen and Attendants” is therefore significant as it brings alive a lesser-known aspect of India’s rich ancient heritage. “This photography and restoration is of considerable importance in the documentation of the tradition of Indian paintings,” remarks Behl.

He describes his latest initiative as part of a pioneering effort to document the uninterrupted tradition of painting in India, which can be traced to antiquity, and bring it in the global limelight.

Behl’s acclaimed low-light photography, and use of digital tools, has helped to capture, with remarkable accuracy, traditional paintings which had decayed over time. “My intimate relationship with ancient Indian paintings over many years has helped to digitally restore these photographs,” observes Behl.

During the unveiling event, Behl also released a paper titled “Earliest Surviving Hindu Painting & Tradition of Ancient Indian Painting”, which too will be preserved in AWA.

Benoy K. Behl (Pic:Courtesy peopleareculture.com)

The paper further develops the theme that India has one of the finest traditions of painting in the world.  

Behl's herculean efforts to course- correct the history of Indian art became sharply focused when he clicked the iconic Ajanta paintings, in 1992.  He also turned heads by imaging the 10th Century paintings in the dark and narrow inner ambulatory corridor of the Brhadiswara Temple at Thanjavur, in Tamil Nadu.

The turning point came a year later, when Behl showed his photographs to Dr. Milo C. Beach, a known American expert on Indian paintings. Beach was then Director of the US National Galleries of Asian Art.  Behl recalls what Beach told him: “After what you have shown me, I have to revise my understanding of the history of Indian painting.”

Beach explained that art historians around the world had not been aware that India had a continuous tradition of painting since ancient times. The Ajanta paintings of the 5th Century were known, but there was no knowledge that a tradition existed that pre-dated Ajanta. In fact, most studies and courses see medieval India as the fount of India’s painting tradition. Behl’s work helps explode this myth.

The image was released yesterday before the public in the Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, President of Indian Council for Cultural Relations and Suresh Prabhu, Member of Parliament, India’s Sherpa to G7 & G20.

The event was hosted by Sapio Analytics.