To enjoy a similar spell we should have to get right back into Pagan Greece. Certainly there is nothing in all the lofty perfection of Mural Painting in Christian Italy quite so natural in feeling—so reckless—and at the same time so wise. We will, however, leave the consideration of the comparative place in the world’s art which should be assigned to Ajanta (one of the most fascinating of subjects) and endeavour to arrive at an estimate of some of the qualities which make these Mural Paintings so valuable and instructive.
One should avoid any tendency to regard the Ajanta paintings as in the nature of a tour-de-force, an isolated miracle of art, brought into being by mysterious forces into which it would be almost sacrilege to inquire too closely. Many admirers of these works have laid stress on their subjective qualities of character and what is called their spirituality. In a sense these works were, of course, inspired as are all works of human genius.
But to imagine that these works were produced simply as the result of a lofty spirit of religious self-dedication and enthusiasm would be a far too limited and one sided explanation of their beauty. Religious enthusiasm no doubt did much to sweeten the toil and labour of their work for the workers, but alone it would not have sufficed. No one knows better than the decorative artist that Mural Painting cannot depend upon enthusiasm entirely for its success though it must have that strong derivative force.
There are no lucky flukes in Mural Painting. The art is too circumscribed and difficult in its technique—too purely intellectual. But if there is one emotional quality that prevails more than another in the Ajanta panels, it is to be discovered in their remarkable and abounding “joie de vivre”; the religious element is frequently conspicuous by its absence; and no where very obtrusive except in the sublime figure of the “Bodhisatva”2 in Cave I, who by the way is surrounded by some of the most charming but certainly most mundane of the lovely cave creatures.
Another still more important fact to show that the paintings were the result of profound technical knowledge, gradually acquired, is that in the Ajanta Caves we possess only one surviving example of an art that was in its day widely diffused throughout India.
The country was filled with similar indigenous Mural Paintings the sum of whose beauty may well have more than equalled Ajanta as we see it.
The monks painted these pictures in tempera, and it says much for that ancient medium that some of the earliest paintings still extant by no means the least beautiful either were executed 2,000 years ago. This is a point worth noting in view of the doubt sometimes expressed that Mural Painting whether in fresco, oil, or tempera, will not stand the Indian climate. The freshness of the colouring in some of the caves is truly marvellous, and where they have darkened it is either on account of the preservative coat of varnish applied in recent times, or because of pilgrim’s fires and the rough handling they have undergone at one time and another.
The monks used a very restricted palette; a beautiful jade green, and occasional citron are perhaps the most vivid notes that prevail; the basis of the whole colour-scheme being a warm earth tint. This reticence of tints—not of colour—so far from being a limitation, enormously increases the general unity of effect which successive artists managed to retain through all the variations of style during the lapse of centuries. It also tends to a broad simplicity in spite of the extremely elaborate composition of some of the panels.
But if the critic finds in this restricted range of colour merely an evidence of the paucity of pigments then existing a theory which cannot wholly cover the facts he cannot so explain away the amazing selective skill with which the Ajanta masters—for all their limitations of knowledge of tone values—graduated the tones of their colours.
They understood the perils of monotony, and instead of relying upon a wide variety of colours were able to achieve by means of strong contrast and skilful variations of tone all the titillation required.
Yet their scale of values also was closely and sternly limited. The sparkling high lights so dearly loved by some modern Mural Painters amount to what old Vasari might have termed “a capital heresy in the art”. At Ajanta an art broad as the Indian Ocean, luminous as the Indian Night, subdued to an almost astetic point of renunciation of tricks of the trade, looms darkling upon our reverent gaze.
There is much at Ajanta that is naturally less worthy; and in the caves of later days there are figures as still and iron-wrought as if they were from the stilted brush of Margaritone. But the designs in the First and Second Caves are most noble. Fully did our Masters understand that the silhouette is and must ever be the basis of Mural Painting. How well they avoided geometrical symmetry in planning the points of their composition; how carefully they varied the distances and heights of the heads of their figures; how fully they realised and eschewed the damaging weakness that ever lurks in the concave line. Their drawing is expressive, virile, telling; their Arabesques full of life. Each individual figure or piece of drapery is made to yield the utmost in line and expression, that can be got out of it. Never do these old Buddhist Artists become banal never do they call in the art of the easel painter to lend them meriticious aid; what cannot be well expressed in line or silhouette should not be attempted by the Mural Paiinter, and well does the Ajanta tradition maintain this golden rule.
But the Masters did not limit themselves in regard to form any more than the restrictions of a just regard for the exigencies of space, and the control of colour, and light and shade demanded. On the contrary they revelled in humanity the humanity of the world about them. Their delight in the decorating of naked limbs with ornaments is the naive and innocent delight of the child,3 and the beauty of mortal Woman permeates their compositions, as the perfume of the moon-flower fills the Indian gardens in April.
They worked from the living model freely, constantly and with a keen appreciation of movement and gesture; and they certainly painted from cartoons and sketches. Their use of outline differs much in its treatment, it being sometimes eliminated altogether as in the four-figure panel of a lady at her toilet, where the edges of the figures are wonderfully treated, the general effect being so broad in feeling as to remind us forcibly of the later work of, Giovanni Bellini.
But as a rule they relied upon a definite outline, and a very pure and beautiful line it is. We may be sure that many of the heads are portraits; there are many very characteristic ones which are perfect. And throughout every phase of these decorations pulses a throbbing, vigorous, energetic life, that was never yet attained by visionaries, but only by energetic craftsmen with highly developed powers of mind, of observation and of technique. The Painters of Ajanta were far from being mere visionaries. They were a band of tremendously practical hard-workers. This is a point that cannot be too strongly insisted upon to-day when there still exists a tendency to approach Indian Art from the mystical or antiquarian rather than from the genuinely artistic point, of view.4
- 1. This and the preceding chapter are reprinted from a lecture delivered by the Author before the Architectural Students’ Association on July 7th 1921, published in the Bombay Chronicle’s issue of the 12th July 1921.
- 2. That is, Buddha before his Great Renunciation.
- 3. No more perfect or imaginative use of ornament exists.
- 4. See the Paintings of the Buddhist Cave Temples of
Ajanta, by J. Griffith. Published by the orders of the Secretary of State for
India in Council 1896. (Out of Print.)
Ajanta Frescoes by Lady Heringham and her assistant Humphrey Milford: Oxford University Press, London, 1915. The Rock-cut Temples of India, by J. Fergusson, London: John Weale, 59, High Holborn.