Art News & Views

Didn't We Often Wish We Lived in a Time of Ancient Glory


by C S Shashidhar

Antiques represent the glory of the past telling us about the history of a particular time, the people and the culture, they are for a historian symbolic objects of the history with which he would ascertain his claims. Antiques do link us with our heritage, enabling us to understand where we hailed from. A state without any regards for the cultural past is like a temple without the faith in the god, and similarly a state without a trace or relic of the past is like a god forsaken land.

Didn't we often curiously wish we returned to a time of Mauryan, Pallava or Vijayanagara glory and lived as a citizen of the particular time?

Of course anyone with the conviction for humanity will always be intrigued by history.

How a reconnoiter at the archaeological site helps

For over ten millennium years the Indian sub-continent has witnessed a significant civilized anthropological movement which has left behind the evidences which are sometimes apparent and sometimes hidden in the labyrinthine folds of the earth. Somehow these hidden relics of the past, either by the activities of inquisitive man or by the nature's topsy-turvical dispositions, have revealed for us the treasures of evidences about the erstwhile lifestyles. Radio-active dating which helps in determining the age of the objects up to 60,000 years has enabled us to arrive at more accurate chronology of the past.

Likewise there has been established a significant continuity between rock art motif and Indus-Sarasvati art motif of Indus-Sarasvati Civilization (8000-1900 B.C.) and also the discovery that the creation of Rig-Veda, the ancient script on Hindu philosophy, was around 5000 B.C. After the excavation of Indus valley in 1920 we have been given to understand the rich heritage lying under the earth was the relics of Harappa and Mohenjodaro civilization, which is one of the important ancient civilizations of the world.

The extent of civilization of Harappa and Mohenjodaro which dates back to 3000-1800 B.C. is just so startling and inexplicable. Meticulous town-planning, large bath which is referred to as 'Great-bath', numerous public-baths, circuit roads, bitumen water-proofed pool, college-hall with 78 rooms and all, stand as witnesses to the civil administration and technology that existed at the period. The bronze beautiful dancing girl which is 4500 years old, the bust of the priest of Harappa-Mohenjodaro, many other clay and terracotta articles, clay seals, coins and bronze idols belonging to this civilization intrigue an anthropologist forever. No wonder it was called the Bronze Age.

The murals, sculptures, paintings, stone and metal inscriptions, just like the architectural antiquities are philologically, iconographically and anthropologically significant.

The treasures age, fade and wither

The Buddhist monasteries, stupas of the regime of Asoka; Nalanda University, the first great university of the world, believed to have flourished during Harshavardhana; the beautiful temples of the northern states such as the ones in Konark, Khajuraho, Puri, Mount Abu; the sculptural monuments of Chalukya, Rashtrakuta, Chola, Pallava, Vijayanagara, and Hoysala Period; the palaces of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan; the paintings of Ajantha and Badami caves, all of these belonging to the Medieval Period, along with many epigraphic inscriptions of related rulers and also the ancient literary works, under whose patronage they were built have served us with a retrospective imagery of the past, that a historian with a good film-maker can re-create a drama similar to the past glories.

A profound investigation through the antique architectural monuments, other antique articles used in administration, agriculture and the households in a state, the weaponry, the inscriptions, the coins and seals, sculptures and paintings, enable us in understanding the culture, economy and the methods of administration of the particular state, fashion and lifestyles, modes of transport in a way supporting anthropological studies.

Thus we need to preserve and treasure such antiques for the future.

Documentation essential

In a person's lifespan there would be a maximum access for first hand information spanning five generations whose source would be either direct, through the media or from the memoirs of individuals of preceding generations, the information however would be subject to bias or prejudice, even obliterations.

Hence documenting the information by the state becomes essential. An individual, an organization, a ruler or a state with the vested interests based on religious fanaticism or sycophancy would not help. We find such innumerable books documenting events with prejudice. They will not be any better than the folk songs.

Whereas Indian state gazetteers have been useful as they contain vital and authentic information about the states, rulers, genealogies, wars, cultures, literature, arts and so on.

Well we can't in any way expect such documents from the Medieval Period. Beyond the Moghal Period we'd find only epigraphs in medieval languages which even after deciphering endow fragmented information. Cryptologists are many times boggled by the cryptic nature of the inscriptions sometimes impossible to crack. The inscriptions found in the Harappan seals are yet to be deciphered. Otherwise, we have to depend on the archaeological findings based on the antiques.

Thus the preservation of the antiques become important

Nature and man are two major threats to the antiques. The natural climatic changes like wind, moisture, rain, floods and earthquake could damage the monuments. Well that can be perceived as a part of the evolution. Whereas, contemporary people would sometimes fail to understand the credibility of the antiques. They fail to understand that what would be a masterpiece then is antiquely precious today. These masterpieces are the things of amusement for the people of present time. The tourists coming from the general society who comprise of both educated and moronic order are difficult to manage. Somebody rides on a sculpture of an elephant, someone uses the walls of the monuments as the base for his graffiti to carve out the name of his lover. The priest's extravaganza in his service to god in a temple of archaeological importance can't be questioned. He would get a sculpture painted according to his whims and fancies, gets an ancient stone replaced by the polished granite and so on. The guides of fairy tales too are no lesser threats.

Industries, high-rise buildings and other activities around the archaeological sites do cause enough of damage.

Well we know the about the world famous Taj Mahal being a subject to the polluted air which is turning its marble into yellow because of the low pH value of the air which is acidic in nature.

The most important series of paintings are in threat

After the cave paintings of Ajanta (200 B.C), Pallava drawings (500-600 A.D circa) and Badami (900-1000 A.D circa), and few other paintings found, during the Medieval Period, there has been a visible chasm and hence there is not a continuity of any style until as late as 12th century. Well the possibility of a style existing during the Hoysala Period cannot be ruled out. It's interesting to note about the palm leaf manuscripts belonging to 12th century which was recently discovered by Jagdish Mittal, published in the article written by Koeli Mukherjee Ghose for ART news and views, June 2011.

However, there has been a mention of Jain manuscript paintings of this period by both K Shivarama Karanth and C Shivarama Murthy in their books Karnataka Paintings and Indian Painting.

When C Shivarama Murthy claimed that these palm leaf paintings of Mudbidri, to be in the Hoysala style, K Shivarama Karanth denounced the idea saying they didn't, arguing that there was never a style of Hoysala that existed. Anyway, the palm leaf paintings with the Ramayana narrative published in the article of Koeli Mukherjee Ghose, are quite emphatic with their stylization that seems to be completely different from all the genres so far, also it forms the essential link to Vijayanagara style, which in turn descends down to Tanjore and Mysore styles later.

Significantly C Shivarama Murthy, comparing the Hampi ceiling paintings at Virupaksha temple with the paintings of Tiruvanjuli temple (Madras state), emphasizes that the Vijayanagara style later evolved to become Tanjore and Mysore styles.

When these ceiling paintings of Vijayanagara were done is quite uncertain, it could have been painted between mid 15th and early 16th century.

However, neither Kalpasutra paintings (1439 A.D), the Jain style of paintings of Gujarat, the paintings of Rajasthan school nor the Pali paintings (1112 A.D); which existed before Mogul school, bore any resemblance to Vijayanagara school.

Whereas, interestingly the palm-leaf manuscript works of Mudbidri of the native Jaina style seems to have set precedence to the Vijayanagara style. The most striking character of both these styles is that the pictorals of all the figures of gods and human beings will be straight to the audience even if the characters are walking sideways. Even the facial features like the aquiline nose, typical eyes and thin lips, and also the costumes, the sari and mundu pleats are so similar to each other.

The influence of Hoysalas over Jains during the reign of king Vishnuvardhana, as the queen Shantaladevi herself a devout Jain, is clear. She promoted Jainism and built a number of Jain Basdis and encouraged arts, literature and music. The Jainism proliferating in the twin towns Karkala and Mudbidri can be attributed to Hoyasala influence.

The ceiling paintings of Hampi have faded in the course of time and weather upheavals, today they are so fragile that in a few decades we would lose the last oeuvre of one of the most significant styles of India.

The tasks of restoring of the Hampi monuments undertaken by the ASI have been quite commendable. Whereas, the series of paintings based on Ramayana, Mahabharatha, Dashavtara, Girija Kalyana and other mythological themes, which embodies a genre which is the result of cultural euphoria of the time of Vijayanagara, are under severe threat.

'The idea that any action by a conservator must be capable of being reversed at a later date', says Dr Ashley-Smith, Keeper of Conservation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the foreword written for the book Looking After Antiques.

Many attempts of restoring the paintings of Hampi have been carried out, many a time by the artists without proper training and qualification. The painting technique and the material used by these restorers are so claustrophobic that instead of using natural dyes similar to ones used originally, they have used modern enamel at places. The original sketch has been overdrawn.

Another threat to this series of painting is the CO2 and CO that emanates from the Sanctum which is right next to the mantap where these paintings are.

The recent excavations and restoration of the monument carried out by the ASI has unearthed new stories adding to the history of glorious Hampi.

Whereas, nothing seems to be enough for the vast archaeological remains, looking at the way things are falling apart.

Images Courtesy: The Author

Tags: antique

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art etc. news & views is a monthly magazine published from India in order to promote art and culture. It intends to raise awareness about art all around India and the world. The magazine covers art exhibitions, auction highlights, market trends, art happenings besides Antique, Collectibles, Fashion, Jewellery, Vintage, Furniture, Film, Music and Culture.