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Through a lens, darkly

National Geographic says art historian Benoy K Behl helped shed academic light on the 1,500-year-old murals of the Ajanta, inside dreary man-made caves carved out of a basaltic rock mass, writes Zia Haq.

india Updated: Jan 04, 2008 20:55 IST
Zia Haq

Benoy K. Behl’s love for ancient Indian art is no passing affair; it’s, more or less, an epic romance. His pictures of the enchanting Ajanta paintings helped shed academic light on the 1,500-year-old murals inside dreary man-made caves carved out of a basaltic rock mass. National Geographic magazine can’t be wrong when it says that Behl’s pictures are so striking that, “it was as if he discovered the caves for the first time”.

The January issue of the magazine, on sale now, has devoted 18 pages to the Ajanta paintings, along with other murals hidden in the mystic darkness of ancient Indian temples. All of them shot by Behl.

Photographing the Ajanta murals, which Behl took nearly 15 years ago, was a seemingly insurmountable task. The caves let in very little natural light and photographers are not allowed to use flash for reasons of conservation. “It took unusually long exposures to get them right,” says 51-year-old Behl, who majored in English from Delhi’s St. Stephen’s college before joining the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. The art historian, film-maker and photographer then went on to click nearly 30,000 pictures of rarely-documented temples and monasteries in a trail that spans the whole of India and parts of Tibet. The trail roughly begins at Mangyu Monastery in Ladakh’s barren wilderness and ends at Sittanavasal caves in Tamil Nadu. National Geographic recreates the trail as magazine writer Tom O’Neill accompanies Behl on a rediscovery trek.

Behl, who lectures on Indian art the world over, discerns a philosophy of secular compassion — evidently lacking in modern India — in ancient Indian art. “Did your history textbooks tell you that the entire ancient art of Buddhism was made under kings who worshipped Hindu gods?” he asks.

Behl was transformed by the Ajanta paintings. “What happened to me at Ajanta was what was meant to be,” he says showing off a coffee-table book on his photographs published by Thames and Hudson. Behl holds a Limca record for more travel in India than any other living person. Many of Behl’s photographs are permanently exhibited by galleries the world over. He says the greatest thing about Indian art was its power to transform lives. “That is the purpose of art,” he says, “according to the ancient Indian art treatise Chitrasutra.”