“He who paints waves, flames, smoke and streamers fluttering in the air, according to the movement of the wind, should be considered a great painter.”

Vishnudharmottara , Ch 43 V 28

I heard this for the first time in a fantastic evening lecture by Sri Sivaramakrishnan, who teaches art students in the Government Fine Arts College, Chennai. Thanks to a lucky invite from Sri Swaminathan. It was a wonderful evening, seeing sculpture from an artist’s perspective. But the real treat was towards the end when he went into explaining a few masterpieces of art from Ajanta.

I have heard many friends who visit Ajanta, lured by the timeless masterpieces on display, yet do they really appreciate what is on display ?

long shot of the mural

This is where experts come into play. To illustrate this, ( thanks to Sri Sivaramakrishnan for allowing me to post this ) - i take one of the murals and try to showcase it to portray its true beauty. I didnt take any notes, so all the positives are attributable to him but if there are any mistakes, please pardon my poor memory.

This is what majority of the thousands of visitors streaming through Ajanta see. Sadly this is what is left of these wonderful creations, yet there is still something left in it for us to take it as a subject of our study and justify the title of this post. Can’t believe, ok, take a look again at the mural, focusing to the right of the screen. You can vaguely make out a dark colored lady.

long shot of the mural with the apsara

This is taken at the entrance to Cave 17, and the lady shown is the famous Black Apasara, a member of the troup that is descending to earth to worship the Buddha.

Lets zoom in and see her

closeup of the mural

Impressive - yes, but hang on to your comments!! Let me take on the task of communicating the greatness of this artwork from an art expert’s view.

Before that, let me take the help of artist friend Prasad to do a quick sketch to fully understand what is there in the painting ( this was a rough sketch by him )

prasad's rendition

There are certain key elements of this painting that we need to focus on

We take the first one. Chitrasutra section of Vishnudharmottara ( an ancient treatise on Painting) observes

Rekham prashansantyacharya
Varnadhyamitare janah

or simply ” the masters judge through the line”

eyes and the eye brows

For those of us who have read about Murals and frescos - or rather even tried our hand at simple brush painting, the simple yet splendid beauty of the above creation, executed with just a single smooth stroke of the brush held in the hands of the master artist , is mesmerizing.

Its not just the simple lines nor or they curved or straight lines - for there is subtle suggestion of a bulge of the eyeball and the roundness of the black circle.

Another verse..

Api laghu likhiteyam
drisyate purnamurith

meaning ” with the minimum of drawing almost the full form of the figure is represented”

Ok, i am not going to keep quoting these ancient texts, how does our master painter fare when we talk in contemporary terms ?

Most art classes would start with explaining perspectives - Linear perspective for example is projecting the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface.

Now, lets look at the earrings of our subject

the ear rings

You can see that the left ear ring is actually just two parallel lines - with a hint of curve on the bottom. Now view it in conjunction with the right ear ring - where you see the expert rendition - the oval lines gives you the perspective of the circular ornament.

I come back to the initial quote with which i started the post. Movement. Well consider this, the Apsara is descending when suddenly her attention is caught by the person next to her. You can see her eyes looking to her left. Her face is depicted just turning, but the piece de resistance are these.

sway of jewellery
the sway of the jewellery

Do you notice how the artist has masterly captured the life in the painting, movement of the sway of the hanging jewelery. When she is suddenly stopped, the lag in the jewelery is expertly observed and highlighted.

Even in that you can notice contemporary techniques - take foreshortening for instance - a technique used in perspective to create the illusion of an object receding into the background. See how the beads of the necklace nearer to the center of the chest are larger than those that are going over the shoulder.

Thus, you know that this was rendered by a great painter albeit the unknown painter of Ajanta.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, January 23rd, 2010 at 12:05 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

20 Comments so far

Sivaram Kannan

Spellbinding Article Vj. A huge bow to bringing this to us.

January 23rd, 2010 at 14:08

it is a pleasure to visit your blog! lovely! thanks!

January 23rd, 2010 at 16:28

I may be having a difference of opinion with some of the artistic details, yet the whole essay is good and with rare information. Your sincerity and enthusiasm in this field is really laudable.

January 23rd, 2010 at 17:42

hi sirs, all praise to the unknown painter and sivaramakrishanan sir.


January 23rd, 2010 at 20:20

Shivan sir, Please do voice your opinion, afterall these are interpretations and the more we explore we learn more


January 24th, 2010 at 18:31

I just started reading ur blog a couple of weeks back - it is so informative and interesting! Especially, this post - an amazing short course of art appreciation! Look forward to learning more about the painting and sculpture heritage of India!


January 25th, 2010 at 2:11

dear padma

Welcome. Please take time to read the archives / prev posts. am sure you will find them interesting. will try n live up to the high expectations in the coming posts as well


January 25th, 2010 at 5:45

அபாரம் ஸ்வாமிநாதன் சார் எங்கோ இருக்கவேண்டியவர். நமது அதிர்ஷ்டம் சென்னையில் நமக்கு அருள் பாலித்துக் கொண்டிருக்கிறார் :)
நன்றி, விஜய், இந்த இழைக்கு.

January 25th, 2010 at 20:38

Oh wow…some of us don’t even give a second look at these and you have written a whole piece!! Even the guides at Ajanta are in such a hurry to finish the loop that they barely touch the surface in terms of explaining these murals.

February 3rd, 2010 at 12:40

Awesome! I have been viewing your blog for a while through PS group. Thanks so much for helping open art-blind eyes like mine :)
Impressive to think they imagined and executed such art so long ago.. these are so much more impressive than the Da Vinci/Rafael…

February 3rd, 2010 at 23:52

Im coming to your blog after such a long time and what a treat…its amazing to see such works and your post just brings out the masterpiece out there..loved the first quote

February 4th, 2010 at 20:18

hi,thanks viaji. once i enjy the painting with touist guide. but this time i enjoy more with artist guide.facial expressios and costumes are awesome in ajanta

February 5th, 2010 at 13:12

ஓவியத்தை ரசித்ததோடு அல்லாமல், எப்படி ரசிக்கவேண்டும் எனவும் காட்டுகிறீர்கள், நல்ல உழைப்பு, அருமையான இடுகை, நன்றி விஜய். மேன்மேலும் சிறப்பான இடுகைகளை இட வாழ்த்துகள்.

February 11th, 2010 at 13:38

Great work vijay na… Thanks for sharing the details of the great master piece…

March 5th, 2010 at 9:22

thanks sathish. looking forward to seeing your sketches on temple art.


March 5th, 2010 at 11:55

dear satheesh,

Tks, looking forward to receiving your sketches on temple art soon.


March 5th, 2010 at 11:57
Alice Zoellin

This black Apsara of cave 17 was copied in oil by an artist SARVAIYA probably in the 60ies. I would like to know more about him.

November 29th, 2011 at 3:37

Dear Alice,

Will check and revert. Tks for the information


November 29th, 2011 at 15:30

wonderful tutoring of the details in a ajanta mural. looking forward to more of the same kind! thanks for the effort. do you know where i can get a copy of the chitrasutra with english explanations?

December 15th, 2012 at 11:49

thanks Vasuki - am waiting for some good quality images of the paintings from a friend- once received will definitely post on them. rgds vj

January 11th, 2013 at 15:51

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