2000 years is a long time for paintings to survive, and one can only wonder about the scientific acumen of painters from that age, who knew what colours to use and identified the ideal surfaces to paint them on. Survival, however, does not always mean ‘pristine’, and the amazing Ajanta cave paintings are very much the worse for wear. Various restoration efforts have been made, and a rather unique one has been attempted by photographer Prasad Pawar, who decided to undertake the responsibility of painstakingly photographing the series of paintings, and then ‘digitally’ restoring them. As is apparent from the photographs you see here, his work is of an extremely high standard, which is why it was showcased in an exhibition by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). He spoke to us to explain how he managed to do this.
“I became a photographer much later. Initially, I was an artist. You can say that I got a camera in 1989, 13th December and thereafter I learnt the skill,” he says initially in our conversation. “In 1989, while I was in my first year college of Arts, paintings from the Ajanta caves (which had Jataka tales of Buddha) were being taught. I asked my teacher why there were some parts missing in the painting. He said that they were 2000 years old, and had deteriorated. So the paintings had a hand missing, a stomach missing, he said. I told him that these paintings are our prestige, our culture, they are world renowned, and I am very sad that parts of them are missing. That’s when the journey began,” he adds.
It wasn’t an easy journey, or one without its challenges. To figure out the missing parts requires a lot of study, and as you can see, nothing looks out of place in the digitally restored versions. “Thousands of hours are spent on research. We travelled over 35,000 km on Indian roads in the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala,” Prasad says, in the exhibition booklet issued by IGNCA.
Due to deterioration, some parts of the paintings had turned yellow or faded away completely, and to match the original colours, Pawar measured the colour temperature of the lights, analysed various processes and studied monuments from that era that still existed across the length and breadth of the country. He also studied ancient languages, and is a student of Pune University’s Pali language department. Until now, Pawar has restored 14,000 sq. ft. of Ajanta paintings, and his work has received appreciation from the Dalai Lama. “I appreciate and praise your restoration of the damaged paintings in the Ajanta caves, which are part of ancient Indian art. I hope your work will inspire many people,” he wrote in a letter to Pawar.
“I was made to realize the reason for my birth. Under any circumstances, I want to preserve Ajanta for the next generations. I trust that all will get involved in this work of research and preservation of Indian art,” says Pawar. Ajanta is a mirror from where we can look into the past. 2000-year old Indian history, philosophy, art and culture are still communicating to us, thanks to Pawar and his team.