An exhibition that showcases evolution of rock art in India

On 6th December, a very important event opened at the Indira Gandhi National Centre For Arts (IGNCA) in the capital. This was the first International Rock Art Festival and it brought into focus the ancient rock paintings spread across India through workshops and talks along with images of major sites where the paintings can be seen. The exhibition will be open till January 25 and should not be missed for anyone interested in the evolution of art in India. It brings into focus the earliest form of art in the country and having already attracted a large number of curious visitors, is doing a splendid job of introducing people to India’s ‘rock art’ — a subject that just a few know about.

In India, the main locations for rock paintings are Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and Orissa dating as far back as between 4,000 and 12,000 BC. The exhibition at IGNCA has been suitably mounted in a cave-like setting, similar to that at Bhimbhetka, an archaeological world heritage site in Madhya Pradesh, which contains the largest concentration of rock art in India. Bhimbetka is located close to Pachmarhi, a popular holiday destination and the only hill station in the state. Bhimbetka’s name has an interesting translation. It means the ‘sitting place for Bhima’, one of the Pandavas. According to legend, the brothers had sought shelter in these caves.

The exhibition opened with images from the rock paintings that can still be clearly seen on the inner walls of the caves in Bhimbetka, but went on to trace the evolution of rock art into ethnic art. Many of us are familiar with the Saura art of Odisha, Warli art from Maharashtra and Rathwa art from Gujarat, without realising that these originated from prehistoric cave paintings and that with the passage of time have become refined compositions of aboriginal life. Even the popular Madhubani paintings of Bihar, owe their origins to cave paintings. Unfortunately, these caves are located in areas not easily accessible and even if we did come across such paintings during our travels, there may not be placards with information to tell us how old they are.

The exhibition at IGNCA has been divided into different regions, opening with an entrance that resembles the Bhimbetka rock shelters of Madhya Pradesh. It is divided into six sections. Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh are followed by Rajasthan and Gujarat. The southern region comprises Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, while the eastern region comprises Odisha, Bihar and Jharkhand. A special section offers an insight into rock art from Uttarkhand, Ladakh and Uttar Pradesh.

Guided tours by scholars for visitors, students and workshops with artists and tribal communities such as Madhubani and Warli artists, offer insights into traditional images. There is also a section on international rock art with photographs of world famous sites. Here, it is interesting to note that many of the images are similar to those seen in India. Matighar — IGNCA’s exhibition area, offers plaster of Paris and fibre rock art models from different Indian states and this area appears to be drawing considerable attention.

The images of the paintings and drawings on the walls of the caves in India depict the lives and times of people who had lived within these caves. One can see strange animals, some so large that the human figures seem minute beside them. The humans are often rendered like ‘stick men’, seen in scenes of communal dancing, hunting, childbirth and other rituals. Handprints are common and strong natural colours such as green and red and have remained bright through thousands of years. While rock art in the Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh region focuses on figures, many other areas such as Jharkhand, have depictions of geometrical shapes and despite their limited means; wherever art was done, it somehow managed to survive. Some images continue to be used by locals, with different materials for each region. Time may have stood still for the inaccessible tribes that inhabit the area, perhaps by choice — but who knows, there is a chance that a few of them may add to the history of India’s ‘rock art’.

(The writer is a winner of many advertising design awards and a painter of repute)

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