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Magic And The Dawn Of Indian Art

Communication, culture and magic...

35,000 years ago, Indian art was born. In rock-shelters and caves, atop high boulders and across cliffs, strange creatures began to appear: other worldly beings, humans and animals out of a lush and teeming eldritch world. Significantly, it was at this time that human society took a great leap forward. In this Mesolithic Age, a distinct hunter-collector culture began to develop.

Were the two events connected? Did man begin to paint because his new-found culture demanded it? Or did he become cultured because he had discovered the creative wonder of art?

Our quest for the answers to these questions began, many years ago, when we first saw the remarkable Stone Age gallery in Madhya Pradesh's Bhimbhetkar. Here, groups of Stone Age people had lived, protected by massive outcrops of boulders. And they had painted their hopes and dreams on the rocks that sheltered them. It was meticulous, painstaking, work.

First, they had to find a fairly smooth rock-face. Then they spread melted animal fat on the smooth rock to prepare the base for their art. After that, special animal bones had to be selected: large, flat, thigh or shoulder bones to serve as palettes for their paints. The paints were collected from their rocky world. Visitors don't have to look too carefully even today, to pick up lumps of ochre earth ranging all the way from bright yellow through mustard and strawberry to rust and blood red. Also white and varying shades of gray and blue. When these Mesolithic artists worked in the dark, they used scooped out rocks filled with animal fat in which they lit a wick. The soot from the wick gave them an indelible black. Next they shredded the ends of fibrous twigs, or, for more delicate work, tied tufts of animal hairs onto sticks. These were their brushes. Fine bones, from which the marrow had been removed, became the Stone Age equivalent of today's air-brushes: they were filled with dried earths which were then blown onto prepared surfaces. The final step, before the actual painting began, was to incise the outlines of the paintings into the rock using sharp-edged stones like flint or quartz. These outlines were often gone over with charcoal. Only then did the painting begin.

And what paintings! In Bhimbhetkar, and later in the hill-station of Pachmarhi and high on a bare and rock-strewn mountain in Uttar Pradesh's Vindhyachal, we have scrambled and crawled an teetered at the edge of cliffs, bent double and craned our necks to see these amazingly life-like paintings. A white horse prances while the rider ahead of him gallops away at high speed. A warrior, his hair flying and brandishing a spear, leaps on an elephant while another elephant prepares to charge. A pregnant doe runs from a warrior while a stag, mortally wounded, carries a spear through its heart. Am enormous herd of animals including elephant, bison and deer, thunders in a stamped created by a spear-wielding man sitting in hiding and playing a device that replicates the roar of a tiger. There are mounted men with bows and arrows fighting other men with shields; Shaman witch-doctors, wearing animal heads, waving large shields; women dancing; men on stilts, with long frond skirts, masquerading as giants while others stalk awesomely in towering head-dresses.

As an art-form, these Stone Age paintings have always held us spell-bound. But they assumed a much deeper meaning when we asked ourselves: `Why were they done?'

In that distant age humans led very harsh lives. People became adults when they were 12 or 13 years old. Few lived beyond the age of 18. Life was an unrelenting quest for food, shelter and survival. We do not believe that these beleaguered people had the leisure to create art for art's sake. What then was the purpose of these paintings?

The answer eluded us for a long time. Then, one year, we took a trip to Lahaul: a high and sparsely-populated valley in the Himalayas. Driving down a stark and winding road we spotted a group of women trudging up towards us. They were all dressed in their local costumes so we stopped our car, got out, and set up our cameras to photograph them. But we never got the pictures. As soon as the women saw our cameras they began to yell. Their men appeared, running out from their seed-potato fields. All of them were very angry. We hopped into our car and raced away. Later, our driver told us that these Lahaulis believed that photographs ensnared their souls, hold them captive forever. After that encounter, we have had similar reactions from people in parts of Nepal and, most recently, in the tribal areas of Gujarat's Rann.

The survival-value of the rock paintings became clear.

Folklorists call this sympathetic magic: the image, in a magical way, takes on the life of the object. In our own times, if the statue of a great leader is `insulted', it stirs up as much anger and hatred as if the great man, himself, had been slighted. Similarly, a country's national flag cannot be treated as lightly as the cloth of which it is made. As the symbol of the nation it deserves the respect due to the nation. When anyone burns such a symbol he believes that he is, in fact, harming that nation.

Similarly, many anthropologists contend that rock paintings did not depict events that had happened but were wish lists of events that the tribe wanted to happen. They wanted their hunts to be successful, the animals to be fertile so that there would always be enough of them to provide food for the tribe, their warriors to be victorious against their enemies, their Shamans to be skilled in influencing the future. They believed that if their paintings could capture all this on the walls of their caves then, by sympathetic magic, all these things would happen. Our political cartoonists indulge in the same sort of wishful thinking when they sketch the defeat of their political opponents even before the voters have gone to the polls!

In fact many of the events painted three hundred and fifty centuries ago continue to occur today. In South Africa we saw Zulu girls re-enacting a dance that the women of the tribe used to do to psyche warriors to be fearless. Stone Age women, too, have been shown dancing in scenes devoted to hunting. In Kerala, folk dancers still wear palm-frond costumes and huge head-dresses which, according to folk-dance expert. P.K. Devan, go back to the Stone Age. In Bihar we have seen tiger-roarers made out of terracotta pots exactly like the ones shown in a Bhimbhetkar rock painting.

American Indian Shamans wear animal heads and skins and, when European colonists first went to America, native Americans used to stampede herds of buffalo over cliffs. Both Shamans and stampedes have been painted on our rock shelters.

We believe, however, that such paintings also went beyond magic and into the socially binding art of communication. Our ancestors could not read or write. But they wanted to convey their knowledge and skills to others in their-growing society. What better way to do so than by pictures? You don't have to speak another's tongue to understand his pictures. A stick figure with two arms and two legs becomes the symbol for `man' and it doesn't matter if your tribe calls it an aadmi or a homme. Thus, the Chinese ideogramic script can be read by people speaking dialects which are unintelligible to each other.

One such ideogramic script became one of the earliest forms of Indian writing. In the 5,000-year-old city of Dholavira, in Gujarat, seals have been unearthed which bear pictographs, which seem to have been evolved from early rock art.

But the evolution of Stone Age art into the script of the 5,000-year-old Indo-Saraswati script is not the real wonder of India. Similar developments could have happened in France and Spain where other galleries of rock-art have been discovered. In India, however, such motifs have persisted into our own times and have become a part of the culture of living communities. Cultures that span time and space co-exist in our land, as visitors can discover for themselves. Not far from cyber-cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad communicating across the world at the speed of light, are vital, pre-literate, communities bound by webs of understanding that have little to do with the written word. The symbols of folk arts such as Madhubani and Warli have been designed for the mud-plastered walls of village huts in the same way that those of the Stone Age artists were designed for the surfaces of rock-shelters and caves. In fact, Madhubani and Warli are only two schools of folk painting which have become well-known. In virtually every village in India such folk motifs have been passed down through countless generations.

In the folk art section of Bhopal's Bharat Bhawan we found reproductions of some of these designs. We also met an artist named Lado working on such a painting. The images she created would have blended perfectly with the pictures produced by those first artists in their Stone Age shelters.

Quite clearly, Indian art is communication and culture and magic. And it has been so for 35,000 years.

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