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  • Writer's pictureAzera Rahman

Ancient Indian cave paintings are now being preserved digitally in Norway’s Arctic World Archive

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

For The Hindu

Deep inside an Arctic mountain, on an archipelago in Norway, lies guarded the digitally restored image of one of the earliest-surviving Indian paintings from the 6th century Badami caves in Karnataka. This image joins another painting from the Ajanta caves, also now preserved for posterity at the Arctic World Archive (AWA). In the world of Indian heritage, this is a milestone because not only do these images rescue original masterpieces from getting lost in time, they are also made accessible to a global audience. And soon, AI will become a part of the restoration work.

Renowned art historian and photographer Benoy K. Behl, who restored these images using his own technique over years, says the significance of these pictures is that they establish “India’s continuous tradition of ancient painting.” Says Behl: “India has one of the finest traditions of painting and yet they are not known well because most are hidden in the dark recesses of temples and caves.” The Ajanta paintings of the 5th century are, of course, well-known, but Behl points out this is not quite the case with ones from earlier periods or later, for about 700 years. “The Ajanta paintings are thus considered a flash in the pan.”

The quality of art in these ancient Indian paintings were seen in the West much later, with the Impressionists, says Behl.

Behl’s photographs

The digitally restored images are based on Behl’s own photographs, taken years ago. “Light was not allowed in the caves and so the paintings were not seen clearly. So when I used my technique of photographing in extremely low light, akin to darkness, art critics and others said we had conquered darkness.” Thereon, he photographed many other ancient paintings. In 2001, Behl reached the Badami caves. Much of the paintings were already lost by then and by 2008, when a National Geographic team visited the site to document his work, “they could hardly even see the paintings.”

While art critics around the world marvelled at Behl’s work, most people may not appreciate its significance. And so began his work of digitally restoring the images. It took Behl 19 years to complete the digital restoration of the Ajanta cave painting; he finished in 2019, just in time to celebrate 200 years of the discovery of the caves, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In 2020, Sapio Analytics, a Mumbai-based company, which focuses on creating high-end data-based algorithms powered by AI, approached Behl to join hands with them to restore and preserve images in the AWA along with other digital artefacts from around the world. The archives also has manuscripts from the Vatican library, political histories, masterpieces from different eras and parts of the world, and samples of scientific breakthroughs.

The unrestored image of the Queen and Attendants, from the Badami cave paintings. Courtesy: Benoy K. Behl

The restored image of the Queen and Attendants, from the Badami cave paintings. Courtesy: Benoy K. Behl

It is here that ancient Indian paintings that are at risk of being lost to time can find a home, reminders of India’s rich art history. The restored image of Bodhisattva King Mahajanaka, the Ajanta cave painting, was sent to AWA in 2020, and this May, the image of the Queen and Attendants, from the Badami cave paintings, was virtually unveiled before the world. These paintings, says Behl, embody some of the hallmarks of Indian art with their sublime, inward-looking expressions and a compassion that transcends physical boundaries.

AI to the rescue

Looking into the future, Hardik Somani of Sapio Analytics says they are now in the process of developing AI to help in restoration. “A dataset of reference work is being used to develop AI that will use deep learning techniques to restore damaged murals,” he says. A damaged area of a mural, for instance, will be restored by altering the pixels of the damaged elements through mathematical inference of the neighbouring, undamaged part. High-end scanning of photographs of the original artwork taken by Behl will aid in the process.

In the pipeline is similar restoration work of paintings of the 3rd century Pitalkhora Buddhist caves in Maharashtra. Sapio Analytics is now in talks with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations to showcase Behl’s original photographs, after they are digitally restored, in exhibitions around the world planned for 2022.

Behl however cautions that it is better not to attempt restoration of an art piece if it is going to be restored wrongly. “There is a tendency to ‘over-restore’, make things too colourful. The purpose of restoration should be what art is meant to be: the hope to influence another human being.”

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