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the many-splendoured delights of Ajanta compiled by Subramanian Swaminathan


September 2007

Painting Technique

Indian wall-paintings are done on dry wall, called fresco secco.

In the West painting is done on a moist wall, called fresco buono.

Indra's Descent, Cave 17

Last Supper, da Vinci

It might have taken centuries for the Indian artist to develop the technique of preparing the wall for painting, and also to select suitable pigments with an appropriate binder. The importance of these may be seen from the fact that the Ajanta paintings have withstood the ravages of time with remarkable resilience.

Preparation of Wall
We have no clue to the technique of preparing the wall. But the treatises which were written later based on the Ajanta experience give us an idea. For example, Vishnu-dharmottara (7th century) explains the process of preparing the base plaster and the finish coat, called 'vajralepa'.

Preparation of Wall - Base Plaster
The base plaster consisted of powdered brick, burnt conches and sand, mixed with a preparation of molasses and drops of a decoction of Phaseolus munga. To this were added mashed ripe bananas or tree resins and the pulp of bilva fruit (Aegle marmelos). After drying it was ground down and mixed with molasses and water until became soft for coating.

Preparation of Wall - Finish Coat (Vajralepa)
Buffaloskin was boiled in water until it became soft. Sticks were then made of the paste and dried in the sunshine.
When colour was mixed with this, it made it fast, and if white mud was mixed with it, it served as a perfect medium for coating walls.

Pigments used
Most pigments were minerals available locally: red ochre, vivid red, yellow ochre, indigo blue, chalk white, terra verte and green.

Only Lapis lazuli was imported. Lamp-black was the only non-mineral.

Painting Sequence
A preliminary sketch in iron ore was drawn while the surface was still slightly wet, followed by an under-painting in grey or white.
On this surface the outline was filled in with various colours, proceeding from underpainting to the appropriate colours of the subject.
Finally, when dry, it was finished off with a dark outline for final definition and a burnishing process to give lustre to the surface.

Painting Tradition
The paintings of Ajanta are the earliest representation of Indian painting tradition available to us.

Even the earlier paintings at Ajanta, of the 2nd century BC, demonstrate a sophisticated technique, achievable only after centuries of experimentation. Unfortunately we have no trace of such experimentation.

To get to know this great tradition one may turn to the treatises written based on the Ajanta experiment.

Treatises were codified based on Ajanta experience
Brihat-samhita (6th century)
Kama-sutra (6th century)
Vishnu-dharmottara (7th century)
Samarangana-sutra-dhara (11th century)

'Six Limbs of Painting' according to Kama-sutra, a well-known treatise on erotics
Rupa-bheda - differentiation
Pramanam - proportion
bhava - suggestion of action/mood
lavanya-yojanam - infusion of grace
sadrisham - resemblance
varnika-bhangam - application of colour

'Eight Limbs of Painting' according to Samarangana-sutra-dhara, a treatise on Architecture
bhumi-bandhana - preparation of surface
varnika - crayon work
rekha-karma - outline work
lakshana - features of face
varna-karma - colouring
vartanakarma - relief by shading
lekhakarma - correction
dvika-karma - final outline