Photography = Drawing by light. Embark upon this journey as I time travel through Bhimbetka Rock Shelters by taking a slight liberty of using the above-cited definition of ‘Photography’.
Settlers and nomads from different eras have painted at these Rock Shelters. Some as recent as 800 years old, while the others dating back to 15,000 years. Rightly, these rock shelters have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It was 793 years ago. I wanted to get away from the unceasing mundane fighting and hunting of my species. I took off in search of a quiet place that could provide an outlet to the artist in me.
As I walked up the hill and stood in front of the gravelly pathway that led to a cluster of rocks, I realised those rocks looked inviting. Unable to resist, the explorer me slowly and purposefully strode down to the massive formation.
Once there, trudging up and finding myself at a vantage, I gazed down. I found the vast greens and browns of the plains below underlining the blue skies. Here’s when I spotted a giant tortoise. Upon careful observation, I found it to be yet another nature-crafted rock wonder that resembled a tortoise.
The creative me loved the view. I decided it was going to be my home for some time. As I ventured around the narrow burrows carved by times in those sandstone rocks, I realised that those had turned into ortho-quartzite. Little did I know then that this place would later be called Bhimbetka Rock Shelters.
I placed my leather satchel on a ledge in a cave and pulled out my cleaver and axe. Suddenly, I heard the sibilant sound normally produced by a slithering snake. As I threw my cleaver hard in the direction of the sound, I heard a reptile slinking away.
It would be dark soon. I stepped out to scrounge around for some food. The trees were bent double with fruit. I took what I needed and prepared to retire. The connecting cavity between two caves seemed the best option as it gave me an alternate exit in case of danger. I decided that will be my bedroom for some time.
At the crack of dawn, the sun rays penetrated the cave opening and bathed me in a luminous glow. After lazing around for a while, I finally galvanised myself into action.
Morning routine, followed by a quick hunt and breakfast, and I was all set! Caves would not get any light after sunset; so my photography will have to happen when there was light!
Getting down to it!
I surveyed the area and realised that many before me had found similar inspiration here and had stopped by to create works of art over the centuries. There were a plethora of photographs from the past in the caves around.
The colours used in most photographs were white and red, though in some rare cases, yellow and green had also been used. I favoured red. And that’s what I would be using.
The earth around provided enough ingredients for my paint requirements and the tree extracts made sure the paint would last. Collecting all I needed, I made my way to my chosen studio.
Bhimbetka – My early days of Photography
For the next few years, my routine was to get up, gather food, find a place in the cave cluster where I would do my photography or drawing, take breaks whenever I was thirsty and go across to the watering hole, work some more, and retire when light would fade or when I would feel tired, whichever was earlier.
Soon enough, I found my work embracing that of my unknown ancestors. I was making sure that it must harmonise with the themes created by those before me. I stayed with the depiction of lifestyle – hunting, fighting, gathering, taming, riding, etc.
Now I was old and could not paint much. I knew soon enough, a day would come when I may not get up anymore. These last few days, I went around admiring what existed, what I had created and embellishing those of my paintings that needed some touch-up.
And one fine day, I slept. I slept for a long time – in fact, for 781 years. When I woke up, I realised I was still there; except instead of walking, I had arrived in a car and instead of a cleaver and an axe, I was carrying a 5D Mark III. The rock formation seemed shaped like a dinosaur.
Back to where it all started!
Now, instead of using cave rock as the surface, I was using a silicon sensor, but the photographer in me still lived. I did what a photographer must. I shot the works of art I had created almost 8 centuries back.
I did so with a determination of sharing my work with the world all over again. I knew that by this time, the place was already a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I also knew that this status had been bestowed upon it, as it was a site of continuous man-landscape interaction over many millennia.
I had reached here from Satpura, en route Sanchi. That would be two UNESCO heritage sites in a single day! A marked departure from those times 8 centuries back when I hung around this place for what seemed like a lifetime.
You could also be photographing here. You just need to carry your camera, get to Bhopal by rail or by air, take a transport down to Bhimbetka, which is a mere 45 kilometres away and go right ahead!
Do that soon as some of these paintings are fading faster than the haze on the horizon. And do so before ASI decides to further sully them with their own brand of painting in black colour – ostensibly to mark the cave shelter numbers. Despite all their good intentions, it is likely that you would find it as unwelcome as I did since it interferes with the sanctity of our age-old heritage.