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Benoy K Behl

- renowned art historian, film maker, photographer


"My visit to Ajanta caves to photograph the wonders there changed my perspective if not my life. I fell in love with the compassionate art depicted; I was lost to the world in details of line and colour of the compassionate art seen in the paintings and sculptures within the caves."

This is how Benoy K Behl described his photography in the caves of Ajanta in 1991 using the zero or very low light photographic technique. He had been well into photography since 1977 but the great interest in what he calls compassionate art came to him during his Ajanta visit. He commented that he was taken over by "the depth of the compassionate message and immense feeling of caring warmth which each figure painted or sculpted exuded." He added: "The message that comes through such art is that when we still the turbulence of our desires, we become peaceful, then loving and compassionate to all around us; towards all beings." There he echoes the words of the Buddha and so his travels to all parts of the world that have had a Buddhist heritage, even to Kalmykia in the south of Russia on the banks of the River Volga where Buddhism had taken root 400 years ago.

All this and more was told me as I chatted with Mr Behl and lovely Sujata, both from New Delhi, at the opening of the art and photographic exhibition Lens and Brush at the J D A Perera Gallery, Colombo 7, in the late afternoon of Tuesday August 21. This exhibition, declared open by the Speaker of Parliament, Hon Chamal Rajapaksa, was one event in the series of events associated with the SAARC International Conference on Archaeology of Buddhism: recent discoveries in South Asia running through from 22nd to 24th of this month. Twelve of Benoy Behl’s documentary films were screened at the Buddhist Cultural Centre Auditorium, Havelock Road from 15th to 20th with two half hour films each day.

Benoy K Behl had his entire education in India, New Delhi mostly, but soon started traveling worldwide with his camera and film equipment, documenting since the 1990s ‘compassionate art’ and the development of Buddhism and its spread through very many countries. He was soon recognized as a true artiste and Indian journals plus international prestige publications, including National Geographic ran stories with his photographs in them plus articles on him. Sujata told me that he is the only Indian about whom the National Geographic has carried a story. He is now world renowned and much in demand for lectures, teaching assignments and exhibitions. In fact, Mr Behl told me, that a large collection of his photographs was being exhibited at Nara, Japan, and he was invited over there but opted instead to come to Sri Lanka and participate in the international archaeology conference and related events. He traveled widely during his stay here re-visiting most of the Buddhist sites in the Island. His documentaries had visuals of Dambulla, Gal Vihara, and many others of our famed places of religious and historical significance.

His collection of photographs numbers 35,000 and he has 120 documentaries to his credit. He has held exhibitions of his photographs in Washington DC, London and Tokyo just this year and many more in several cities around the world previously. Doordharshan, the Indian TV channel, screened his first documentaries, namely: ‘Look at Khadi’ on Gandhi’s socioeconomic philosophy, the ‘Sculpture of India’ from the Indus Valley civilization to the 17th century, and ‘Paintings of India’. Benoy Behl is a writer too, his books are ‘Ajanta Caves: artistic wonder of ancient Buddhist India’, and ‘Ajanta Caves: ancient paintings of Buddhist India, both being collaborative writing with Sangita Nigan.

Mr Behl holds the honoured position of Chair, Buddhist Art, Architecture and Philosophy, Centre of Indology, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and is a Visiting Professor, College of Art, University of Delhi. He is also consultant to the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India. He is often invited to lecture at prestigious universities both in India and overseas; Oxford and Harvard being among them.

It was an honour and a pleasure to converse with this very gentle speaking, distinguished Indian who had a subtle though unmistakable look of caring not only for art and culture but for humanity too.

SAARC International Conference on Archaeology of Buddhism

Unfortunately, pre-advertising of the conference and related activities missed me; they may not have been extensive enough in coverage by print and electronic media. On Sunday 16th I was told by a friend about the documentary films of Benoy K Behl being screened at the Buddhist Cultural Centre. I went for the third days screening and was lost in wonder at the clarity, precision and artistry of the films 9 and 10 covering the Buddhist legacy of Kashmir and Guge in Tibet from the 1st century to the 12th AD; Buddhist practice in Sikkim, Ladakh, Spiti and Kinnaur, concentration being on the monastic masked dance of the Lamas called Cham. The final day’s films covered the international spread of Buddhism, traced through sites in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Japan; and the heritage of Buddhist art in India from the Bharhut and Sanchi stupa railings to the art of the Kashmiri painters and across Western Tibet and the Himalayan region. The accompanying spoken script was very competently written by Behl himself and the reading extremely good to listen to, a male voice and the last three films having a woman reading the text excellently, with a superb accent which broke the word Buddhism to two syllables pronounced in quick succession but rendering a lilt to the word which is missing in the way we pronounce ‘Buddhism’ – flat and single toned.

The exhibition at the J D A Perera Gallery aptly titled ‘Lens and Brush’ covered three floors, two of them having "a wide spectrum of paintings depicting Lord Buddha in animate as well as in symbolic forms… range from an amateur and novice of four years of age to trained and well established artists of national and international repute." Contributions of artists from other SAARC countries too were mounted. This section was titled: ’The Lord Buddha through Contemporary Eyes’ while the photographic section of the exhibition containing Behl’s work had the title ‘Buddhist Sites & Art Heritage of South Asia’. Large photographs - many mounted in prestigious museums and art galleries - were on display including a photograph of the starving Buddha from the Lahore Museum.

The ‘Lens & Brush’ exhibition of paintings and photographs will continue today, Sunday 26th from 9.00 a m to 7.00 p m at the J D A Perera Gallery, Horton Place, Colombo 7. Do include a visit to it in your agenda for the day.

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