Romancing the stone

Scrawls and shapes on stones may not be much to look at, but rock paintings are the earliest art form practised by our ancestors, Meenakshi Dubey Pathak, India's only woman rock art researcher, tells Marisha Karwa.

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Romancing the stone
Meenakshi Dubey Pathak


"The Paleolithic period." That's Meenakshi Dubey Pathak's reflex response when asked if she would like to go back in time. "Our ancestors made beautiful objects in that prehistoric period. I have a lot of respect for them. Stone tools, microliths, blades, beads, flint... They were even painting back then. Some of the paintings can make you cry."

Unlike the vivid canvasses of Van Gogh, Monet or Klimt that call out to emotion, the ones Dubey Pathak is talking about are rudimentary scrawls depicting figures of people, animals and symbols made on rocks, found in cave shelters deep within forests. There is no proportion, order or background and the 'painting' itself could be engraved, with shades of white, yellow and red filled into some forms.

This then has been the canvas that Dubey Pathak has been studying for the last three decades. The 51-year-old is India's only female rock art researcher who has dedicated a better part of her life to the study of the earliest art form in the evolution of Homo sapiens. In the process, she has learnt to 'see' the faint, diminished and often non-existent lines of figures, spotting patterns, decoding that a row of animals is perhaps a herd, assigning meaning to symbols and understanding the lifestyle of tribals in central India.

Childhood curiosity

Dubey Pathak was perhaps 10 or 11 when she first saw a rock art (rock painting). The Jabalpur born would frequently accompany her Madhya Pradesh government officer father on his work trips to Bhopal from Hoshangabad. She recalls being fascinated each time their vehicle passed the Adamgarh Hills; on one such trip, she insisted that the car be stopped so she could climb the rocks. "When the car stopped, I ran all the way to the top and was simply amazed at all the paintings and drawings," recalls Dubey Pathak, her voice still filled with wonder.

Over the years, Dubey Pathak read what little material was available on rock art even as she completed her graduation in psychology and painting. She then pursued a master's degree in historic rock art and went on to pursue a PhD. For this, she extensively researched the Pachmarhi region, which had until then been documented only by Britishers GR Hunter and DH Gordon in the pre-independence era. With her father being posted in Ujjain, Dubey Pathak met "the father of Indian rock art", Dr VS Wakankar, who eventually became her mentor. "He was very happy upon learning that a girl was braving the thick jungles of Satpuda to study rock art, especially Pachmarhi," she says of her "guru".

Documenting, not 'discovering'

Dubey Pathak must've been an anomaly when she set out to explore Pachmarhi at the age of 23 in 1987. Field work involved walking through a wild jungle and over hills and plateaus to access rock shelters. With little or no detailed maps, this usually meant walking for hours before chancing upon a possible site. She roped in a forest-dwelling couple from the Korku tribe to take her through the forest.

It was on one such trip that she came across her first "discovery" — a hitherto undocumented rock art site. "It was at the edge of a cliff and difficult to access. The tribal man interlocked his hands for me to step on them and climb onto the rock," remembers Dubey Pathak. "It was a wonderful site with very clear paintings. We might call such findings new and term them 'discovery', but the tribals already know of their existence."

Once she is at a site, Dubey Pathak sets about her documentation: she lists the rock shelter's or site's height, projection, formation, direction on the compass and location from the nearest town/village. She then details the 'painting', counting the figures, forms, symbols, describing whether the figure is that of a male, female or an animal (which one) or if it's a scene, whether it depicts hunting or celebration, etc, what colour pigments have been used and so on. Sometimes if the paintings are superimposed, she has to note the possibility of these being from two different time periods. The notes are followed by extensive photography and videography. "I'll write only that which I can identify with 100% certainty, otherwise I state that a form/figure/symbol is 'unidentified'. I have to be honest because this is not my production. I'm merely presenting information about it," says Dubey Pathak.
In her explorations, she's found depictions of a society of hunters and gatherers showing the relationship between man and animals. Human forms wielding sticks, spears, axes and bows and arrows appear as commonly as do the figures of bees, rats, lizards, dogs, monkeys, buffaloes, deer, elephants and tigers. Dubey Pathak has even authored a paper on "headhunters" in Indian rock art.

Beliefs, dreams & desires

Mother to two daughters, Dubey Pathak has documented over 600 painted rock shelters across India, nearly 500 of which are in Madhya Pradesh alone. Among these are her own discoveries — 25 painted rock shelters in Pachmarhi — that occurred during field trips for her PhD research. Her other explorations have been in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Ladakh, where she set up the Trishul Petroglyph Park in Karu. The Bhopal resident has widely written about rock art, publishing books and contributing chapters. In 2014, the founder-member of the Rock Art Society of India was honoured by the French government with the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres (Knight in the National Order of Arts and Letters).

To understand rock art, it is important to first understand the life and culture of the tribals, says Dubey Pathak, who has explored rock art in France, Spain, Italy, the US, Australia and China. "When our ancestors had a dream, a desire or a wish, they'd put it down on stone to record it or would set it in stone after the wish had been fulfilled as a reminder," she says, explaining how members of the Bhil tribe make pitheras or the tribals in Odisha make iditals on the walls of their home in anticipation of the granting of a wish. "Likewise in Chhattisgarh, the tribals make memory pillars. These were earlier made of wood, but are now made of stone slabs. All these works bear similarities with what we find in prehistoric rock art. So our traditions are not vanishing, just transforming."

Preserving the past

With the notable exception of Bhimbetka Caves, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, most rock art shelters across India are marred by graffiti, with chuna (lime) and soul notes declaring 'I love Nisha' or 'Jai Bholenath' scrawled across the prehistoric paintings. "The more we discover, the more we damage," says Dubey Pathak.

She suggests that we protect existing sites before promoting these to tourists or pilgrims. "Instead of lighting incense sticks and making offerings of coconuts, we have to educate people about the importance of this living heritage," says Dubey Pathak, as she rants about how Indian tourists pour water over ancient paintings to make them stand out in their photographs.

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