The first artists were stone age people whose names we do not know. They couldn't sign their names under their paintings, because they lived in a time when people didn't know how to write. They made their paintings not on paper but on rocks. Prehistoric rock paintings have been found in many parts of the world. There are over 150 rock painting sites in India itself. Many of them are in central India. The largest and most spectacular one is located in the Vindhyan hills at Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh.
Bhimbetka was a great place to live for stone age people. The overhanging rock ledges on the hillsides gave them shelter. The thick forest was full of edible plants and fruits that they could collect and many different kinds of animals that they could hunt. Water was available all year round in the streams and creeks.
Thousands of stone tools belonging different phases of the stone age have been found at Bhimbetka. The palaeolithic age was the first part of the stone age, when people got their food through hunting and gathering. The palaeolithic people who lived in the rock shelters of Bhimbetka sometimes paved the floors with stone boulders and slabs. They buried their dead under the floors along with tools made of stone and bone This show that they had some sort of belief in life after death. Although some kinds of rock for making stone tools were available in the Bhimbetka hills, people sometimes traveled long distances to get certain special kinds of stones.
Bhimbetka is like a gigantic open air art gallery where you can see pictures made by people over thousands of years. Out of the 642 rock shelters at Bhimbetka, nearly 400 have paintings. The oldest and largest number of paintings belong to the mesolithic phase, of the stone age. They may be about 10,000 years old. During the mesolithic phase, people were still basically hunters and food gatherers. But they had learnt to make and use tiny stone tools known as microliths. They attached these onto bone or wooden handles to make knives, arrows, spears and other kinds of weapons and tools.
The stone age artists made their paintings on the surfaces, walls and ceilings of the rock shelters. Some of the paintings were made in shelters where people lived. But some of the biggest and best paintings were made in places which do not seem to have been living spaces at all. Maybe these were places where some sort of secret magic or religious rituals were performed. Some of the most grand paintings are very high up on rock surfaces or close to the ceilings of rock shelters. The artists and their helpers could only have climbed to these spots with the help of scaffolding. Such paintings must have had a special importance for the people. But than, many others may have been made by people simply because they liked to paint or because they wanted to make their homes more colorful and beautiful, or because they wanted to tell a story in pictures. Like us, stone age people also had feelings, thoughts, worries, fears, likes and dislikes. And they expressed these things in their paintings.
What did the stone age people use for brushes and paints? They could have made the handles of brushes out of twigs or wood. For the brush itself, they could have used silk cotton, animal fur or squirrel tail. The mesolithic artists of Bhimbetka knew as many as 21 colours, including various shades of white, yellow, orange, red, purple, brown, green and black. Their favourite colours were white and light red. The paints were made by grinding various rocks and minerals. They got red from haematite (iron oxide, known as 'geru' in India). The green came from a green variety of a stone called chalcedony. White might have been made out of limestone. The rock of mineral was first ground into a powder. This may then have been mixed with water and also with some thick or sticky substance such as animal fat or gum or resin from trees.
The mesolithic artists loved to paint animals. They painted deer, boars, elephants, leopards, tigers, panthers, rhinoceroses, antelopes, fish, frogs, lizards, squirrels and birds. It is interesting that they did not make any paintings of snakes. Maybe this was because they were very afraid of them. In some pictures, animals are chasing men. In others they are being chased and hunted by men. The paintings may look simple, but if you look at them carefully, you will see that the artists were able to convey movement and feeling very skillfully.
The hunting scenes show people hunting in groups, armed with sticks, spears, bows and arrows and slings. They also used traps and snares to catch animals. The hunters wear simple clothes and ornaments. They are sometimes shown wearing masks and head-dresses crowned with feathers, horns or antlers. The animals are painted in a very realistic way. They usually look huge and powerful compared to the humans who look small and insignificant. Sometimes, animals were painted in the 'x-ray style,' showing their inner organs. This gives us the feeling that we are looking into the animal, just as an x-ray gives us a picture of the skeleton inside our body. Some of the animal pictures, especially in the hunting scenes, show a fear of animals, but many others show a feeling of tenderness and love for them. This feeling comes out in scenes of grazing buffaloes, hopping rabbits, and monkeys jumping about, and also in scenes that show animals like panthers, tigers and deer with their babies.
While the artists made the pictures of animals in great detail, they usually painted men as match-stick figures, and women with only a slightly fuller body. They painted young and old people. They painted children running, jumping and playing. They painted scenes of people dancing gracefully in groups, sometimes to the beat of a drummer. They painted scenes of people gathering fruit or honey from trees, and of women grinding and preparing food. Some of the scenes of men, women and children seem to show a sort of family life. Certain men, with masks or designs on their body, often carrying baskets on their back, look like chiefs. There are others, wearing masks and animal head-dresses, who seem to have been priests. In many of the rock shelters we see hand-prints, fist-prints, and dots made by fingers tips. Even today, in many parts of our country, people make these kinds of prints on the walls of their houses on special occasions.
One of the curious things about the paintings at many rock art sites is that the artists often painted new paintings on top of the older ones. At Bhimbetka, in some places there are as many as 20 layers of paintings, one on top of other. Why did the artists paint in the same spot when so much empty space was available? We don't know for sure, but may be this was because some of the paintings and places were considered sacred or special. The hunting scenes could have been connected with some sort of ritual that people performed in the hope that it would lead to a successful hunt.
How do we know that the earliest paintings at Bhimbetka were made by stone age people and were not made more recently?
Although there are many tribal people living in the area today, they say that these paintings were not made by them or their ancestors. We do not see recent inventions like bicycles, cars, planes or guns in the paintings. The thousands of stone tools found at Bhimbetka clearly show that stone age humans lived here. The subjects of the paintings also fit in well with the life they led. Also, some some of the paintings are so faded, and the surface on which they are made is so worn out and damaged that it is clear that they were made long ago and not recently.
The later paintings at Bhimbetka have been different themes and styles. Instead of men hunting in groups. we see men hunting alone. There are men on horses and chariots, tamed animals and processions of animals. The still later paintings show soldiers marching or facing each other in battle, and royal processions. Animals become much less important. These must have been the things that the people who lived in the rock shelters of Bhimbetka either experienced themselves or saw happening in the plains below the hills. Just as the paintings made by stone age people tell us about the way of life of stone age humans, these later paintings show us how much life had changed since those early times.