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Musical depictions in Indian rock art

09 Sep 2016
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Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak explores the musical depictions in the rock paintings of the Pachmarhi hills of Central India.

The musical depiction in the rock painting of the Pachmarhi hills bears correspondence with the music of the tribal traditions as well as with a resemblance to the sculpture and painting traditions. As early as in the Vedic scriptures, musical instruments are mentioned which belong to the later fourfold classification of musical instruments found in Natya Shastra of Bharat  Muni (circa 200 BC). The recent Western (scientific) classification of musical instruments into idiophones, membranophones, chordophones and aerophones by Erich K.V. Hornbostel and Curt Sachs of 1914 corresponds to Bharata's classification respectively of tata, avandha, Ghana and susira vadhyas. The paintings of the Pachmarhi rock shelters include musical instruments of all four classes.

Musical depictions in Indian rock art

Batki Bundal shelter (left) & Nimbu Bhoj Shelter (top right & bottom right). Images: Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak

These paintings contain solo, duet and group activities, using music to express emotions and also as an aid to honey collection. The variety of activities includes singing and playing instruments while dancing, for rituals, worship, victory, celebrations and hunting.

One of the highly decorative paintings of the Mesolithic era is found in the Astachal shelter. This red painting of the stick line figures seems to depict the ritual hunting and midnight dancing of the prehistoric people.  

A painting in the Nimbu Bhoj Shelter shows five figures - a male, three females and a child. The male figure is playing a string harp, the female figure on the left upper corner seems to be that of the singer. Though her head is missing, the seated posture and the position of hands suggest her to be a singer. Another female dancer in standing position is attractive. The singer, harp player and other dancers are facing her, and she, being at a distance from the group, seems to be the central figure in the panel while others are accompanying her. The bow, arrows and other weapons painted symbolize that these rock dwellers were hunters.

In the eary historic time the pipe is usually used to announce war and to alert or warn other groups. Two pipe players, painted in red and white in the Nimbu Bhoj shelters, in a running posture and holding weapons, are probably indicating a conflict.  

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Another depiction of the pipe in the Kanji Ghat shelter II shows a male figure who appears to be a warrior, holding a weapon and playing  a long and slightly conical shaped pipe. The broad end of the bore is joined with another piece and suggests that possibly they were aware of using an extra device for the control of tone of the instruments.

In the Sambhar Jhil shelter a beautiful musical depiction shows the relaxed mood of the dwellers. Five figures in different poses seem to be enjoying the music. The seated female figure is playing a long pipe in a half lying posture. The other two male figures are dancing, one of them is wearing an animal hide over the whole body.

A beautiful painting is found in the Tapka Pani shelter, with dancers, drummers and pipe players in red ochre. The scene shows seven figures - five male dancers and two females - and with three males with hands on the shoulders of each other. The rhythmic action depicted through the movements and postures of the legs and hands are remarkable. The dancer on the left end is also holding a pipe.

In a panel at the Batki Bundal shelter, four male figures in white seem to be enjoying music. The most prominent central figure in this painting seems to be a singer. We are interpreting some figures as singers, though the depiction of the singing activity is very difficult in sculptures and also in paintings. Our interpretation of this figure is based on his sitting posture, the angle of the neck, head and the gestures of the hands. Another important figure is playing a three-stringed harp, and he seems to be accompanying the singer. Two more figures are dancing. The seated posture, the angle of the neck, head and the gestures of the hands are remarkable. Another important figure is playing a three-stringed harp. He seems to be accompanying the singer.

A scene  of dancing figures, painted in white and red with slightly decorated dresses and hair dressing can be seen in the Khari lane shelter II. In this scene two male and one female figures are dancing, putting their hands around the waist of each other. Another male figure is also shown in a dancing pose, probably holding an unidentified instrument which may be a bagpipe.  

The vital role of music in Indian culture and the social life of the early communities in all parts of this country has been exhibited in various centers of art. In the Vedic and secular literature of India, we come across three fostering centers of arts and culture - Aranya (forest), gram (village) and Nagara (town). Indian culture being a confluence of Aranya (pertaining to forest), gram (rural) and Nagar (Urban) life styles always had interaction with  each other. The musical scenes of the primitives of Pachmarhi give ample proof of this, having much in common with the earlier contemporary and later sculpture, frescoes and paintings. The depictions of the musical scenes and occasions in these rock shelters also testify the creativity, aesthetic sense and ability of the people of this area through line and simple colours.

All these sites mentioned have been discovered by myself between 1987 and 1989, apart from Nimbu Bhoj and Astachal which were discovered by Gordon in 1934.
Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak

Ref: 1996 'Musical Depictions in the Rock  Paintings of  Pachmarhi, INDIA', published in Germany, Edited by Prof Ellen Hickman.

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