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Keeping history alive in paint

Trisha Bhattacharya, August 25, 2013, DHNS: 18:58 IST

Egyptian Marvel

ARt history Paintings often represented religious practices and elements of afterlife.
Shrouded in mystery, exhibiting a narrative of sorts, cryptic yet apparent, expressive yet concealed, the ancient paintings from quondam Egyptian dynasties draw viewers into the culture and history of their erstwhile civilisations.

Conceptualising what they believed in and what existed, these paintings assert with sublimity significant people, activities, customs and aspirations of the Egypt several thousand years old. Paintings from particular eras encapsulating the superstitions, beliefs and customs of the then-existent cultures can therefore be found inside the tombs of Pharaohs, on papyrus and other surfaces.

Fascinating are these coloured drawings in their desire to keep intact the present as it turns into past; endeavouring to dot the seeming future with a source of fulfillment and refinery in an imaginary storyline. Tombs were one of the most frequented spaces for these creative illuminations. For the draftsmen and those who ordered the execution of a variety of paintings, these creations symbolically stayed with the departed, in their tombs, as keepsakes from this life to the afterlife. In addition to tombs, papyrus, houses, walls, temples, coffins and cloth were the other surfaces on which these paintings found structuring. Some of these surfaces, like stones, were sometimes covered with plaster before painting.

Paintings on papyrus depict mythological beliefs, powerful gods and goddesses, the daily lives of the people and rulers of Egypt. Occasions like marriage ceremonies, events of mourning, and aspects of the lives of royalty like Queen Nefertari, King Ramses, King Tut and Cleopatra, which are preserved in these paintings, depict a certain refinement within the patterns of life in ancient Egypt. Intricate detailing and accessorising are features of these paintings, adding to an overall mystifying impact.

Colours were mostly extracted from natural substances, turned into a powdered form and mixed with resin or gum. Men were mostly painted in red, and women in yellow. Yellow, red, blue, green, gold, black and white were the principle colours used in these paintings. In certain cases, outlines were given to profiles and patterns. Particular patterns were associated with outlines of specific colours. Depending on how one colour contrasted the other, outline colours were used. A form of varnish was applied over the completed paintings for their preservation.

Between time periods and reigns of different Pharaohs, the paintings have been found to differ in many ways. Colour variations came about, and certain strict rules were done away with as this art progressed with time.

The subtle nuances of these paintings are innumerable; each painting has a life of its own — if one depicts the life or lifestyle of a ruler or a nobleman, the other depicts interrelated activities centred around nature. If a few motifs were taken directly from life, others fused otherworldly elements, lending these paintings their everlasting enigma.

Elucidating a gamut of life and supernatural on-goings, these ancient paintings have been re-created from tombs and elsewhere to be exhibited as collections. Framed papyrus paintings, styled after original themes, make perfect pieces of home decor.

These works of art strove to create a bridge between the real and the magical; between what is and what could be. Indeed, they may have been an allusion to a portal into the unknown. Preserving the story-like shapes of their cultural essence for us to see and understand now, these paintings are symbolic icons of the land of the pyramids. They are undoubtedly treasures of knowledge about ancient Egyptian thinking on life and hereafter.

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