The earliest discovery of prehistoric rock art was made in India, twelve years before the discovery of Alta Mira in Spain. Archibald Carlleyle discovered rock paintings at Sohagihat in the Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh in 1867 and 1868. There are rock paintings apparently of various ages. Though all evidently of great age, done in red colour called as ‘geru’.
Some of these rude paintings appeared to illustrate in a very stiff and archaic manner scenes in the life of the ancient stone chippers. Others represent animals or hunts of animals by men with bows and arrows, spears and hatchets.
F Fawcett in the cave of Edakal in Kozhikode district, of Kerala made the earliest discoveries of rock engravings. A few years later, A Silberrad published a pictorial description of the rock paintings in Banda district. C W Anderson discovered a painted shelter of Singhanpur in the Raigarh district in Madhaya Pradesh. More rock paintings were found later by F R Allchin 1963 from the same area as well as the Gulberga district of Karnataka. Manoranjan Ghosh brought the Adamgarh group of painted rock shelters near Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh to light in 1932. The first example of rock engravings was discovered in 1933 by K P Jayaswal in a rock shelter at Vikramkhol in the Sambalpur District of Orrisa.
The most important of the discoveries is Bhimbettka near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, which has one of the largest concentrations of rock paintings in India.
In recent years Yashodhar Mathpal and Erwin Neumayer have discovered a new group of ten painted shelters on Patni Ki Rahari hill near Bari on Bhopal Bareli road.
Central India is the richest zone of prehistoric rock art in India. The highest concentration of rock art sites is situated in the Satpura, Vindhya and Kaimur Hills. These hills are formed of sandstones, which weather relatively faster to form rock shelters and caves. They are located in the dense forest and were ecologically ideal for occupation by primitives. They were used for habitation in the Stone Age and even in the later periods. Inside the caves on the walls and ceilings artists painted their favourite animals or human forms, symbols, daily life hunting and fighting.
This period is associated with very primitive petroglyphs, like cupules and crude engravings. Major works include:
- Auditorium Cave Petroglyphs, Bhimbetka (290,000-700,000 BCE) Auditorium Rock Shelter, Madhya Pradesh, Central India.
- Daraki-Chattan Cave Petroglyphs (290,000-700,000 BCE) Indragarh Hill, Madhya Pradesh, Central India.
The rock art in Mesolithic period bears the evidences of the prosperity of the start of Indian culture and some of tem stand as the examples of great artistic excellence. The occurrence of human and animal figures and different kinds of scenes painted or bruised on rock-surface in the Indian subcontinent has been known for a long time.
On the uneven sides or walls and roofs of many of the caves or rock shelters there were rock paintings apparently of various ages, though all evidently of great age, done in red colour called geru. Some of these rude paintings appeared to illustrate in a very stiff and archaic manner scenes in the life of the ancient stone chippers; others represent animals or hunts of animals by men with bows and arrows, spears and hatchets. As per the study of scholars, that there is no doubt about the association between the microlith-users and the paintings, because, there was nothing in the archaeological assemblage of the painted rock-shelters except microliths.
The study of the rock art of the Mesolithic period defines that there may be a succession of styles in different areas, which has been partly worked out in the central Indian hills on the basis of a close study of the succession of superimposed paintings on the rock surface. Moreover, the study of the material contents of life, as depicted in many of these paintings, is an important source of study of the Mesolithic life in India. Even, the densest distribution of such paintings seems to be central India, across the entire east-west length of its hilly section and the Mesolithic character of many of these paintings is self-evident. It would not be correct to claim that the tradition of modern tribal and village art in India is rooted in the Indian rock-art tradition except in an obscure and general way.
Some of these paintings serve as an artistic manifestation of the Mesolithic in India and as a source of reconstructing the Mesolithic way of life. In this purpose, the paintings documented from the region around Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, with some specific reference to the archaeological situation suggests Mesolithic antiquity for some of these paintings.
The characteristics of the rock art of Mesolithic period were that the cave paintings were based on animal structures and the rock paintings were basically related to human groupings. The paintings of the human structures were at a large the depictions of hunting or rituals. The figures formed in the rock art were stylized and glorified figures which resemble pictographs than pictures, and as per a few scholars, they are the representation of primitive sources of writing namely the hieroglyphs. Sometimes the groupings of figures are fabricated in repetitive patterns that define an artistic rhythm.
The paintings of this period reveal the association, contact, and mutual exchange of requirements of the cave dwellers of this area with settled agricultural communities of the Malwa plains. Many a time Chalcolithic ceramics and rock paintings bear common motifs, e.g., cross-hatched squares, lattices Pottery and metal tools are also shown.
But the vividness and vitality of the earlier periods disappear from these paintings. The artists of Bhimbetka used many colours, including various shades of white, yellow, orange, red ochre, purple, brown, green and black. But white and red were their favourite colours. The paints were made by grinding various rocks and minerals. They got red from haematite (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. Brushes were made of plant fibre. What is amazing is that these colours have survived thousands of years of adverse weather conditions. It is believed that the colours have remained intact because of the chemical reaction of the oxide present on the surface of the rocks.
The artists here made their paintings on the walls and ceilings of the rock shelters. Some of the paintings are reported from the shelters where people lived. But some others were made in places which do not seem to have been living spaces at all. Perhaps these places had some religious importance. Some of the most beautiful paintings are very high up on rock shelters or close to the ceilings of rockshelters. One may wonder why early human beings chose to paint on a rock in such an uncomfortable position. The paintings made at these places were perhaps for people to be able to notice them from a distance. The paintings, though from the remote past, do not lack pictorial quality. Despite various limitations such as acute working conditions, inadequate tools, materials, etc., there is a charm of simple rendering of scenes of the environment in which the artists lived. The men shown in them appear adventurous and rejoicing in their lives. The animals are shown more youthful and majestic than perhaps they actually were.
The primitive artists seem to possess an intrinsic passion for storytelling. These pictures depict, in a dramatic way, both men and animals engaged in the struggle for survival. In one of the scenes, a group of people have been shown hunting a bison. In the process, some injured men are depicted lying scattered on the ground. In another scene, an animal is shown in the agony of death and the men are depicted dancing. These kinds of paintings might have given man a sense of power over the animals he would meet in the open. This practice is common among primitive people of today also.