Revived by AI, Ajanta cave painting’s ‘future-leap’ on Svalbard Isle

Quaid Najmi(IANS)-

When India was grappling with the Covid-19 crest in mid-2020, an ancient treasure of Maharashtra was quietly catapulted into the ‘future world history, but the epochal event went virtually unnoticed in the country.

Maharashtra’s famed Ajanta Caves in Aurangabad became the first-ever UNESCO World Heritage Site to ‘virtually enter’ the Arctic World Archives (AWA) on Norway’s Svalbard Island, in November 2020.

The iconic “Renunciation of King Mahajanaka” – an early ‘avatar’ of Lord Buddha – in Cave No 1, clicked by renowned photographer Benoy K. Behl, became the trend-setter art-work to enter AWA, in a specially-designed digital film format using Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Incidentally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a reference to the Svalbard Isle distinction in his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ (Nov 2020) but it largely skipped public attention.

The AWA honor was possible by the efforts of two companies – Sapio Analytics, Mumbai and Ajantahc, London, IITs, several Indian universities, besides the pictures clicked by Behl using a new ‘zero-light technology’.

“There are roughly 650 sq mts (or, 10,00,000 sq. in.) of paintings in 30 caves, with four caves considered ground-breaking in terms of their artistic value at Ajanta,” Sapio Analytics’s CEO Ashwin Srivastava told IANS.

Ajantahc’s Director B.V. Choolun said that of these barely 10 sq mts (or, 16,000 sq. in.) have so far been restored using AI-aided digital methods.

Srivastava said that continuous efforts are on to improve the process further to make it not only perfect but speedier, as Ajanta Caves, ‘rediscovered’ 202 years ago in April 1819 by a British officer John Smith race against time for survival.

Various teams toiled to prepare stunning ultra-modern ‘digital images’ of the ancient but incredible colour paintings bejeweling the walls and ceilings of the Ajanta Caves from around 2 BC, or over 2200 years ago.

Since many of the murals have been damaged in varying degrees, the companies have deployed a digital restoration process using AI developed by scientists from various Indian universities, including IIT Roorkee.

Choolun said that the digital restoration does not alter the original artworks, but actually enhances the effect when working on the damaged paintings.

“We select a mutilated area of the mural through image processing-based identification using YOLO Machine Learning Model, restored it by altering the pixels of the damaged elements through mathematical inference of the neighboring undamaged portions,” Srivastava explained.

High-end pixel-level scanning of documented pictures of the original artwork are deployed for the digitization process using deep learning algorithms.

Srivastava added that the deep knowledge was derived from painstaking manual digital restorations done by art historians like Behl, and with the AI technique, the team has been able to extract and create an ‘academic catalog of jewelries’ used thousands of years ago!

Experts have termed the outcome of this unique combination of manual digital restoration and AI-trained rejuvenation as “excellent”, with continuous ongoing efforts to perfect the technique for even better results, said Choolun.

The challenges, he said, involve diametrically opposite dimensions like ‘heritage versus digitization’, ‘history versus artificial intelligence’, belonging to the era of yore vis-�-vis the future.

“Yet, AI is helping digitally preserve these 2,200-year-old Ajanta Cave paintings and now they could last for many lifetimes, safe from all kinds of disasters, for the benefit of future generations,” Choolun said with a tinge of pride.

The two companies have also joined hands to digitize, restore and preserve for eternity ancient Indian heritage, besides promoting contemporary Indian artists to the global audience, thus positioning itself as the ‘custodian of Indian culture’.

The “Renunciation of King Mahajanaka” – displaying the emotions of the benign King about to renounce worldly pleasures and allowing us to reflect on our worldliness – is safe in the bosom of the AWA, located deep inside a remote, icy Arctic mountain, 970 kms from the North Pole, and declared a demilitarized zone by 42 countries.

It is considered an ideal, secure setting where nothing – natural or human disasters nor Time itself – can touch these artefacts in their digitized format, and maybe millennia later, future generations would marvel at them with wide-eyes�!