New Delhi-born Benoy K. Behl is the only person in the world to document Buddhist heritage in 19 regions across 17 countries. He has also made 140 documentaries on Indian art and cultural history.
In his discovery of art heritage, he has travelled around the world 10 times. No wonder, then, that Behl is mentioned in the Limca Book Of Records for being the most travelled photographer to document Indian art influences across the world.
(Limca is an annual reference book, published in India, documenting India’s achievements in various fields.)
Behl was an only child. His late father Manhar Krishen Behl, a government servant, had wanted him to lead a creative life. “He always encouraged me to read the best of literature, philosophy and history,” he said.
When Behl was 19, he assisted a filmmaker in Delhi, India. He learnt that making documentaries entailed constant learning – and became deeply attracted to it, he said. At 20, he made his first documentary film.
After making two films, he enrolled for a course in filmmaking at the Film and Television Institute of India, in Pune. In 1976, a few months before he turned 20, Behl graduated from St Stephen’s College in Delhi. He obtained a BA in English Literature (Honours).
Now 61, Behl has been a filmmaker, art historian and photographer for 41 years.
When he was 24, he took up photography seriously and began documenting and studying art. With photography, it was mostly self-taught – he experimented with his photography and pored over photography books.
At the age of 35, Behl began photographing ancient Buddhist paintings in Ajanta Caves, India. These were 29 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments dating from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 CE.
Those cave paintings were shrouded in darkness. As strong lights were not allowed in photographing them, Behl developed a special technique to shoot them – and in great detail, too.
“There were thousands of painted figures of men, women and animals along the walls of the caves. Each expressing care for the other. Every glance, full of warmth and tenderness. It’s a world of compassion. That experience transformed me completely, and thereafter I made films only on art and philosophy,” said Behl.
Leading experts on Ajanta, both in India and abroad, lauded his low-light photography technique. Invitations began to pour in for him to speak about Ajanta – they came from the University of London, the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum in England, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and National Geographic.
Over the years, as a natural progression, Behl became an art historian. Behl’s film Indian Roots Of Tibetan Buddhism, in which he interviews the Dalai Lama, won the Best Documentary Producer award at the Madrid International Film Festival 2015. It also won two awards at international film festivals in India.
His other film Indian Deities Worshipped In Japan garnered seven awards at international film festival awards in 2016.
Behl also wrote nine books, including The Ajanta Caves (1998), Northern Frontiers Of Buddhism (2013), The Art Of India (2017), Buddhist Heritage Of Sri Lanka, and Buddhism: The Path Of Compassion. The last two titles were launched earlier this month.
Currently, he is working on his next book, Hindu Deities Worshipped In Japan, and writing his autobiography, A Journey Within.
His daily routine includes yoga and pranayama (breathing exercises) between 5am and 7am. By 10am, he is in his office to do his writing, filmmaking, and planning courses on Indian art history or his travels.
Behl and his colleague and partner Sujata Chatterji have carried out cultural documentation in Spain (2014), Japan (2015), and South America (2017).
In April, Behl and Bulu Imam – convener of the Hazaribagh Chapter of Intach (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) – explored Buddhist sculptures and newly discovered sites in the state of Jharkhand in India.
Behl said: “My hobbies, which include travel and music, overlap with my passion in work.” He feels that his journey of life has taught him a great deal about art, compassion and philosophy. This sexagenarian has “no plans at all for retirement”.