In the summer of 1957 while travelling in a train from Nagpur towards Bhopal, Vishnu Shridhar Wakankar overheard a conversation of hillocks nearby with huge boulders and paintings. Curious to find out if such a place existed Wakankar, then studying the painted rock shelters which were likely to be submerged under the proposed Gandhisagar Dam jumped out of the moving train in search of the grottoes with paintings. Hidden by a dense, almost impenetrable forest inhabited by wild animals, he came across shelters which had long existed in aboriginal folklore and even found mention in the popular culture of the tribals. He chanced upon stupas built in the vicinity which had led to the region becoming associated with Buddhist lore.
Spread over 10 kilometres, Wakankar’s serendipitous discovery of the 700-odd rock shelters and the stunning paintings south-east of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, came to be known as Bhimbhetka Rock Art, meaning the baithak (a sit-down) of Bhima, the warrior-prince from the Mahabharata.
For six long years, beginning 1971, Vishnu Wakankar conducted excavations at Bhimbetka discovering a continuous sequence since the pebble tools to the 17th century. In 2003, the UNESCO declared Bhimbhetka as a World Heritage site due to its cave paintings, the earliest of which are about 10,000 years old, corresponding to the Indian Mesolithic age. The Mesolithic Age is understood to be the transitional age between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic —ages, when traditions and religious beliefs based on nature and ecology began to take shape. The Bhimbetka paintings bear witness to how a great civilisation came into being, how its foundations were laid in crude line drawings and how later generations enriched them with their lively imagination.
Born in Neemuch in Madhya Pradesh and belonging to a Maharashtrian family, Dr Shridhar Wakankar, an artist by education having done a graduate diploma in art, switched over to history/ prehistory, archaeology and numismatics. Being an artist, he reproduced almost all figures the prehistoric man had painted on the rocks of the shelters, studied them analytically, enabling him to classify their styles and dating them chronologically. These sketches, photographic slides, antiquities, statues, ancient pottery pieces, manuscripts, books along with 5000 ancient coins reside at Ujjain’s Wakankar Archaeological Museum, run by the Wakankar Bharati Sanskriti Anveshan Nyas.
Excited by the discovery of Bhimbhetka, Wakankar initially considered it as his dissertation for a doctorate degree, but went on to document and conserve diverse evidence of rock art spread all over India covering 36 regions—enumerating 1532 rock shelters mainly from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Karnataka, which earned him the sobriquet of being the “pitamaha” of rock art in India.
Dr. Wakankar carried out archaeological excavations at several sites in India and abroad. Besides his umpteen discoveries, he is credited with deciphering two Brahmi inscriptions outside India, namely Qussein on the Red Sea and a tablet at Babylon.
Sought after by institutions abroad due to his immense knowledge and expertise on rock art, he travelled to countries like Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Greece and Egypt either to deliver lectures, participate in archaeological excavations or to study ancient collections held in museums. He was involved in numerous archaeological surveys; he explored the ravines of the Chambal and Narmada rivers, as well as tracing the basin of the now ‐ dried‐up Saraswati River, said to hold secrets to much of the Indian civilisation.
Awarded the Padmashree, Dr Wakankar died in 1988 at the age of 69. Incidentally, the year 2019 was his centenary year. The MP Government has instituted the Dr VS Wakankar National Award in his memory and which is given to an eminent scholar in the field of Indology. So far the award has been given to five eminent Indologists.