Indian art

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Apsara, dancing celestial, 12th century.

Indian Art is the visual art produced on the Indian subcontinent from about the 3rd millennium BCE to modern times. A strong sense of design is characteristic of Indian art and can be observed in its modern as well as in its traditional forms.

Indian art can be classified into specific periods each reflecting particular religious, political and cultural developments.

In historic art, sculpture in stone and metal, mainly religious, has survived the Indian climate better than other media, and provides most of the best remains. Many of the most important ancient finds that are not in carved stone come from surrounding, drier regions rather than India itself. Indian funeral and philosophic traditions exclude grave goods, which are a main source of ancient art in other cultures. Although India has been characterized by a complex mixture of religious traditions almost since prehistoric times, generally the prevailing artistic style at any time and place has been shared by the major religious groups.

By material[edit]


Chola bronze statue of Nataraja at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

The first known sculpture in the Indian subcontinent is from the Indus Valley civilization (3300–1700 BC), found in sites at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa in modern-day Pakistan. These include the famous small bronze male dancer. However such figures in bronze and stone are rare and greatly outnumbered by pottery figurines and stone seals, often of animals or deities very finely depicted. After the collapse of are the Indus Valley civilization there is little record of sculpture until the Buddhist era, apart from a hoard of copper figures of (somewhat controversially) c. 1500 BCE from Daimabad.[1] Thus the great tradition of Indian monumental sculpture in stone appears to begin relatively late, with the reign of Asoka from 270 to 232 BCE, and the Pillars of Ashoka he erected around India, carrying his edicts and topped by famous sculptures of animals, mostly lions, of which six survive.[2] Large amounts of figurative sculpture, mostly in relief, survive from Early Buddhist pilgrimage stupas, above all Sanchi; these probably developed out of a tradition using wood that also embraced Hinduism.[3] Indeed wood continued to be the main sculptural and architectural medium in Kerala throughout all historic periods until recent decades.[4]

During the 2nd to 1st century BCE in far northern India, in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara from what is now southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, sculptures became more explicit, representing episodes of the Buddha’s life and teachings. Although India had a long sculptural tradition and a mastery of rich iconography, the Buddha was never represented in human form before this time, but only through some of his symbols. This may be because Gandharan Buddhist sculpture in modern Afghanistan displays Greek and Persian artistic influence. Artistically, the Gandharan school of sculpture is said to have contributed wavy hair, drapery covering both shoulders, shoes and sandals, acanthus leaf decorations, etc.

The pink sandstone Hindu, Jain and Buddhist sculptures of Mathura from the 1st to 3rd centuries CE reflected both native Indian traditions and the Western influences received through the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara, and effectively established the basis for subsequent Indian religious sculpture.[5] The style was developed and diffused through most of India under the Gupta Empire (c. 320-550) which remains a "classical" period for Indian sculpture, covering the earlier Ellora Caves,[6] though the Elephanta Caves are probably slightly later.[7] Later large scale sculpture remains almost exclusively religious, and generally rather conservative, often reverting to simple frontal standing poses for deities, though the attendant spirits such as apsaras and yakshi often have sensuously curving poses. Carving is often highly detailed, with an intricate backing behind the main figure in high relief. The celebrated lost wax bronzes of the Chola dynasty (c. 850–1250) from south India, many designed to be carried in processions, include the iconic form of Shiva as Nataraja,[8] with the massive granite carvings of Mahabalipuram dating from the previous Pallava dynasty.[9] The Chola period is also remarkable for its sculptures and bronzes.[10] Among the existing specimens in the various museums of the world and in the temples of South India may be seen many fine figures of Siva in various forms, Vishnu and his wife Lakshmi, Siva saints and many more.[11]

Wall painting[edit]

Fresco from the Ajanta Caves, c. 450-500
For more details on this topic, see Cave paintings in India.

The tradition and methods of Indian cliff painting gradually evolved throughout many thousands of years - there are multiple locations found with prehistoric art. The early caves included overhanging rock decorated with rock-cut art and the use of natural caves during the Mesolithic period (6000 BCE). Their use has continued in some areas into historic times.[12] The Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka are on the edge of the Deccan Plateau where deep erosion has left huge sandstone outcrops. The many caves and grottos found there contain primitive tools and decorative rock paintings that reflect the ancient tradition of human interaction with their landscape, an interaction that continues to this day.[13]

The oldest surviving frescoes of the historical period have been preserved in the Ajanta Caves with Cave 10 having some from the 1st century CE, though the larger and more famous groups are from the 5th century. Despite climatic conditions that tend to work against the survival of older paintings, in total there are known more than 20 locations in India with paintings and traces of former paintings of ancient and early medieval times (up to the 8th to 10th centuries CE),[14] although these are just a tiny fraction of what would have once existed. The most significant frescoes of the ancient and early medieval period are found in the Ajanta, Bagh, Ellora, and Sittanavasal caves, the last being Jain of the 7th-10th centuries. Although many show evidence of being by artists mainly used to decorating palaces, no early secular wall-paintings survive.[15]

Akbar riding the elephant Hawa'I pursuing another elephant

The Chola fresco paintings were discovered in 1931 within the circumambulatory passage of the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, and are the first Chola specimens discovered. Researchers have discovered the technique used in these frescoes. A smooth batter of limestone mixture is applied over the stones, which took two to three days to set. Within that short span, such large paintings were painted with natural organic pigments. During the Nayak period the Chola paintings were painted over. The Chola frescoes lying underneath have an ardent spirit of saivism is expressed in them. They probably synchronised with the completion of the temple by Rajaraja Cholan the Great.

Kerala mural painting has well preserved fresco or mural or wall painting in temple walls in Pundarikapuram, Ettumanoor and Aymanam and elsewhere.

Miniature painting[edit]

Although no Indian miniatures survive from before about 1000 CE, and few from the next few centuries, there was probably a considerable tradition. Those that survive are initially illustrations for Buddhist texts, later followed by Jain and Hindu equivalents, and the decline of Buddhist as well as the vulnerable support material of the palm-leaf manuscript probably explain the rarity of early examples.[16]

Mughal painting in miniatures on paper developed very quickly in the late 16th century from the combined influence of the existing miniature tradition and artists trained in the Persian miniature tradition imported by the Mughal Emperor's court. New ingredients in the style were much greater realism, especially in portraits, and an interest in animals, plants and other aspects of the physical world.[17]

Miniatures either illustrated books or were single works for muraqqas or albums of painting and Islamic calligraphy. The style gradually spread in the next two centuries to influence painting on paper in both Muslim and Hindu princely courts, developing into a number of regional styles often called "sub-Mughal", including Kangra painting and Rajput painting, and finally Company painting, a hybrid watercolour style influenced by European art and largely patronized by the people of the British raj. From the 19th century Western-style easel paintings became increasingly painted by Indian artists trained in Government art schools.


Pair of gold earrings, 1st century BCE, Andhra Pradesh.

The Indian subcontinent has the longest continuous legacy of jewellery-making, with a history of over 5,000 years.[18] Using jewellery as a store of capital remains more common in India than in most modern societies, and gold appears always to have been strongly preferred for the metal. India and the surrounding areas were important sources of high-quality gemstones, and the jewellery of the ruling class is typified by using them lavishly. One of the first to start jewellery-making were the people of the Indus Valley Civilization. Early remains are few, as they were not buried with their owners.

Other materials[edit]

Wood was undoubtedly extremely important, but rarely survives long in the Indian climate. Organic animal materials such as ivory or bone were discouraged by the Dharmic religions, although Buddhist examples exist, such as the Begram ivories, many of Indian manufacture, but found in Afghanistan, and some relatively modern carved tusks. In Muslim settings they are more common.

By context[edit]

Temple art[edit]

Obscurity shrouds the period between the decline of the Harappans and the definite historic period starting with the Mauryas, and in the historical period, the earliest Indian religion to inspire major artistic monuments was Buddhism. Though there may have been earlier structures in wood that have been transformed into stone structures, there are no physical evidences for these except textual references. Soon after the Buddhists initiated rock-cut caves, Hindus and Jains started to imitate them at Badami, Aihole, Ellora, Salsette, Elephanta, Aurangabad and Mamallapuram and Mughals. It appears to be a constant in Indian art that the different religions shared a very similar artistic style at any particular period and place, though naturally adapting the iconography to match the religion commissioning them.[19] Probably the same groups of artists worked for the different religions regardless of their own affiliations.

Buddhist art first developed during the Gandhara period and Amaravati Periods around the 1st century BCE. It flourished greatly during the Gupta Periods and Pala Periods that comprise the Golden Age of India. Although the most glorious art of these Indian empires was mostly Buddhist in nature, subsequently Hindu Empires like the Pallava, Chola, Hoysala and Vijayanagara Empires developed their own styles of Hindu art as well.

There is no time line that divides the creation of rock-cut temples and free-standing temples built with cut stone as they developed in parallel. The building of free-standing structures began in the 5th century, while rock-cut temples continued to be excavated until the 12th century. An example of a free-standing structural temple is the Shore Temple, a part of the Mahabalipuram World Heritage Site, with its slender tower, built on the shore of the Bay of Bengal with finely carved granite rocks cut like bricks and dating from the 8th century.[20][21]

Folk and tribal art[edit]

Folk and tribal art in India takes on different manifestations through varied media such as pottery, painting, metalwork,[22] paper-art, weaving and designing of objects such as jewelry and toys.These are not just aesthetic objects but in fact have an important significance in people's lives and are tied to their beliefs and rituals. The objects can range from sculpture, masks (used in rituals and ceremonies), paintings, textiles, baskets, kitchen objects, arms and weapons, and the human body itself(Tattoos and piercings). There is a deep symbolic meaning that is attached to not only the objects themselves but also the materials and techniques used to produce them.

Often puranic gods and legends are transformed into contemporary forms and familiar images. Fairs, festivals, local heroes (mostly warriors) and local deities play a vital role in these arts.

Folk art also includes the visual expressions of the wandering nomads. This is the art of people who are exposed to changing landscapes as they travel over the valleys and highlands of India. They carry with them the experiences and memories of different spaces and their art consists of the transient and dynamic pattern of life. The rural, tribal and arts of the nomads constitute the matrix of folk expression. Examples of folk artists are Warli and Gond.

The Taj Mahal built by the Mughals.

While most tribes and traditional folk artist communities are assimilated into the familiar kind of civilised life, they still continue to practice their art. Unfortunately though, market and economic forces have ensured that the numbers of these artists are dwindling.[citation needed] A lot of effort is being made by various NGOs and the Government of India to preserve and protect these arts and to promote them. Several scholars in India and across the world have studied these arts and some valuable scholarship is available on them. A noted art historian, Dr. Jyotindra Jain, has contributed greatly to this cause.

The folk spirit has a tremendous role to play in the development of art and in the overall consciousness of indigenous cultures. The Taj Mahal, the Ajanta and Ellora caves have become world famous. The Taj Mahal is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

By period[edit]

Indus Valley Civilization[edit]

Replica of the "dancing girl of Mohenjo Daro"

Despite its wide spead and sophistication, the Indus Valley Civilization seems to have taken no interest in public large-scale art, unlike many early civilizations. A number of gold, terracotta and stone figurines of girls in dancing poses reveal the presence of some dance form. Also, these terracotta figurines included cows, bears, monkeys, and dogs. The animal depicted on a majority of seals at sites of the mature period has not been clearly identified. Part bull, part zebra, with a majestic horn, it has been a source of speculation. As yet, there is insufficient evidence to substantiate claims that the image had religious or cultic significance, but the prevalence of the image raises the question of whether or not the animals in images of the IVC are religious symbols.[23] The most famous piece is the bronze Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro, which shows remarkably advanced modelling of the human figure for this early date.[24]

Seals have been found at Mohenjo-Daro depicting a figure standing on its head, and another sitting cross-legged in what some call a yoga-like pose. This figure, sometimes known as a Pashupati, has been variously identified. Sir John Marshall identified a resemblance to the Hindu god, Shiva.[25]

After the end of the Indus Valley Civilization there is a surprising absence of art of any great degree of sophistication until the Buddhist era. It is thought that this partly reflects the use of perishable organic materials such as wood.[26]

Mauryan art[edit]

Main article: Mauryan art

The north Indian Maurya Empire flourished from 322 BCE to 185 BCE, and at its maximum extent controlled all of the sub-continent except the extreme south, and introduced stone monumental sculpture to India, though probably drawing greatly on existing Indian traditions in wood, as well as influences from Ancient Persia.[27]

The emperor Ashoka, who died in 232 BCE, adopted Buddhism about half-way through his 40-year reign, and patronized several large stupas at key sites from the life of the Buddha, although very little decoration from the Mauryan period survives, and there may not have been much in the first place. There is more from various early sites of Indian rock-cut architecture. The most famous survivals are the large animals surmounting several of the Pillars of Ashoka, which show a confident and boldly mature style, though we have very few remains showing its development.[28] The famous detached Lion Capital of Ashoka, with four animals, was adopted as the official Emblem of India after Indian independence.[29] Many small popular terracotta figurines are recovered in archaeology, in a range of often vigorous if somewhat crude styles.[30]

Buddhist art[edit]

The major survivals of Buddhist art begin in the period after the Mauryans, from which good quantities of sculpture survives from some key sites such as Sanchi, Bharhut and Amaravati, some of which remain in situ, with others in museums in India or around the world. Stupas were surrounded by ceremonial fences with four profusely carved toranas or ornamental gateways facing the cardinal directions. These are in stone, though clearly adopting forms developed in wood. They and the walls of the stupa itself can be heavily decorated with reliefs, mostly illustrating the lives of the Buddha. Gradually life-size figures were sculpted, initially in deep relief, but then free-standing.[31] Mathura was the most important centre in this development, which applied to Hindu and Jain art as well as Buddhist.[32] The facades and interiors of rock-cut chaitya prayer halls and monastic viharas have survived better than similar free-standing structures elsewhere, which were for long mostly in wood. The caves at Ajanta, Karle, Bhaja and elsewhere contain early sculpture, often outnumbered by later works such as iconic figures of the Buddha and bodhisattvas, which are not found before 100 CE at the least.

Buddhism developed an increasing emphasis on statues of the Buddha, which greatly influenced later Hindu and Jain religious figurative art, which were also influenced by the Greco-Buddhist art of the centuries after the conquests of Alexander the Great. This fusion developed in the far north-west of India, especially Gandhara in modern Afghanistan and Pakistan.[33] The Buddhist Kushan Empire spread from Central Asia to include northern India in the early centuries CE, and briefly commissioned large statues that were portraits of the royal dynasty, a type of art that was otherwise wholly absent from India until the Mughal miniature.[34]

Gupta art[edit]

Buddhism to Hinduism[edit]

Muslim period[edit]

Art in the British period[edit]

Main article: Indian painting
Tipu's Tiger, an 18th-century automata with its keyboard visible in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

British colonial rule had a great impact on Indian art. The old patrons of art became less wealthy and influential, and Western art more ubiquitous. Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951), referred to as the father of Modern Indian art introduced reworked Asian styles, in alignment with a developing Indian nationalism and pan_Asianism to create a new school of art, which is today known as the Bengal school of art. Other artists of the Tagore family, such as Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) and Gaganendranath Tagore (1867–1938) as well as new artists of the early 20th century such as Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941) were responsible for introducing Avant garde western styles into Indian Art. Many other artists like Jamini Roy and later S.H. Raza took inspiration from folk traditions.In the year 1944, K.C.S. Paniker founded the progressive painters association (PPA) thus giving rise to the "madras movement" in art.

In 1947 India became independent of British rule. A group of six artists - K. H. Ara, S. K. Bakre, H. A. Gade, M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza and Francis Newton Souza - founded the Progressive Artist's Groupin the year 1952, to establish new ways of expressing India in the post-colonial era. Though the group was dissolved in 1956, it was profoundly influential in changing the idiom of Indian art. Almost all India's major artists in the 1950s were associated with the group. Some of those who are well-known today are Bal Chabda, Manishi Dey, V. S. Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, K. G. Subramanyan, A. Ramachandran, Devender Singh, Akbar Padamsee, John Wilkins, Himmat Shah and Manjit Bawa. Present-day Indian art is varied as it had been never before. Among the best-known artists of the newer generation include Bose Krishnamachari and Bikash Bhattacharya. Another prominent Pakistani modernist was Ismail Gulgee, who after about 1960 adopted an abstract idiom that combines aspects of Islamic calligraphy with an abstract expressionist (or gestural abstractionist) sensibility.

Contemporary art[edit]

From the 1990s onwards, Indian artists began to increase the forms they used in their work. Painting and sculpture remained important, though in the work of leading artists such as Nalini Malani, Subodh Gupta, Narayanan Ramachandran, Vivan Sundaram, Jitish Kallat, they often found radical new directions. Bharti Dayal has chosen to handle the traditional Mithila painting in most contemporary way and created her own style through the exercises of her own imagination, they appear fresh and unusual.

The increase in discourse about Indian art, in English as well as vernacular Indian languages, changed the way art was perceived in the art schools. Critical approach became rigorous; critics like Geeta Kapur, R. Siva Kumar,[35][36]Shivaji K. Panikkar, Ranjit Hoskote, amongst others, contributed to re-thinking contemporary art practice in India. The last decade or so has also witnessed an increase in art magazines like Art India, Art & Deal, Indian Contemporary Art Journal and Art Etc. complementing the catalogues produce by the respective galleries.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harle, 17–20
  2. ^ Harle, 22–24
  3. ^ Harle, 26–38
  4. ^ Harle, 342-350
  5. ^ Harle, 26–38
  6. ^ Harle, 87; his Part 2 covers the period
  7. ^ Harle, 124
  8. ^ Harle, 301-310, 325-327
  9. ^ Harle, 276–284
  10. ^ Chopra. et al., p. 186.
  11. ^ Tri. [Title needed]. p. 479.
  12. ^ "Prehistoric Rock Art". Retrieved 2006-10-17. 
  13. ^ "Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka". Retrieved 2006-12-20. 
  14. ^ "Ancient and medieval Indian cave paintings - Internet encyclopedia". Wondermondo. 2010-06-10. Retrieved 2010-06-04. 
  15. ^ Harle, 355
  16. ^ Harle, 361-366
  17. ^ Harle, 372-382
  18. ^ Untracht, Oppi. Traditional Jewelry of India. New York: Abrams, 1997 ISBN 0-8109-3886-3. p15.
  19. ^ Harle, 59
  20. ^ Thapar, Binda (2004). Introduction to Indian Architecture. Singapore: Periplus Editions. pp. 36–37, 51. ISBN 0-7946-0011-5. 
  21. ^ "Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent". Retrieved 2006-12-21. 
  22. ^ dhokra art
  23. ^ Keay, John, India, a History. New York: Grove Press, 2000.
  24. ^ Harle, 15-19
  25. ^ Marshall, Sir John. Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilisation, 3 vols, London: Arthur Probsthain, 1931
  26. ^ Harle, 19-20
  27. ^ Harle, 22-28
  28. ^ Harle, 22-26
  29. ^ State Emblem, Know India
  30. ^ Harle, 39-42
  31. ^ Harle, 105-117, 26-47
  32. ^ Harle, 59-70
  33. ^ Harle, 105-117, 71-84 on Gandhara
  34. ^ Harle, 68-70 (but see p. 253 for another exception)
  35. ^
  36. ^


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]