Indian Art

The vast scope of the art of India intertwines with the cultural history, religions and philosophies which place art production and patronage in social and cultural contexts.

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

  • Hinduism and Buddhism of the ancient period (3500 BCE-present)
  • Islamic ascendancy (712-1757 CE)
  • The colonial period (1757-1947)
  • Independence and the postcolonial period (Post-1947)
  • Modern and Postmodern art in India

Each period is unique in its art, literature and architecture. Indian art is constantly challenged as it rises to the peak of achieving the ideals of one philosophy in a visual form, then begins anew for another. This challenge and revolution in thought ovides, Indian artists with reasons for innovation and creation, and the process of visualizing abstract ideas and the culture of the land.

Each religion and philosophical system provided its own nuances, vast metaphors and similes, rich associations, wild imaginations, humanization of gods and celestial beings, characterization of people, the single purpose and ideal of life to be interpreted in art.

Interrelationship in Indian arts

In the Indian context, the visual arts (sculpture, painting and architecture) are tightly interrelated with the non-visual arts. According to Kapila Vatsyayan, "Classical Indian architecture, sculpture, painting, literature (kaavya), music and dancing evolved their own rules conditioned by their respective media, but they shared with one another not only the underlying spiritual beliefs of the Indian religio-philosophic mind, but also the procedures by which the relationships of the symbol and the spiritual states were worked out in detail."

Insight into the unique qualities of Indian art is best achieved through an understanding of the philosophical thought, the broad cultural history, social, religious and political background of the artworks.

In India the distinction between "fine" and "decorative" arts is not pronounced.

The history of art in India begins with rock paintings. The first urban cultures of Harappa and Mohenjodaro with their centrally planned cities indicate a highly developed culture and an understanding of space that is clear from their architecture. The dancing girl from Mohenjodaro, various seals from Harappa and other art objects show that there was a clear knowledge of anatomy of the human figure, as well as a high degree of awareness and perception of animal forms.

The use of symbolic forms in India is as old as the Harappan seals. The fire altars of the Vedic period, with their astronomical and mathematical significance also play an important role in the evolution of the later temples.

Rock-cut art

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. Obscurity shrouds the period between the decline of the Harappans and the definite historic period starting with the Mauryas. Soon after the Buddhists initiated the rock-cut caves, Hindus and Jains started to imitate them at Badami, Aihole, Ellora, Salsette, Elephanta, Aurangabad and Mamallapuram.

Indian rock art has continuously evolved, since the first rock cut caves, to suit different purposes, social and religious contexts, and regional differences.

Indian fresco

The Chola fresco paintings were discovered in 1931 within the circumambulatory passage of the Brihadisvara Temple in India and are the first Chola specimens discovered.

Researchers have discovered the technique used in these frescos. 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 frescos 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.

Folk and tribal art

Alongside the classical art, there have been evolving, changing, transforming, folk and tribal art traditions. These art forms are the visual expression of people belonging to different cultural and social groups who fall into the broad category of Hinduisms. It is the expression of people whose life is tuned to the rhythms of nature and its laws of cyclic change and whose life is entwined with the energies of the earth.

Folk and tribal art represent the kernel of energy of the respective communities as a whole. It is a living, changing art form which changes with time, necessity, memories and experiences of these people.

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

It is an art where life and creativity are inseparable. The tribal arts have a unique sensitivity, as the tribal people possess an intense awareness very different from the settled and urbanized people. Their minds are supple and intense with myth, legends, snippets from epic, multitudinous gods born out of dream and fantasy. Their art is an expression of their life and holds their passion and mystery.

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, changing pattern of life. The rural, tribal and arts of the nomads constitute the matrix of folk expression.

The folk spirit has a tremendous role to play in the development of art and in the consciousness of the overall culture. Indian art and architecture has brought India closer to the world.The Taj Mahal and the Ajanta and Ellora caves have become world famous. The Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Fine Art

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. Rabindranath Tagore, referred as the father of Modern Indian art had introduced Asian styles and Avant garde western styles into Indian Art. Many other artists like Jamini Roy and later S.H. Raza had taken inspiration from folk traditions.

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 F. N. Souza - founded the Progressive Artist's Group, 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, V. S. Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, and Akbar Padamsee. Present-day Indian art is varied as it had been never before. Among the best-known artists of the newer generation include Sanjay Bhattacharya, Bose Krishnamachari,Geeta Vadhera, Satish Gupta and Bikash Bhattacharya.

Contemporary Art

From the 1990s onwards, Indian artists began to multiply the forms they used in their work. Painting and sculpture remained important, though in the work of leading artists such as Subodh Gupta Pratul Dash, Devajyoti Ray, Jagannath Panda or Atul Dodiya they often found radical new directions. Crucially, however, in a complex time when the number of currents affecting Indian society seemed to multiply, many artists sought out new, more polyvocal and immersive forms of expression. Ranbir Kaleka, Raqs Media Collective and Shilpa Gupta have produced compelling contemporary works using such assortments of media forms including video and internet. This development coincided with the emergence of new galleries interested in promoting a wider range of art forms, such as Nature Morte in Delhi and its partner gallery Bose Pacia Gallery (New York and Kolkata).