Traditional Paintings of India
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Painting is one of the most delicate forms of art, giving expression to human thoughts and feelings through the media of line and colour. Quite obviously, like most of the ancient worlds, in India too, the paintings first started on the rocks of the caves. As the civilization progressed, paintings moved to the walls of the buildings and finally to hand-held surfaces.
Indian painting traces its roots to pre-historic times with cave paintings and rock art. The earliest examples of Indian paintings, that we find evidence of, are on the walls of some of the caves in the hills and mountains scattered throughout the country – Himalayan Foothills in North India, Kaimur Range in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Vindhya Hills in Central India, Chhota Nagpur plateau in central-eastern India, the Edakkal Caves in Kerala, Unakoti in Tripura and Usgalimal in Goa.
The petroglyphs of the 700 odd rock shelters of Bhimbettka (near Bhopal) are some of the earliest examples of Indian cave painting. Whilst the majority of these painting are dated 5500 BC, the oldest ones can be dated back to Upper Palaeolithic Age and are considered to be 12,000 years old. The use of natural pigments of white and red have left some of the cave paintings very well preserved and depict their daily life, animals, religious and burial rites. These rock shelters also bear proof to the traces of human life in the Indian subcontinent.
After these Neolithic Age rock paintings, there are no evidences of wall paintings though we can learn a little by reference to paintings from some of our old literatures belonging to the centuries before and after the birth of Christ. The Vinayapithak, a Buddhist text of circa 3rd - 4th century B.C. refers in many places to the pleasure houses containing picture halls which were adorned with painted figures and decorative patterns. Painted halls are also described in the Mahabharata and Ramayana. These early mural paintings may be assumed to be the prototypes of the carved and painted picture galleries of the subsequent periods of the Buddhist art, such as in the painted cave temples of Ajanta.
The most notable of frescos, murals and cliff paintings during the historic period are those of the Ajanta Caves of early Christian eras. There are 30 caves chiselled out of the rock in a semicircular fashion. Their execution covers a period of about eight centuries; the earliest of them is believed to be in the 2nd century B.C. and the latest sometime in the 7th century A.D. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, these spectacular rock caves were abandoned, after which the jungle grew, enveloped and concealed them only to be accidentally re-discovered for the world in the 19th century. The subject matter of these paintings is almost exclusively Buddhist, excepting decorative patterns on the ceilings and the pillars. They are mostly associated with the Jatakas, a collection of stories, recording the previous births of the Lord Buddha. The compositions of these paintings are large in extent but the majority of the figures are smaller than life size.
The paintings from Bagh caves in Madhya Pradesh correspond to those of Ajanta in cave No. I and II which were executed between the 5th and 7th century A.D. Stylistically, both belong to the same form, but Bagh figures are more tightly modelled, and are stronger in outline. They are more earthly and human than those at Ajanta.
The earliest Brahmanical paintings so far known, are the fragments found in Badami caves, in cave No.III belonging to circa 6th century A.D. The so called Siva and Parvati is found somewhat well preserved. Though the technique follows that of Ajanta and Bagh, the modelling is much more sensitive in texture and expression and the outline soft and elastic.
The paintings of Ajanta, Bagh and Badami represent the classical tradition of the North and the Deccan at its best. Sittannavasal and other centres of paintings show the extent of its penetration in the South. The paintings of Sittannavasal are intimately connected with Jain themes and symbology, but enjoy the same norm and technique as that of Ajanta. The contours of these paintings are firmly drawn dark on a light red ground. On the ceiling of the Verandah is painted a large decorative scene of great beauty, a lotus pool with birds, elephants, buffaloes and a young man plucking flowers.
The next series of wall-painting to survive are at Ellora, a site of great importance and sanctity. A number of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples were constructed between the 8th and 10th centuries A.D. from the living rock. The most impressive of these, the Kailashnath temple is a free standing structure which is in fact a monolith. There are several fragments of painting on the ceiling of the different parts of this temple and on the walls of some associated Jain cave temple. So far as the style is concerned, Ellora painting is a departure from the classical norm of Ajanta paintings. Of course the classical tradition of modelling of the mass and rounded soft outline as well as the illusion of the coming forward from the depth is not altogether ignored. But the most important characteristic features of Ellora painting are the sharp twist of the head, painted angular bents of the arms, the concave curve of the close limbs, the sharp projected nose and the long drawn open eyes, which can very well be considered as the medieval character of Indian paintings.
Here mention may also be made to the 11th century Buddhist frescos painting at Alchi in Ladakh, a style which is believed to have spread to the entire Central Asia. Sadly the style does not exist anymore in Central Asia or India, but thankfully the murals of Alchi are still intact, due to the dry and cold climate. They are the most remarkable frescos surviving anywhere in the Tibetan speaking world.
The most important wall paintings in South India are from Tanjore, Tamil Nadu. The dancing figures from Rajarajeswara temples of Tanjore belonging to early 11th century A.D. are beautiful examples of medieval paintings. The wide open eyes of all the figures are a clear negation of Ajanta tradition of half closed drooping eyes. But the figures are no less sensitive than the Ajanta figures; they are full of movement and throbbing with vitality.
Another example of a dancing girl from Brihadeshwara temple of Tanjore belonging to the same period is a unique representation of swift movement and twisted form. The back and the hips of the figure are vividly and realistically shown with the left leg firm on the base and right thrown in space. The face is shown in profile with pointed nose and chin while the eye is wide open. The hands are outstretched like a sharp line swinging in balance. The rapturous figure of a dedicated temple dancer with vibrating contours is a true embodiment of sophistication in art and presents a charming, endearing and lovable feast to the eyes.
The last series of wall painting in India are from Lepakshi temple (about 70 km from Bangalore airport) belonging to 16th century A.D. The paintings are pressed within broad friezes and illustrate Saivaite and secular themes. A scene with three standing women in-spite-of their well built forms and contours in this style looks somewhat stiff. The figures are shown in profile, rather in an unusual fashion, specially the treatment of the faces where the second eye is drawn projecting horizontally in space. The colour scheme and the ornamentation of these figures are very pleasing and prove the highly sophisticated taste of Indian artists. The Boar hunt from the same temple is also an example of two-dimensional painting which almost becomes characteristic of late medieval paintings either on wall or on palm leaf or paper.
Thereafter a decline of Indian wall paintings began...though the art continued into 18th-19th century A.D. in a very limited scale. Some of the wall paintings of this declining period worth mentioning are those found in the reign of Prince of Travancore in Kerala, in the palaces of Rajasthan and in the Rangmahal of the Chamba palace in Himachal Pradesh. The Rangmahal paintings of Chamba deserve a special note in this connection as the National Museum is in possession of these early 19th century paintings in the original.
It would be interesting to make a brief mention of the technique and process of making Indian wall paintings. The ground was coated with an exceedingly thin layer of lime plaster over which paintings were drawn in water colours. In true fresco method (Fresco-Buono) the paintings are done when the surface wall is still wet so that the pigments go deep inside the wall surface. Whereas the other method of painting, which was followed in most of the cases of Indian painting and known as Fresco Secco, painting was done on the lime plastered surface which has been allowed to dry first and then drenched with fresh lime water. On the surface thus obtained the artist proceeded to sketch out his composition. This first sketch was drawn by an experienced hand and subsequently corrected in many places with a strong black or deep brown line when the final drawing was added. After the painter had drawn out his first scheme in red, he proceeded to apply on this a semi-transparent terraverte monochrome, through which his outline could be seen. Over this preliminary glaze the artist worked in his local colours.
Most of the colours were locally available. The principal colours in use were red ochre, vivid red (vermilion), yellow ochre, indigo blue, lapis lazuli, lamp black (Kajjal), chalk white, terraverte and green. Brushes were made up from the hair of animals, such as goat, camel, mongoose, etc.
Whilst the tradition of wall paining had begun to decline, during the period from 11th century A.D. onward, a new method of expression in painting known as miniature on palm leaves and paper; perhaps much easier and more economical had already begun.
The Pala School (11th To 12th Centuries):
The earliest examples of miniature painting in India exist in the form of illustrations to the religious texts on Buddhism executed under the Palas of the eastern India and the Jain texts executed in western India during the 11th-12th centuries A.D. The Pala period (750 A.D. to the middle of the 12th century) witnessed the last great phase of Buddhism and of the Buddhist art in India. The Buddhist monasteries (mahaviharas) of Nalanda, Odantapuri, Vikramsila and Somarupa were great centres of Buddhist learning and art. A large number of manuscripts on palm-leaf relating to the Buddhist themes were written and illustrated with the images of Buddhist deities at these centres which also had workshops for the casting of bronze images. Students and pilgrims from all over South-East Asia gathered there for education and religious instruction. They took back to their countries examples of Pala Buddhist art, in the form of bronzes and manuscripts which helped to carry the Pala style to Nepal, Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka and Java etc.
The Pala painting is characterised by sinuous line and subdued tones of colour. It is a naturalistic style which resembles the ideal forms of contemporary bronze and stone sculpture, and reflects some feeling of the classical art of Ajanta. A fine example of the typical Buddhist palm-leaf manuscript illustrated in the Pala style exists in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England. It is a manuscript of the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita or the perfection of Wisdom written in eight thousand lines. It was executed at the monastery of Nalanda in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Pala King, Ramapala, in the last quarter of the eleventh century. The manuscript has illustrations of six pages and also on the insides of both wooden covers.
The Pala art came to a sudden end after the destruction of the Buddhist monasteries at the hands of Muslim invaders in the first half of the 13th century. Some of the monks and artists escaped and fled to Nepal, which helped in reinforcing the existing art traditions there.
The Western Indian School (12th - 16th Centuries):
The Western Indian style of painting prevailed in the region comprising Gujarat, Rajasthan and Malwa. The motivating force for the artistic activity in Western India was Jainism just as it was Buddhism in case of the Ajanta and the Pala arts. Jainism was patronised by the Kings of the Chalukya Dynasty who ruled Gujarat and parts of Rajasthan and Malwa from 961 A.D. to the end of the 13th century. An enormous number of Jain religious manuscripts were commissioned from 12th to 16th centuries by the princes, their ministers and the rich Jain merchants for earning religious merit. Many such manuscripts are available in the Jain libraries (bhandaras) which are found at many places in Western India.
The illustrations on these manuscripts are in a style of vigorous distortion. One finds in this style an exaggeration of certain physical traits - eyes, breasts and hips are enlarged. Figures are flat with angularity of features and the further eye protruding into space. This is an art of primitive vitality, vigorous lines and forceful colours. From about 1100 to 1400 A.D., palm-leaf was used for the manuscripts and later on paper was introduced for the purpose. The Kalpasutra and the Kalakacharya-Katha, the two very popular Jain texts were repeatedly written and illustrated with paintings. Some notable examples are the manuscripts of the Kalpasutra in the Devasano Pado Bhandar at Ahmedabad, the Kalpasutra and Kalakacharya-Katha of about 1400 A.D. in the Prince of Wales Museum (Mumbai) and the Kalpasutra dated 1439 A.D. executed in Mandu, now in the National Museum, New Delhi.
The Mughal School (1560-1800 A.D.):
The origin of the Mughal School of Painting is considered to be a landmark in the history of painting in India. The Mughal School of painting originated in the reign of Akbar in 1560 A.D. Emperor Akbar was keenly interested in the art of painting and architecture. In the beginning of his rule an atelier of painting was established under the supervision of two Persian masters, Mir Sayyed Ali and Abdul Samad Khan, who were originally employed by his father Humayun. A large number of Indian artists from all over India were recruited to work under the Persian masters.
The Mughal style evolved as a result of a happy synthesis of the indigenous Indian style of painting and the Safavid school of Persian painting. The Mughal style is marked by supple naturalism based on close observation of nature and fine and delicate drawing. It is of a high aesthetic merit and is primarily aristocratic and secular.
An illustrated manuscript of the Tuti-nama in the Cleveland Museum of Art (USA) appears to be the first work of the Mughal School. The style of painting in this manuscript shows the Mughal style in its formative stage. Shortly after that, between 1564-69 A.D. was completed a very ambitious project in the form of Hamza-nama illustrations on cloth, originally consisting of 1400 leaves in seventeen volumes. Each leaf measured about 27"x20". The style of Hamza-nama is more developed and refined than that of the Tuti-nama.
The Mughal style was further influenced by the European paintings which came in the Mughal court, and absorbed some of the Western techniques like shading and perspective.
Under Jahangir, painting acquired greater charm, refinement and dignity. He had great fascination for nature and took delight in the portraiture of birds, animals and flowers. The portrait of Jahangir is a typical example of miniature executed during the period of Jahangir. This miniature is in the collection of the National Museum, New Delhi. The portrait is remarkable for its superb drawing and fine modelling and realism. There is liberal use of gold colour on the borders which are decorated with floral designs. The portrait is assigned to 1615-20 A.D.
Following the example of the Mughal Emperor the courtiers and the provincial officers also patronised painting and engaged artists trained in the Mughal technique of painting. But the artists available to them were of inferior merit, those who could not seek employment in the Imperial Atelier which required only first-rate artists. The works of such painters are styled as "Popular Mughal" or 'Provincial Mughal' painting. This style of painting has all important characteristics of the Imperial Mughal painting but is inferior in quality.
Under Shah Jahan the Mughal painting maintained its fine quality. The style, however, became over-ripe during the later period of his rule. Portraiture was given considerable attention by his painters. After the death of Shah Jahan, painting, together with all art forms, began to decline in the Mughal court. Aurangzeb was a puritan and therefore did not encourage art; as a result a large number of court painters migrated to the provincial courts.
The Deccani Schools (Circa 1560-1800 A.D.):
Though no pre-Mughal painting from the Deccan are so far known to exist, yet it can safely be presumed that sophisticated schools of painting flourished there. Early centres of painting in the Deccan, during the 16th and 17th centuries were Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golconda where painting continued to develop independently of the Mughal style in the beginning. However, later in the 17th and 18th centuries it was increasingly influenced by the Mughal style introduced by several Mughal painters who migrated to the Deccan during the period of Aurangzeb and sought patronage there.
Early Deccani painting absorbed influences of the northern tradition of the pre-Mughal painting which was flourishing in Malwa, and of the southern tradition of the Vijayanagar murals as evident in the treatment of female types and costumes. Influence of the Persian painting is also observed in the treatment of the horizon gold sky and landscape. The colours are rich and brilliant and are different from those of the northern painting. Tradition of the early Deccani painting continued long after the extinction of the Deccan Sultanates of Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golconda.
Distinctive features of the Deccani paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries are observed in the treatment of the ethnic types, costumes, jewellery, flora, fauna, landscape and colours. Some of the important Deccani Schools included: Ahmednagar, Bijapur, Golconda, Hyderabad and Tanjore.
Rajasthani and the Central Indian Schools (17th-19th Centuries):
Unlike Mughal painting which is primarily secular, the art of painting in Central India, Rajasthani and the Pahari region etc. is deeply rooted in the Indian traditions, taking inspiration from Indian epics, religious texts like the Puranas, love poems in Sanskrit and other Indian languages, Indian folk-lore and works on musical themes. The cults of Vaishnavism, Saivism and Sakti exercised tremendous influence on the pictorial art of these places. Among these the cult of Krishna was the most popular one which inspired the patrons and artists.
In the 16th century there already existed in Central India and Rajasthan the primitive art traditions in the form of the 'Western Indian' and the 'Chaurapanchasika' styles which served as a base for the origin and growth of various schools of painting during the 17th century. Peaceful conditions prevailed in Rajasthan in the latter half of the 16th and the 17th centuries. The Rajput rulers had gradually accepted the Mughal supremacy and many among them occupied important positions in the Mughal court. The Rajput rulers following the example set by the Mughal Emperors employed artists to work at their courts. Some of the Mughal artists of inferior merit who were no longer required by the Mughal Emperors, migrated to Rajasthan and other places and found employment at the local courts. It is believed that the popular version of the Mughal style which these painters carried to various places influenced the already existing styles of paintings there with the consequence that a number of new schools of painting originated in Rajasthan and Central India in the 17th and 18th centuries. Among these the important schools of paintings are Malwa, Mewar, Bundi-Kotah, AmberJaipur, Bikaner, Marwar and Kishengarh.
The Rajasthani style of painting including that of Malwa, is marked by bold drawing, strong and contrasting colours. The treatment of figures is flat without any attempt to show perspective in a naturalistic manner. Sometimes the surface of the painting is divided into several compartments of different colours in order to separate one scene from another. Mughal influence is seen in the refinement of drawing and some element of naturalism in figures and trees. Each school of painting has its distinct facial type, costume, landscape and colour scheme.
The Pahari Schools (17th To 19th Centuries):
The Pahari region comprises the present State of Himachal Pradesh, some adjoining areas of Punjab and the area of Jammu. The whole of this area was divided into small States ruled by the Rajput princes. These States were centres of great artistic activity from the latter half of the 17th to nearly the middle of the 19th century.
The earliest centre of painting in the Pahari region was Basohli where under the patronage of Raja Kripal Pal, an artist named Devidasa executed miniatures in the form of the Rasamanjari illustrations in 1694 A.D. The Basohli style of painting is characterised by vigorous and bold lines and strong glowing colours. The style spread to the various neighbouring states and continued till the middle of the 18th century. An illustration from a series of Gita Govinda painted by artist Manaku in 1730 A.D. shows further development of the Basohli style. There is a change in the facial type which becomes a little heavier and also in the tree forms which assume a somewhat naturalistic character, which may be due to the influence of the Mughal painting. Otherwise, the general features of the Basohli style were use of strong and contrasting colours, monochrome background, large eyes, bold drawing, use of beetles wings for showing diamonds in ornaments, narrow sky and red border.
The last phase of the Basohli style was closely followed by the Jammu group of paintings mainly consisting of portraits of Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota (a small place near Jammu) by Nainsukh, an artist who originally belonged to Guler but had settled at Jasrota. He worked both at Jasrota and at Guler. These paintings are in a new naturalistic and delicate style marking a change from the earlier traditions of the Basohli art. The colours used are soft and cool. The style appears to have been inspired by the naturalistic style of the Mughal painting of the Muhammad Shah period. These miniatures are seen as Guler Style.
The Guler style was followed by another style of painting termed as the "Kangra style", representing the third phase of the Pahari painting in the last quarter of the 18th century. The Kangra style developed out of the Guler style. It possesses the main characteristics of the latter style, like the delicacy of drawing and quality of naturalism. The name Kangra style is given to this group of painting for the reason that they are identical in style to the portraits of Raja Sansar Chand of Kangra. In these paintings, the faces of women in profile have the nose almost in line with the forehead, the eyes are long and narrow and the chin is sharp. There is, however, no modelling of figures and hair is treated as a flat mass. The Kangra style continued to flourish at various places namely Kangra, Guler, Basohli, Chamba, Jammu, Nurpur and Garhwal etc. Paintings of the Kangra style are attributed mainly to the Nainsukh family.
Some of the Pahari painters found patronage in Punjab under Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the Sikh nobility in the beginning of the 19th century and executed portraits and other miniatures in a modified version of the Kangra style which continued till the middle of the 19th century.
The earliest surviving examples of miniature painting in Orissa appear to belong to the 17th century A.D. Some good examples of the paintings of this period are a court scene and four illustrated leaves of a manuscript of the Gita Govinda in the Asutosh Museum, Kolkata, and an illustrated palmleaf manuscript of the Ramayana in the National Museum at New Delhi. In Orissa, palm-leaf continued to be used even upto the 19th century. The outline drawing was rendered with a stylus on the palm-leaf and then charcoal or ink was rubbed on the drawing. A few colours were sparingly used to fill in the designs. The technique of painting on paper was, however, different and was like the one used in other schools of painting. The early manuscripts display a neatness in drawing. Later on in the 18th century the line becomes bold and a little crude but the style in general is very decorative and ornamental.
As for the techniques of these miniature paintings, they were executed in the traditional tempera technique. After mixing colours in water along with a binding medium they were applied on the drawing. First, the sketch was freely drawn in red or black over which a white priming was given. The surface was thoroughly burnished till the outline showed clearly through it. Then a second outline was drawn with a fine brush. First the background was coloured and then the sky, buildings and trees, etc. Figures were painted last of all after which a final outline was drawn. When copies were made from perforated sketches by rubbing charcoal powder, the dotted outline took the place of the first drawing. Colours used in paintings were obtained from minerals and ochres. Indigo was the vegetable colour. Lac-dye and red carmine were obtained from insects. Burnt conch shell and zinc white (safeda) were used as white colour. Lamp black and burnt ivory (kajal) were used as black colour. Red ochre (geru), red lead (sindhura), lac-dye and red carmine were used as red colour, indigo and ultramarine were used for blue. Yellow ochre, orpiment and peori (extracted from urine of cows fed on mango-leaves) were used for yellow. Silver and gold were also used. Terraverte, malachite and verdigriz (Zangal) were used as green colour which was also obtained by mixing other colours. Gum arabic and neem gum were used as binding media in colours. Brushes were made of animal's hair. Fine brushes were made from squirrel's hair, the finest being of a single hair. Apart from palm leaf and paper, wood and cloth were also often used as materials for painting.
The traditional Indian painting started deteriorating after the first half of the 18th century and by the end of the century it lost most of its vitality and charm. However, in the Pahari region the art of painting maintained its quality till the end of the first quarter of the 19th century. Under the impact of the Western colours and technique of painting the traditional styles of Indian painting finally died out in the second half of the 19th century.