Celebrating the Colourful World of Indian Paintings

India has always been a riot of colours. There will be very few countries as colourful as India. Each region, state, village, and street is animated with colours as if a collage from an art book! There are cities named after colours like Jaipur – The Pink City and Jodhpur – the Blue City of India, etc. Colours and their significance in our day to day life is much a part of our Indian consciousness. Their symbolism stands out and controls every aspect of life in India. These vibrant colours are a common thread that ties together the diversity of our country. This diversity was also evident in India’s art of painting, with each region developing a culturally unique style of paintings!

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Indian art of painting has a very long tradition and history. The earliest Indian paintings that were found are the rock paintings of pre-historic times, the petroglyphs as found in places like Bhimbetka rock shelters (approximately 30,000 years old). These paintings are one of the oldest in the world! The next significant examples of paintings are from the caves of Ajanta, Bagh, Ellora, and Sittanavasal that date from the 2nd century BC. These paintings have various narrative episodes from Indian mythology and Jataka stories depicted in linear orders. The world famous Brihadisvara Temple in India of the Chola Period has its dark passage of the corridor and the walls on either side covered with two layers of paintings from the floor to ceiling. There are many locations in India that show paintings and traces of this ancient art right till the early medieval times (from 3rd-2nd century BC up to 8th – 10th century CE).

As oral traditions slowly began to be written down in manuscripts – the content of which was mainly a combination of writings, mathematical calculations, maps, explanatory figures etc – illustrations, decorations at the border and paintings became an important part of recording keeping and writings.

Starting as mere illustrations for the religious texts, Indian Paintings have stolen many hearts over the years with its varied topics of depiction. Miniature Paintings undoubtedly are the best of all!

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Originally the sacred texts were written on long narrow strips of palm leaves bound together in form of a bundle. Due to the size of the palm leaf that was usually one foot long and less than 3 inches wide, the area available for painting the illustrations was limited. The illustrations, therefore, are miniature in size and hence came to be known as “Miniature Paintings”. These manuscripts were meant to be held in one’s hands and viewed from a close distance.

Around 14th century C.E., the paper began to provide an alternative to palm leaves as a writing support for the manuscripts in India. For some time during the initial transition from palm leaves to paper, the format of the text and illustration remained the same as that of palm leaf manuscripts.

As the art of calligraphy was heavily influenced by Persian and Arabic styles, so were the painting styles in India. During the Sultanate Period, the dimensions of the paper folio were increased to approximately 9 inches long and 6 inches wide. The Mughal Ateliers brought a new sense of perspective and elevations to the paintings.

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The introduction of Persian perspective by Mughals and the various Sultanates seeped into the other styles of miniature paintings which developed in different regions of India mainly under the patronage of the local rulers, nobleman, and religious institutions.

Styles such as Western Indian, Mewar, Bundi, Kota, Malwa, Bikaner, Kishangarh, Thikana, Deccani, Pahari, etc evolved and contributed to the already colourful and illustrious painting culture of India. Most of these painting styles derive their names from the region or place where they developed, except for a few such as the Mughal and Sultanate styles, which get their names from their patron dynasties.

Every local style had its own regional characteristic and some regions still carry on the rich tradition of miniature painting in parts of India. Each regional style had its principle schools which in turn had several artistic styles and sub-styles that can be traced to the various periods and the Princely States that patronised these arts.

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With the increasing popularity of paintings, the subject matter changed from religious illustrations to the depiction of flora and fauna, portraitures, seasons, architecture, royal hunts, and other aspects of life. Colourfully personifying each “Raga” or a musical mode, the Ragamala series of illustrative paintings is perhaps the most famous of all. They stand as a classic example of the amalgamation of painting, poetry and classical music in medieval India.

During the colonial rule, the traditional Indian art of painting suffered a drastic decline. Late 19th century CE saw the introduction of western influences in the painting styles. The new millennium brought a lot of “abstract” art in paintings and the Indian art of Painting once again morphed itself to suit the new trends.

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It is important to know that paintings are not only about colours, lines and styles. In the ancient and medieval times, the artists recorded important events and details of daily life in paintings. So when you look at these paintings you will see scenes of court life and activities of rulers and noblemen, hunting scene, battles and wonderful study of flora and fauna, portraits of the emperor and his courtiers. These paintings record the minute details that the artists observed around them.

So by just looking at a painting, you can tell the class or ranking of the person painted or by the design of the garments, its print you can tell the region where the painting came from etc. Hence paintings are a very important source to know the history, socio-cultural and political life of a particular region or period. You can also see various architectural details and religious ideologies of that period.

Indian paintings provide an aesthetic continuum that extends from the early civilisation to the present day. The colours of India have always mesmerised its invaders, rulers, outsiders and visitors. They offer a kaleidoscopic insight into our culturally varied nation with a thriving history of “Pluralism” and the best examples of “Unity in Diversity”. The concepts to which the wide world is still an apprentice!


PS: Only classical styles of paintings have been covered and mentioned here. Vernacular painting styles of India such as Kalighat, Madhubani, Warli, Gond, Pattachitra, Kalamkari etc are not included.


© 2018 Ashwini Nawathe, Kaleidoscope of My Life

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