Indian Paintings


India has since times immemorial been a crucial centre of artistic excellence. The paintings of different periods of Indian history clearly attest to this fact. There are several sites in different parts of India which clearly echo the presence of the tradition of painting in the subcontinent right from ancient times. This article will be looking into some of the most crucial specimens of the Indian painting tradition spread across different parts of the subcontinent and ranging over different periods of the history of the subcontinent.

Mesolithic Art

The various Mesolithic sites constitute some of the most crucial examples of the artistic tradition of the subcontinent. As far as Mesolithic art is concerned, mention may be made of the various portable specimens, which are nevertheless quite  few in number. In this connection, special mention may be made of the chert core engraved with an interesting geometric design that was unearthed from the site of Chandravati in Rajasthan. Archaeologists attributed this to the Mesolithic period on the ground of the site, having yielded numerous microliths. However, the most important part of Mesolithic art is undoubtedly constituted by the various rock paintings. The first rock paintings in India were discovered by A.C.L. Carlyle in 1867-68 at the site of Sohagighat that is located in the Kaimur hills of present day Mirzapur district of U.P. The most important and magnificent example of Mesolithic rock info 1paintings are undoubtedly those found at the site of Bhimbetka, that were discovered in 1957 by archaeologist V.S. Wakankar who spotted the Bhimbetka rocks from his train window while travelling from Bhopal to Itarsi. There are a total of 624 rock shelters at the site of Bhimbetka, of which 400 are adorned with paintings, engravings, and bruising. A group of archaeologists are of the opinion that the rock paintings at Bhimbetka reflect three main phases, which in turn have further sub-phases within them. Among these, the first five sub-phases can be situated within the Mesolithic period, while the sixth one is transitional, and the last three can be attributed to the historical period. As far as the usage of colours is concerned, a total of 16 colours or shades are noticeable, among which white and light red appear most frequently. These colours were possibly procured from minerals that were ground and then mixed with water or some other substance such as animal fat, marrow, or egg white. The Bhimbetka paintings display specimens of both monochrome and polychrome art.

Animals constitute the dominant motif in the Bhimbetka paintings, a typical feature of Mesolithic rock art sites. Among these chital, leopard, tiger, panther, elephant, rhinoceros, antelope, deer, and squirrel are noticeable among the many others. Besides, there are others like birds, fishes, lizards, frogs, scorpions, and small centipedes as well. Interestingly no snakes are depicted in the Bhimbetka paintings, just like the other Indian Mesolithic paintings. The various animals noticeable in the paintings are both represented on their own and also as part of various hunting scenes. The figure of hunters, that includes both groups and individuals, are seen as wearing masks and headdresses and are adorned with necklaces, bangles, wrist bands, elbow bands and knee bands with tassels. Another distinctive feature of these paintings is that in some of them, we can see the x-ray style being used, whereby one can see the inner organs of the animals, including the foetuses in the wombs of the female animals. Animals also appear in many peaceful and sympathetic scenes, such as the portrayal of pregnant animals, like those of the tiger with cubs. Besides, there were many fantastic animals. Special mention may be made of the famous Bhimbetka boar having the body of a boar but a snout like a rhinoceros, the underlip of an elephant, and the horns of a buffalo. The Bhimbetka paintings depict many human figures as well, which includes both men and women, young and old. Another distinctive feature of these paintings is the portrayal of division of labour based on gender. Thus, we can see the men as appearing in the hunting scenes, whereas the women as seen as performing the functions of gathering and preparing food, such as grinding food on querns. Among the various other sites of Mesolithic paintings, mention may be made of the one found at Jaora in M.P., which possibly reflects a world consisting of air, earth, and fire or could even mean something completely different. These paintings found at different Mesolithic sites are immensely crucial as they serve as significant sources of information concerning the lives of Mesolithic communities and also display striking thematic similarities across the country.

Vakataks – Ajanta Cave Paintings

One of the most remarkable features of the period between 300-600CE is the cave architecture of this period, which is again almost entirely Buddhist. Special mention may be made of the Buddhist site of Ajanta, that constitutes of several caves situated in a curving section of the Sahyadri hills overlooking the Waghora river. Apart from the spectacular sculpture found in these caves, another distinctive feature of these caves is that they are adorned by beautiful murals on the walls, ceilings, doorframes, and pillars. Although originally most of the caves had paintings, but unfortunately, only those of six caves, namely Caves 1, 2, 9,10, 16, and 17, have survived. The caves 9 and 10 have been attributed to the 2nd/1st century BCE by historians, whereas the others can be located within the second phase that in turn corresponds with the Vakataka period. The technique of painting used in these caves is known as fresco secco, whereby a thick layer of mud mixed with vegetable material was applied on the rock surface, followed by the application of a thin coat of plaster on top of this. The paintings were then made on this prepared surface by means of pigments mixed in a glue or gum medium. As far as the usage of colours is concerned, the artists seemed to have used and blended six colours, namely white that was made from lime, kaolin, and gypsum; red and yellow made from ochre; black from soot; green from glauconite and lastly blue from lapis lazuli. Albeit the images of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and narrative scenes from Jatakas constitute a considerable section of the Ajanta paintings, but there are others as well, such as images of yakshas, gandharvas, and apsaras. Moreover, the Ajanta paintings not only have religious scenes but also those of everyday life in cities and villages. Some historians are of the opinion that the technique of foreshortening was known to the Ajanta artists which is evident from the presence of multiple perspectives in their paintings whereby the objects are painted in a manner as if they are seen simultaneously at eye level from above as well as from below. The human figures in the paintings are slender, well proportioned, and elegant who are adorned with an intricate range of costumes, jewellery, and hairstyles. The beautiful Ajanta murals clearly echoes the long tradition of mural painting in India.

Mughal Period

The Mughal school of painting seems to have originated in Kabul, which had been a major centre of culture even prior to its conquest by Babur in 1504. Babur and Kamran continued the tradition of patronising paintings

followed by the Ulugh Beg II, who ruled Kabul prior to Babur. Humayun further strengthened this tradition by patronising many of the disciples of the famous painter Bihzad. Two of them, namely Mir Saiyid Ali and Abdus Samad, joined him in Afghanistan and consequently moved with him to Delhi. The tradition of painting highly flourished during the reign of Akbar as well, who ordered the preparation of the lavishly illustrated manuscript of the Persian translation of Hamza Nama. This project was carried out under the supervision of Saiyid Ali and Abdus Samad, who led a group of almost a hundred painters drawn from different regions such as Gwaliyar, Gujarat, Lahore, Kashmir, Malwa, and others. Apart from this, the task of illustrating many other manuscripts was also taken up during this period which, include those of Anwar Suhaili, the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, Chingiz Nama, Akbar Nama, and others. Akbar, as per Abul Fazl, patronised talented painters irrespective of their religion. In fact, among the seventeen painters mentioned by Fazl, thirteen were Hindus. Some of them even belonged to the lower castes. Mention may be made of Daswant in this connection, who was a palki bearer originally. The painters were provided with monthly salaries and also additional rewards based on their work. The themes of paintings of this period ranged from war to hunting scenes and also mythical beings and buildings. Besides, portrait painting was quite popular during this period. Basawan was one such famous portrait painter. The reign of Akbar is immensely important in terms of developments in the field of painting. For it was during this period that the Mughal tradition of painting freed itself from the clutches of Persian rigidity of form. This was achieved by means of the introduction of the plastic roundness of Indian painting that ultimately culminated in the production of a three-dimensional effect contrary to the earlier two dimensional one. Apart from this, his reign witnessed the introduction of Indian trees, flowers, buildings, and colours such as peacock blue and red. Also, European paintings were introduced in the court during this period by the Portuguese priests. However, the tradition of Mughal painting undoubtedly reached its zenith during the reign of Jahangir, especially the practice of portrait painting. Mention may be made of Mansur in this connection. The Indian painters, however, seemed to have very little interest in nature independently, and thus trees, birds, or streams of water only appeared as the background of various hunting and war scenes. Although painting continued to be patronised by Shah Jahan but historians are of the opinion that he lacked the aesthetic sense of Jahangir in this field. Aurangzeb’s lack of interest in painting culminated in the dispersal of artist, that in turn resulted in the development of painting in the states of Rajasthan and Punjab hills. The former combined the themes of earlier traditions of western India or that of the Jaina school with the Mughal tradition of painting. As a result, we can see that alongside hunting and court scenes, there was a profusion of mythological themes as well. This included the dalliance of Krishna with Radha or the Barah masa meaning the seasons and ragas. The Pahari school further continued these traditions.

Thus, it is quite evident from the above discussion that right from ancient times, the sub-continent had a quite rich tradition of painting which eventually evolved at different periods of history.


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  • Singhania, Nitin. Indian Art and Culture. Chennai. McGraw Hill Education (India) Private Limited, 2020.
  • Chandra, Satish. Medieval India: From Sultanate to Mughals, Part Two- Mughal Empire (1526-1748). Delhi. Har-Anand Publications Pvt Ltd, 2012.


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