From early rock carvings and illustrations to a flourishing contemporary art scene, India’s vibrant artistic legacy is the result of an amalgamation of various religious and cultural influences. Modern Indian art in its different forms is often seen to draw inspiration from the themes, images, and the strong sense of design characteristic of traditional Indian art and thereby highlighting the country’s profound art heritage.
Traditional Indian art is an expression of people from an era when life was tuned to the rhythms of nature and its cyclic changes. It is the art of people knotted with natural energy, whose life and creativity were inextricably infused with snippets from religious epics and the myths and legends of multitudinous gods.
Artistic diversity of the land is also reflective of the diverseness of the region that once encompassed Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east, and from Bhutan and Nepal in the north to Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the south. The art of this region manifested itself in vivid, distinct, and enchanting art forms, including in paintings, sculptures, pottery and textiles.
Indian art has over the centuries influenced others and been influenced by the art of others. Since some of the world’s major religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Islam either began or flourished in India, much of Indian art is based on religious themes and concepts. This religio-centric nature of traditional art is believed to have followed Indian religions out of the region and influenced large swathes of South East Asia, Tibet and China. For its part, Indian art was also influenced by travelers and conquerors, especially from Central Asia and Iran, and later from Europe.
Archaeologists have discovered evidence of prehistoric rock art — relief, carvings or drawings — in India that dates back more than 10,000 years ago to 8000 BCE at the Bhimbetka petroglyphs in central India. The earliest known Indian art sculptures were produced by the Indus Valley Civilization Between 2,500 and 1800 BCE, India witnessed its earliest art sculptures at the Indus Valley Civilization, where small terracotta and bronze figures were created representing humans and animals.
By 700 BCE stone and bronze sculptures with religious theme began to appear with the creation of vast temples carved in stone and decorated with impressive columns. Religious and porsaic sculpture was a common practice among Hindus and Buddhists, and the sculpture of deities continued to be a main focus of Indian art for centuries.
By the 16th century, Islam gained importance under the Mughal Empire and art grew under Islamic rulers. British involvement in India began in the 18th century, during which time they established art schools to promote European styles. As a result, local art styles merged with foreign influences and traditional art forms were often romanticized or exaggerated to appeal to European buyers.
In 1947, India gained independence from the British empire which pushed local artists to search for a new style. Contemporary Indian art came of age incorporating traditional elements and influences from the rich history of the country.
Each region of India offers its own distinct style of art with three prevalent art forms — painting, architecture and sculpture — overarching the history of Indian art. Religious motifs are some of the most common subject matter, often featuring mythological forms as well as elaborate ornamentation.Some of the popular Indian folk paintings that have withstood changing trends and the ravages of history include:
Madhubani paintings: This style originated in the Mithila region of Bihar as a form of wall art.The Madhubani style is represented by a simple and evocative portrayal of culture and tradition, typically depicting mythological scenes. Artists juxtapose vibrant imagery with pared-down patterns, often bearing floral, animal, or bird motifs. The art form is practiced in many different styles including Bharni, Katchni, Geru, Godna, and Tantric.
Miniature paintings: These were created mostly as illustrations for manuscripts and were initially found on palm leaves, painted for merchants who carried them throughout their travels across the subcontinent in the 10th and 12th centuries. The art form became increasingly important throughout the Mughal and Rajput courts. Miniature paintings were highly detailed and intricate, drawing from Persian techniques. Themes ranged from religious and historical scenes to depictions of everyday life.
Pattachitra painting: Another early form of painting from around modern day Odisha, it is still practised in small villages in the area. Pattachitra literally translates to ‘cloth picture’ and aptly describes this traditional, cloth-based type of scroll painting. Known for its intricate details and mythological narratives, the paintings calls for angular, bold lines.
Warli paintings: A form of indigenous Indian art that dates back 2,500 years, the style originated in Maharashtra where it is still widely practised today. Typically created on the walls of huts, Warli paintings utilize linear and monochromatic hues and an elementary style of execution that resembles cave painting. Contrary to other types of tribal art, which feature an abundance of colors, this style utilizes earth-tones and neutral shades to depict activities of local people such as farming, dancing, and hunting.
Thanjavur paintings: This South Indian painting style flourished between the 16th and 18th centuries. Thanjavur paintings are colorful panel paintings done on a wood plank, usually depicting a deity as the primary subject matter of the composition.
Kalamkari paintings: This type of hand-painted or block-printed cotton textile is produced in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. It was traditionally used for making narrative scrolls and panels and has a strong connection to Persian motifs.
Gond paintings: Developed by the Gondi tribe of Central India, this type of art celebrates the natural world, depicting anything from lush greenery to animals. The paintings are created using a series of intricately arranged dots and dashes.
Phad paintings: Phad paintings date back thousands of years as a religious form of scroll painting that depicts battlefields, adventure stories, and folk deities.
Though the paintings mentioned here are some of the more prominent styles, there are several other types of Indian folk paintings that derive from different periods and regions within the subcontinent. Together these paintings often form the legacy from which any contemporary artist derive their inspiration.