Art can be defined as something that is created with imagination and skill, which is beautiful or that expresses important feelings or ideas. Normally, this would include paintings, sculptures and other artifacts. An expanded definition could also include architecture.
The creations of earliest inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent - the stone age societies go back a long time. The rock paintings at Bhimbetka near Bhopal used organic pigments to depict humans and animals. These paintings were done by the inhabitants of the rock shelters, who lived there as early as 30000 years BCE. Padmashri Dr Vishnu Wakankar, an eminent archaeologist, is credited to have discovered these rock shelters at Bhimbetka and carried out extensive research on rock paintings, which throw a significant light on this important period in the evolution of man.
Around 2500 BC, the emergence of Harappan culture in the northwest marked an important milestone. The This era produced artifacts such as decorated pottery and small human sculptures, bulls, animals, ornaments and toys. By the first millennium BCE, the population started shifting eastward in the fertile Gangetic plain. They cleared forests and started farming. Cities emerged as centres of trade and commerce. This era is important for the emergence of Mahajanapada, the early form of the modern concept of a state. Emperor Asoka ( 269-232 BCE ) was the first major patron of Buddhist art. Asokan lion pillar at Sarnath from third century BCE is the emblem of the Indian Republic.
Between the first century BCE and first century CE, major Buddhist projects were completed with support from all sections of the society. It is remarkable that people from all walks of life contributed to creating these public projects. The Great Stupa at Sanchi is one of the best-known stupas, which is in good shape even today. Between 120 BCE and 400 CE, over a thousand viharas and chaityas were built in Buddhist monastic complexes along ancient trade routes. A fine example of this would be the chaitya at Bhaja and Karle.
The Gupta period (320-467 CE) is considered as the pinnacle of ancient Indian civilisation. Established by Chandragupta I in 320 CE in Bihar, the empire reached its crowning glory in the reign of Samudragupta (335-76 CE). Stupas, viharas and chaityas continued to be built all over India and beyond, especially along the silk route. The kings of Vakataka dynasty commissioned paintings at the rock-cut monasteries at Ajanta. The artists at Ajanta revel in action, drama and human emotions. They utilised the walls of the viharas for large-scale paintings to narrate Jataka tales and life of Buddha. The two paintings of Bodhisattva were commissioned during the reign of Harisena of Vakataka dynasty (460-77 CE).
In the subsequent period, the Hindu temple emerged as the focal point for several innovative ideas. The bronze sculpture of Siva Nataraja from Cola period, 10th century CE is an important milestone. The temples housed narrative reliefs featuring animals, floral, foliate and geometric designs. The narrative sculptures at Ellora and Elephanta are outstanding examples of rock sculptures.
In the period after eighth century, three temple sites can be singled out for their scale and aesthetics - Thanjavur in the south, Bhubaneshwar in the east and Khajuraho in central India. From the 10th century onwards, the northern plains of India were raided by the Turks and Afghans who were attracted by the stories of legendary wealth. The rise of Islam altered the skyline of north India with the Islamic architectural style making its mark. (To be continued)
- Milind Sathe
(The author is the founder of Indiaart Gallery and Indiaart.com)