History and evolution of art in India

Milind Sathe
Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Sakal Chitrakala Spardha 2017 is happening all over Maharashtra in a few days from now. In the run-up to this grand event which will involve lakhs of school students from all over the state, Sakal Times brings you two articles (first one in Wednesday’s edition and the second one today) on art.

The Indo-Islamic era influenced the practice of painting in India in a significant way. Large format monumental sculpture as an art form and wall paintings declined, whereas small size paintings illustrating texts flourished. Around the 10th century, the illustrated book emerged as an important possession for those who could afford it. Paintings became a portable commodity, private collections were formed and illustrated books came to denote wealth and prestige. Calligraphers and painters were employed to create these illustrated books.

The painters at Akbar’s court developed a style of painting historical narratives. Akbar’s son Jehangir continued the practice of patronage of art and took it to a higher level. The epic narratives of Akbar’s reign evolved into a wide range of styles and genres that developed during Jehangir’s reign - portraits, dynastic subjects, animals, flowers and literary paintings. Jehangir was followed by Shah Jahan whose first love was architecture. History painting which flourished during Akbar’s reign once again flourished during Shah Jehan’s era. 

The period of 18th and 19th centuries saw Rajasthani and Pahari paintings emerge as an important art form. Portraiture was the most popular genre of this era. The royal personalities depicted in these paintings were seen holding court, celebrating festivals or engaged in their favourite sport, the hunt. Hindu deities was also a subject matter of Rajasthani paintings. Nikhil Chand’s painting of the Radha and Krishna is an important contribution to the Kishangarh school. Prominent regional kingdoms in the hills such as Jammu, Guler and Kangra are known for their contribution to Pahari paintings.  The artists in this region painted court scenes, portraits and female form.

Before we look at the colonial and modern periods, it will be necessary to look at the rich tradition of tribal and folk art, which is an important part of the rich cultural heritage of India. Wall painting was a common custom of the tribal people. The Warli tribe in Maharashtra is known for their use of bright pigments of red ochre and white rice paste. The paintings are known for the use of geometric shapes and natural scenery. Temples at Nathdwara in Rajasthan are known for Picchwais which are cloth paintings. The art of floor painting, such as Alpana in Bengal, rangoli in Maharashtra and Kolam in South India, is associated with important ceremonies such as birth, marriage, and death. Other forms of art were also used to celebrate key social occasions. Ritual decorations with elaborate scenes from Hindu epics and myths on the mud walls of rural huts can be seen in Madhubani paintings (named after Madhubani in the Mithila region of Bihar). Embroidery and needlework were primarily practiced by women. Kanthas or embroidered and patchwork quilts and other furnishings from East Bengal are well known. Another notable tradition of performance art that combines visual arts and drama is Chitra Katha. This is a rolled-up scroll painting, which forms the narrative for the performance. Notable examples are the Patua scroll paintings from Bengal and pat scroll paintings from Rajasthan.

By the second half of the 18th century, the East India Company started establishing itself firmly in India. The East India Company employed artists who were assigned to document various aspects of India and the life here. Thomas and William Daniell’s work is well-known for their landscapes in the British Raj period. Victorian art started influencing the Indian elite who started commissioning European artists for portraits. The British set-up art schools and art societies. Initially, art schools were set up at Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai. Landscape paintings rose to prominence as a result of the British influence and became one of the preferred themes of the Bombay school painters. One of the most well-known artists of the 19th century was Raja Ravi Varma who was a member of the royal family of Travancore. He learned by watching European painters at work at the court and rose to become a leading portrait painter patronised by the Indian aristocracy.  While he executed several commissioned portraits, he is remembered for his history painting. He brought to life ancient Indian epics and literary classics. 

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Abanindranath Tagore, nephew of Rabindranath Tagore was instrumental in the revival of Indian cultural identity in the art practice. His painting of Bharat Mata is considered as a strong statement of nationalism.

In 1922, Rabindranath Tagore was instrumental in organising an exhibition of paintings by Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and others at Kolkata. This can be regarded as the possible starting point for modernism in India. Art from the early part of the 20th century until 1947 when India became independent was dominated by Tagore family (Rabindranath, Abanindranath, and Gaganendranath), Amrita Sher-Gil and Jamini Roy. Setting up of Visva Bharati University at Santiniketan was an important milestone as it celebrated Indian cultural identity. The Bengal School produced outstanding artists such as Nandlal Bose, Binode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij and many more.

Walter Langhammer, an Austrian jew, fled the Nazis during the second world war and came to Mumbai. Artists like Ara, Raza, Husain, Souza and Raiba, the great names of the Indian Progressive Art Movement, became his students. These were the modernists whose work broke away from the tradition of artistic nationalism. Artists like Bakre, Gade, Krishen Khanna, Gaitonde were other prominent artists of the progressive movement. The fine arts department of the University of Baroda was established in 1949 and emerged as an important art institution under the leadership of KG Subramanyan. 

The contemporary art practice is varied and several artists have gained prominence. We can say that the era of a handful artists dominating the national art scene is probably over. As India gets more globalised, artists and sculptors are asserting themselves with new ideas with an entirely new generation of art patrons which includes individuals, corporates and governments. It is difficult to name artists who are making a mark due to constraints of space. It is clear that Indian art scene is undergoing a strong revival with painters, sculptors and photographers choosing a wide spectrum of themes to tell their story. 

- Milind Sathe
(The author is the founder of Indiaart Gallery and www.indiaart.com)

​ ​

Related News