Indian Painting like Indian poetry and Indian philosophy can be traced back to pre-historic times. Before the advent of the professional historian, the painter and the poet recorded the deeds of heroes and depicted the life and manners of the times; and in an examination of ancient painting it is difficult to distinguish the interest of the archaeologist from that of the art-critic. A mixture of the two instincts leads to a close investigation of the earliest specimens of Indian drawing, the hunting scenes on the walls of Kaimur range caves or on the sand stone rock of Singhanpur in Raigarh State. Similar works, forming an interesting parallel to early Spanish cave-drawing, are to be found in the Mirzapur District as in the Central Provinces and can perhaps be traced back to the Stone Age. One has to bridge over a long gap in passing from these archaic remains to the earliest dateable specimens of Indian painting, those on the walls of the Yogimara cave in Surguja, Central Provinces. These frescoes, probably executed in the second century B.C. have not been preserved in an uninjured state and it is only a close examination which reveals a series of panels depicting chariots, elephants and dancing human figures, panels with boarders of various aquatic monsters. The art of painting must have been well developed by this time as is evidenced in the description of painted halls in the Sanskrit epics and of Royal pictures-galleries in early Buddhist literature; and in the third century after Christ, Vatsayana could formulate elaborate rules of Indian art, canons based perhaps on writings of a much earlier age.
The best preserved specimens of early Indian art are to be found in the Buddhist frescoes of the first six or seven centuries of the Christian era, the most noteworthy ones being those of Ajanta in the Nizam’s Dominions, of Bagh in the Gwalior State and of Sigiriya in Ceylon. The Ajanta frescoes first satisfactorily photographed by Victor Goloubeff have received the attention they richly deserve through the efforts of Mr. Griffiths, more particularly since the publication of the copies made by Lady Herringham and her associates. These frescoes now preserved in the only six out of the twenty-nine caves at Ajanta present us with a remarkable series of paintings on subjects almost exclusively Buddhist. The artists were perhaps members of a priesthood, not devoid of all interest in affairs of the court and its surroundings. It is very difficult to speak in general terms of work extending over six hundred years; but the best examples are to be found in the latest works of the series, those in caves 16, 17, and 1, which probably date from the sixth and seventh centuries. Scenes from the life of the Buddha, angelic figures, for example, of the flying Siddhas, historical characters as of Kings Pulakesin and members of the Brahmanic pantheon jostle against one another in the wonderful variety of pictures. One of the most admired of these is that of Parvati and Shiva being taught by the Buddha. The figure of Parvati is a marvellous picture of womanly grace, forming an admirable contrast to the noble pose of Shiva, whiles the clouds behind supply a very effective back-ground. Another equally known figure is that in cave 1, taken generally to represent the Great Renunciation of Prince Siddhartha, turning away from the “sick hurry” and “divided arms” of human society, from all its miseries and troubles, to “see life steadily and see it whole” in the rest and peace of asceticism. A picture of a different type is that in cave 17, depicting the Jataka story of the goose-king and the royal fowler, with its figures placed against a richly decorated back-ground. A picture like this enables us to study closely the colour-scheme of the frescoes, the figures made up mostly of a combination of light pinks and delicate greys being placed against a dark green or black background. Sometimes again the artist followed the opposite method of placing figures of a dark tint against a lighter design behind, but showed everywhere that he well knew how to concentrate the attention of the spectator on the central parts of his work through the forces of contrast. From the purely technical point of view the most noteworthy feature of these frescoes is not so much a sense of colour or mass, as is the command of the line and of balanced composition. The design is on a large scale, but the treatment is simple, depending always on a few firm sweeps of the brush. The intensity of the artist’s conception is translated into his bold control of the line which by its sinuous movements and variations, sometimes cubistic in its analysis of three dimensions can express all his sense of perspective and relief. In short, these frescoes reveal to us ancient Indian art in all its glory and a more serious loss than the destruction of these through the process of decay and crumbling down as has been noticed in the last few years cannot be imagined.
The Sigiriya frescoes, probably executed in the closing years of the fifth century, represent procession of about twenty women supposed to be king Kasyapa’s queens with their attendant maidens, bringing offerings of flowers to a scared shrine. The gesture of the figures is very graceful and a good deal of care must have been given to the modelling of the hands, particularly of the fingers. The brushwork shows the same command of line as in the Anjanta Frescoes and in spite of the dissimilarity of subjects, the two groups form an interesting parallel. The Bagh frescoes are of the same style as the Ajanta and Sigiriya specimens, but are not preserved in anything like a perfect condition. Still one can see the same mixture of secular and religious motives as in the Ajanta frescoes, the secular representations being perhaps associated with some Buddhist rites. It is not however possible to speak of the scenes with any certainty owing to the crumbling condition of most of the pictures.
After the era of the great frescoes Indian painting seems to vanish into nothingness, and does not emerge from oblivion till nearly 900 years later. Various reasons have been suggested for this complete eclipse and a very plausible one is that Buddhist art was so intimately bound up with the religion that with the disappearance of the later the pictorial power was practically extinguished for the time being. The artistic consciousness of Brahmanism found expression in sculpture and architecture rather than in painting. Some paintings, perhaps mainly mythological owing to the religious revival, may have been carried on but the glorious products of Ajanta pictorial art would be on the decline while the plastics arts were still in their full vigour. This inferior workmanship would find encouragement neither form the Mohammedan conqueror nor from the native ruler and would have little chance of surviving its age.
But if these centuries do not reveal any evidence of the continuance ofthe art in India, there seems to be signs of Indian influence in the artistic relics found in neighbouring countries like Tibet and Eastern Turkestan. The excavations of Sir Aurel Stein and Mons. Le. Coq. in Khotan have brought out examples of frescoes and banners, betraying strong traces of Ajanta art in the former and showing an affinity with the Tibetan tangka (temple banner) work in the latter. The extant Tibetan banners are not perhaps older than the seventeenth century, but the art goes back to much earlier times and was probably derived from similar work on linen carried on at Nalanda and other places in the tenth and eleventh centuries.
With the Mogul school of painting, flourishing from about the middle of the sixteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth, we come out of this limbo of oblivion or semi-darkness and have our feet planted on much firmer ground. Mogul art was essentially a court product and while it had a healthy growth under the more artistic rulers, Akbar, Jehangir, Shahjehan, it declined with the comparative apathy of the later rulers. Mogul art is distinctly secular in subject-matter and realistic in method of workmanship. It is derived from the art of fifteenth century of Persia or to be exact, of Samarkand and Herat under the descendants of Timur. A famous name of the time is Bihzad who lived at the end of the century and influenced the Indian artist of the Moghul court to an enormous extent. Hindu names are found in the list of artist, for example, of Akbar’s court, but they must have fully taken in the Persian inspiration before they proceeded to produce their works for the pleasure of their patron.
The Moghul artist living the life of the camp and the court has naturally a predilection for scenes with which he is familiar, hunting and battle, sieges and durbars, curious animals and wonderful trees. The early pictures for the school particularly excel in the manipulation of the back-ground or borders with leaves and flowers and in the use of brilliant colours, red and blue and gold. The miniature-painters who come after these early artists while continuing the Persian tradition bring in many elements of indigenous technique. They still follow the lines of the art of calligraphy and sometimes while one is responsible for the brushwork of the outline another takes charges of the colouring. Yet in the management of the line some of these works seem linked up with the old Buddhist frescoes and a new features is a native interpretation of perspective, of distances in the back-ground as well as in viewing an object from above or below. The appreciation of Nature revealed in the management of trees and flowers by the earlier artist now extends itself to a reproduction of rare birds and animals. This is more frequently seen in the splendid picture border than in the body of the work and the artist apparently lavished as much of care on the one as on the other.
The best known works of the Moghul school are however its portraits, mainly of royal personages. The art of portrait-painting can perhaps be traced back to the Buddhist period and the pictures of King Pulakesin or Kasyapa’s queens characterised as such; and it is curious that among the early exponents of the art in Moghul times the names of two Hindus, Bhagwati and Hunar, figure prominently, while in the actual portraits the treatment of the hands often reminds one of the expressiveness of the old frescoes. But a far more potent influence was that of the school of Sultan Mohammed, a disciple of Bihzad, and the mixed influence led to the golden age of Indian portraits under Akbar, Jehangir and Shahjehan. We know from the Ain-i-Akbari that the emperor himself “sat for his likeness and also ordered to have the likenesses taken of all the grandees of the realm.” Bernier, the French physician at Aurangzeb’s court, noticed the vogue of portrait-painting but criticised the painters for being “deficient in just proportions and in the expression of the face.” The most numerous examples of the art are, as is evident from the Ain-i-Akbari passage, portraits of emperors and members of the royal family, generally encircled with a golden halo to indicate the noble lineage. The gorgeous garments afforded ample opportunities for the display of colours and the back-ground is frequently colourless, though sometimes a deep black was preferred. Most of the portraits represent the full profile of the figure and it is in the various features of the face that the skill of the artist comes out best, for he knew full well that the great portrait must bring out the inner nature of the man, not simply his outward appearance. The likeness is real; the shading and colouring generally beyond criticism.
After the days of Aurangzeb, Mogul art was on the decline; and just as in miniature we see the inferior technique of a new school taking the place of the old Delhi Kalam, so in portraits the work was mainly the coping of famous types rather than any fresh original work. There were some accepted types of the portraits of great individuals; and these types were now perpetuated through the efforts of inferior workmen who could not strike out any new lines for themselves and had no power of seizing the likeness of individuals from life. In the school of portraiture evolved at Lucknow the actual likeness was often successfully rendered, but a good deal of bad Western influence was manifest, especially in the ornamentation of accessories.
Closely parallel to the calligraphic art of the Moghul is that of the Jains. The tradition of illustrated Jain manuscripts goes back to the thirteenth century and one comes across numerous illuminated copies of the Bhadravanhu’s Katpa Sutra, containing the lives of Mahavira, Parshwanath and other Jinas; while the Sanghavani Sutra manuscripts depicting the abodes of dwellers of heaven and hell belong to the early nineteenth century and reflect a good deal of Rajput and Moghul influence. In the most of these old manuscripts the pictures occupy the space in the margin left for the purpose. The same themes are frequently repeated, indicating thereby the preservation of some ancient traditions and this supposition seems strengthened by similarities in composition and style. The ground colour is not always the same, being sometimes red and sometimes golden. There is often a rude attempt at representing a landscape in the back-ground, against which the figure is placed in its sharp outlines, being frequently distinguished by the hooked nose and long-drawn eyes.
While Moghul art was flourishing at Delhi or Agra, Hindu art was not extinct, but rather had a more vigorous life than for some centuries proceeding. The characteristic Hindu work of the period has been traced to Rajputana and the Punjab Himalayas and the products have been described as “Rajput” or “Pahari” works. The Moghul artist was essentially secular, thepainter almost exclusively of the camp and the court. Its interest was soon exhausted, and the Hindu painters who gave it a new life drew their first inspiration from their old religious stories which would make an intimate appeal to the soul of every Hindu. These early painters treated their subject with the reverences of the true devotee, forming an interesting parallel with the Italian painters of about the same period. In addition to this the Hindu painter wanted these religious truths to appeal to the mass of the people and so he frequently drew his imagery from the common everyday life of the village labourer and peasant. One of the most famous of the Rajput works, the “DEATH OF BHISHMA’ seeking to revivify an episode from the old Hindu epic, probably goes back to the sixteenth century; but most of the extant work belongs to a much later period of the eighteenth century or even later. Then the centre of production was mostly in the mountainous regions, Kangra, Chamba, Basholi and Punch and it is in these that the two motifs mentioned above, religion and pictures of daily life, come out most prominently. Love and adoration of Krishna is one of the main notes of the Kangra work and there is no picture more famous than the Kaliyadamana, representing Krishna slaying the demonic snake, a product of the early eighteenth century. The love of Radha and Krishna are treated in most of the devotional works of the Pahari School and among these artists, only one MOLA RAM is known to us by name. Shiva and Parvati were not neglected however and Rama and Sita appear occasionally; but Krishna, the divine herdsman, overshadows them all. Equally significant of the idealism of the school are the ragmalas, portraying in colour various Indian melodies and their associations, - an attempt at correlation of distinct arts, -- an attempt continued later on at Jaipur. On the other side, there are realistic pictures of common life as in many famous Kangra works, the details being represented with such an essential fidelity to life as to satisfy the most exacting realist of to-day.
One does not come across numerous portraits of Pahari workmanship; but there are many Rajput portraits which may well vie with Moghul products in their revelation of the inner nature of the subjects. The outlines however are much simpler, --a feature, which may be described as a general characteristic of all Rajput art. The colour-scheme too is generally very simple in the Rajput portraits, but not so in the other works of school. Here one come across brilliant masses of colour, yellow, green, brown and red, relieved perhaps by whites and blacks. In later times, the artist first covered his paper with a coating of gold and then proceeded to lay his various pigments over it, securing thereby an effect of luminousness and brilliance very difficult to describe.
One does not feel certain when exactly the Rajput school was extinguished; but the Pahari painters in their seclusion of hilly tracts continued their work all through the nineteenth century. Gradually they extended their influence to various centres of the Punjab and the Sikh ruler, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, gave them great encouragement. The seven pictures exhibited at Lucknow in 1926, depicting the story of the elopement of Rukmini and Krishna show that the characteristic traditions were still to be found in the middle of the nineteenth century. But with the opening out of communications and the inroad of new events, the distinctiveness of this school of painting gradually ceased to exist.
In the last half of the century when Moghul art was decadent at Delhi and Lucknow, and the Hindu art flourishing at Jaipur and in some Punjab districts, a family of artist at Patna was producing under the patronage of European merchants a curious style of painting impregnated thoroughly with western influence. The lesson was badly assimilated and the products were often crude, practically devoid of all feeling.
In South India, at Tanjore, some Hindu artist were doing very good work on ivory and wood at this period, miniature portraits painted on ivory being among the most noteworthy works of the school. This ivory work was the continuation of an old Tanjore style which went back to the middle of the eighteenth century and whose best work was found in portraits on cloth and wall-paintings on sacred subjects. From about 1830-50, the artist flourished under the patronage of the local Rajah, but with his death and the extinction of the dynasty in 1855, there was little encouragement for them and the school vanished. Portraiture on ivory was the most significant work of a Mysore school of artists as well, whose best days were in the second quarter of the century; but they also depended solely on patronage and with that ceasing, they were dispersed.
This brings us to the most significant movement of the Modern Period, the work of the groups of artists led by Dr A.N. Tagore of Calcutta. Dissatisfied with the work of western technique, they wanted to strike out a new line for themselves more in consonance with the ancient Indian ideals and aspirations. One does not know how far the spirit of nationalism was responsible for this revival; but its early exponents, Abanindra Nath Tagore, Nanda Lal Bose, Asit Kumar Haldar, Surendar Nath Ganguly, Sarada Charan Ukil and others, determined to get rid of the hybrid imitations of the West and supply something truly Indian in soul and in style. Once more, like their Rajput predecessors they fell back for their inspiration on the inexhaustible source furnished by the great religious traditions of the people. Their method of treatment was an attempt to get away from the reproduction of life. As Lord Ronalshay puts: “The new school is consciously and intentionally idealistic. It is the avowed intention of its makers to escape from ‘the photographic vision’, and to secure an introspective outlook on things which takes one away from the material objectives of life to a rarefied atmosphere of beauty, and romance. Instead of busying themselves with recording the superficial aspects of phenomena, they have worked with a deeper motive and a profounder suggestion, seeking to wean the human mind from the obvious and the external reality of the sense, disdaining to imitate nature for its own sake, and striving to find significative forms to suggest the formless Infinity which is hidden behind the physical world of forms’. There has been criticism of the school from its most sympathetic followers observing, mainly on the ground of it dissociating itself from the “throb of modern aspiration” in its subject-matter and its neglect in composition of some of the best features, the colour-scheme, for example, of Moghul and Rajput pictorial art. But there was bound to be a period of experiment, a period noticeable mainly for its rejection of the traditions of the immediate past and clinging only to the models of a farremoved era. Now there are signs of activity along newer lines; witness, for example, Mr. G.N. Tagore’s experiments in cubism and his delightful cartoons satirising objectionable features of Indian society; the efforts with sober colour-schemes and sinuous movements by P.K. Chatterjee; the meticulous precision and acre of details in A.R. Chughtai. The time has not yet come to pronounce the final judgment on the work of the school; still one is in a position to assert that they are not to be dismissed as examples of Japanese influence in Indian Art, that they “have succeeded in presenting Indian subjects in the true atmosphere of Indian thought and setting”, and that “apart from their present confusion their presence is more valuable, as their possibilities are many and diverse.”