Art History

First published in Triveni, vol. 7, 1934

Indian art is characterised by spontaneity; the beauty lavished and the dexterity of workmanship displayed on comparatively insignificant articles of use- articles of luxury are quite a different matter- are sufficient proof of the veracity of the statement. The fantastic curves that shape the quaint parrots on the border of clothes of wear or on vessels of use, the swans that adorn the tops of lamps or the peacocks that hold the pan in different parts of the body, the metal fishes that sway to and fro on their fragile scales, and the queerly shaped tortoise that holds the conch of the Lord are all creations of the genuine art-brain of India.

Indian art, though possessing all the charm of a woman and all her grace and gaiety, has never been seen huddling in a harem- I mean a single and separated compartment or, as we style it today, a watertight division- unlike the sinew loving masculine Western art that confines itself to galleries and academies. There has been no artificial taste in India. All that it possesses is natural. Art has been part of her life. The vibhramavilasas of Indian women are an example. Even the tilaka applied to the forehead speaks of the artistic taste of its wearers- the ardhachandratilaka that Sri Harsha praises, the kasturitilika of Shri Krishna that Lilasuka sings of.

A nation with its women drawing flowing patterns in line and colour over every possible surface in their homes for mere pleasure, and because of decorative instinct, cannot be asked to show any reservoir of art- any special school of art. It is not individualistic in India but general, not confined but universal. And the universality and all-pervasiveness of aesthetic beauty and appreciation in India accounts for the dearth of galleries and museums as separate and isolated institutions; but as parts of a large whole we have them in plenty. Just as the Divine Spirit which is imminent is more manifest in some places than in others, we have the Chitrashalas and other Kautukagrihas as more profusely decorated and picturesque parts of mansions and houses decorated all over in a general way. It is also to be noted in this connection that our temples, as storehouses of picture and sculpture, served to educate the masses in the appreciation of beauty and acknowledge of anecdote in such an unequivocal way that the full purpose of the Chitrashala was realised in these sacred precincts.

But on this account it cannot be held that Chitrashalas as separate institutions were totally absent. The pink of perfection of the artists’ craft was preserved by the king in special art galleries in the royal palace, the public-art- houses and such other institutions. The grandees and other enlightened citizen of the kingdom took pleasure in collecting art treasures to decorate their private Chitragaras. Even as late as the 16th century, we have the Chitrashala of Akbar in Fatehpur Sikri, where he used to receive his guests, mentioned in the Hirasaubhagya. [1]

Types of Chitrashalas

Thus we have three distinct types of Chitragaras, those of the royal palace, the public art- galleries and the private ones. One of the Chitragaras of the palace it should be noted that there were separate ones for the harem [2] and very often every individual queen and princess possessed her own picture chamber which generally happened to be her sleeping apartment also. We come across three references to such a Sayana Chitrashala in the Tilakamanjari [3].

Auspiciousness being important in India, people believed in Suprabhata by getting up in the morning with beautiful pictures around them to meet their eyes as soon as they woke to the sound of the lute. It is this mark of auspiciousness that accounts for picture decorations of bathing apartments [4]. Which on that account formed minor Chitrashalas of the jalamandapa [5].

Of the third type of Chitragriha- the private one- the finest, perhaps, was the one to be seen in the house of the Panyangana (courtesan). Of the wealth and refinement of the courtesan of ancient India, the Mricchakatika is perhaps one of the very best books that present a most graphic picture. The mansions of the hetaira, of which there is a beautiful description in the Padataditaka, are adorned by so many Chitrashalas [6] and, as the Dhurtavitasamvada informs us, painting seems to have been practiced very much in the Vesyagrihas to the extent of influencing those that frequented them [7]. How far the art of painting was helpful to the hetaira is best understood by us when we read Mricchakatika wherein is presented the activity of vilas, dhurtas and chetis- experts in bringing together the harlots and the libidinous nagarakas- loitering about the stately mansion of the varavilasini, Vasantasena, with pictures of both (of vesyas and vesyakamukas) in bright and gay colours [8]. But the motive for practising this pleasing art of painting as well as others of the fine-art group, music, dancing etc, is, as Ganapalita says to his friend, condemning the conduct of harlots, not for their own pleasure (vinoda), but merely to wheedle into their snare weak-minded victims by an exhibition of their special capabilities in the arts. [9]

Types of Pictures in Chitrashalas

Nothing special needs to be said about the theme for a picture. The Vishnudharmottara, and following it the Silparatna, states that subjects from the three world form suitable picture themes [10]. But there is a special injunction in the Vishnudharmottara that only certain pictures - those representing sringara, hasya and santa- ought to be kept in private houses and the king’s residence [11]. Pictures representing all other rasas are confined to Devavesmas, temples and the like, and the audience chamber of the palace. In every other place we have pictures of all types. So it goes without saying that private Chitrashalas and the Chitrashalas of the royal harem have only a limited scope. But the public galleries ought to have possessed all sorts of pictures. Now to go more into details, we have life histories- important incidents in one-s life- painted to adorn the Chitrashala and we have an insurance of it in the Uttaramacharita [12] that bases itself in this particular instance on the sloka of the Raghuvamsa for this idea [13]. Scenes from Damayanti’s life are painted similarly in Kundinapura [14]. Though not in the Chitrashala, we have a similar painting of life incidents in the pictures of Parasuma executed on the Vimana of Indra [15]. In the Gathasaptasati of Hala we have a sloka telling usofincidents from Rama’slife painted in private Chitrashalas (on the walls of private houses) serving a very useful purpose [16]. We are told in the Kathasaritagara that Vasavadatta consoles herself by looking at pictures of Rama’s life painted on the walls [17].

Of ordinary group pictures- especially of the queens and princesses with their attendants- we have an instance in the Malavikagnimitra [18] and also in the Viddhasalabhanjika [19]. But these and similar ones are more frequently found in the Chitrashalas of the harem.

General Sringara pictures that are to be found in any Chitrashala, be it public, private, or royal, are described at length in the Naishadhiyacharita wherein Sri Harsha states the love of sages and their amours with celestial damsels as the subjects of exquisite paintings adorning the Chitrashala of the imperial palace of Nala [20] . This description of Sringara Chitras is, as we have noted already, in accordance with the dictum of the Vishnudharmottara. Pictures of Kamadeva were kept in bedroom and were painted in other places too [21], and there being no restriction and the theme being a popular one, it might have been a popular picture of the Chitrashala. At any rate, it should have been the principal picture of the minor Chitrashala of the harem going by the name of SayanaChitrashala.

Bana gives us some idea of the pictures kept in public galleries. Demigods like Nagas, Suras, Asuras, Yakshas, Kinnaras, Gandharvas and so forth appear to have been prominently represented in picture [22]. Design of lovely creepers and such other decorative foliage in diverse hues seem to have added to the collection of the picture house [23]. Subjects of the three worlds as comprising picture themes are specially stated by him [24].

Subjects of a general nature seem to have had their own place in the Chitrashala. Gay scenes like jalakrida, panagosthi, rasalila and the like cannot be considered too impossible as themes when we have Padmagupta talking of hunting scenes adorning walls of the picture gallery [25]. In the Sahridayananda too there is a mention made by Krishnananda to paintings of hunters. [26] Apart from these, animal and bird studies appear to have been a distinct feature in the art houses as is evidenced by the Raghuvamsa [27] the Vikramankadevacharita [28] and the Kadambari [29], and the elephants were favourite subjects with the artists.

The structure of the Chitrashala

Before we consider the structure of the Chitrashala according to the Narada-silpa and try to make head or tail out of the cumbrous and corrupt text which fortunately is preserved for us at least in that form, we shall try to see what idea of a picture house we can get through references to it in Sanskrit literature. The very earliest reference to the Chitrashala is perhaps in the Ramayana. The picturesque description of the city of Lanka, with its towers and temples, mansions and palaces, gardens and bowers, gateways and ramparts, fortresses and citadels, pools and ponds, lakelets and lotuses- in all, one of the very best of exquisite poetic composition and fancy in the vast realm of Sanskrit literature, and it would not be too much to say in the world’s literature too- enumerates the Chitrashala amongst other pleasure-houses of the imperial palace and Pushpaka of Ravana [30]. But unfortunately we are not given anything about the structure of the picture house in particular.

So then, we turn to other avenues of information. Bana describes the Chitrashala as built in the style of a Vimana [31] quite in conformity with the text of the Narada-silpa that gives the building as ornamented by a small gopura in the front and having sikhara-kalasas etc., thus satisfying the lakshana of a vimana. The world vithi [32] used by Phavabhuti is the exact word for gallery and is striking and suggestive of the long and spacious nature of the picture hall. We have it stated in the Uttararamacharita that the Chitrashala has windows. [33] The udayasundarikatha tells us that the Chitrashala has big massy pillars to support it. [34] From the Ratnavali we gather that the torana or the ornamental doorway and the valabhi, the top-most part of the building, are all worked and decorated in ivory [35]; that the Dantavalabhika is painted with pictures on ivory is information given by the Tilakamanjari [36]. The Vrishabhanuja talks of the angina or verandah of the Chitrashala as being ornamented. [37] Thus putting all this together we have the idea of a Chitrashala, a long and spacious building built in the Vimana style with big massive pillars supporting it, windows for ventilation, the main entrance ornamented with ivory work, with its top all worked in painted ivory and with a big verandah about the hall.

We shall now see what the Narada-silpa gives us [38]. In the heart of the city or in a building situated where four main roads meet, opposite a temple or a royal palace, to the east of rich mansions or in the centre of the king’s highway, is to be erected the Chitrashala. It may be built in the shape of Mandala (drum) or might be circular. It should have besides one main entrance, some other doorways. The verandah about it should be double- sized and there should be a smaller hall, a square terrace at its door with a flight of steps leading up to the upper storey, with a ‘main centre-hall and side-halls. It might be clubshaped or shaped after a drinking hall, and should possess sixteen, twenty or thirty two pillars, with a staircase ending near a doorway leading to the centre-hall with a large seat thereabouts. It should further possess windows and be ornamented by a highly picturesque canopy; should have many square terraces about its entrances, many smaller halls, many seats and stars sideways leading up. It should further be beatified by an ornamented roof and ceiling and have a Sikhara-kalasas at the top (in the form of a Vimana). The main building should be ornamented by a small Gopura and in the hall should be kept different pleasing patterns of pictures of such Demigods as Devas, Gandharvas, Kinnaras and so forth, and also pictures of mighty men that made a mark in different fields of action, all worked in proper proportions and coloured variously and luminously with jewels all in gold. Thus spoke Bhagavan Narada.

This in main is the cumbrous description of a Chitrashala that we get from the Narada-silpa. The main features to be noticed here are the sidesteps and a main flight of stairs all leading up to a centre hall wherein the picture-gallery is arranged. Apart from the main entrance we havesomedoorways and a lot of squaresopposite.

The main building has a gopura and Sikhara-kalasas. It rests on sixteen, twenty, or thirty-two pillars and has fairly large verandahs about it. Numbers of chandeliers light up the chamber and comfort is afforded to the visitors by an arrangement of the Vitardi or the seats. The Chitrashala may be of various shapes, Danda, Prapa, Madala, Mandalika and so on. This is in fact the whole of the cumbrous details in a nutshell. It is left to the reader to compare the information on the Chitrashala given in the Narada-silpa with that got from general literature. The verandah, steps, entrance, hall, windows, pillars, are all there. The only thing is we have a more elaborate description in the silpa text.

General Remarks

It is now time enough for us to consider some general points of interest. The Tilakamanjari tells us that the Chitrashala was generally highly perfumed to spread an aroma about the chamber and to add to the joyous atmosphere [39]. From the Karpuramanjari we know that the picture galleries (those of the palace) were opened in the evenings [40]. The commentary gives us that Abhisarikadi- gathered there at dusk, the latter perhaps to exhibit the movement of their agile limbs in dance before the king [41]. From a verse in the Natachampa of Trivikrama we gather that inhabitants of cities with an aesthetic taste resorted to Chitrashalas in the company of their women in the Sarat season [42] From this it appears that autumn was part of the year chosen for spending time gaily in witnessing pictures in art galleries in India.

So far we have been talking of stationary art galleries. We have now to consider another type of the same, but peri-pathetic. The Nalachampu talks of travelling art galleries [43]. This was perhaps to exhibit the best works of the artists of one country in another, thus to keep up a constant intercourse and mutual exchange of ideas. The itinerant nature of buildings like the Chitrasulas is warranted by other writings talking of moving houses and we have Rajasekhara speaking of a travelling bed-chamber [44]. Any way the idea of a moving Chitrashala in ancient India can be nothing so strange to us when we are accustomed to the notion of travelling libraries in our modern life.

In conclusion it must be stated, however, that the Chitrashala was only the building where art was concentrated, so to say. It does not mean that other apartments and buildings were bereft of pictures and decoration. The Gadyachinlamani mentions Saraswati’s pictures as adorning the library halls [45] and the Vidamandapa as filled with pictures of Yamaloka [46]; the Kadambari talks of pictures of the Sutikagriha [47] and we have other apartments all filled with pictures. The Natyasastra of Bharata, the Abhilashitarthachintamani and the Sivatattvaratnakara speak of the Natyasala as profusely decorated with pictures [48]. The chapter on chitra in the Abhilashitarthachintamani finds a place in that book, as a section dealing with an essential beautifying factor of the Natyasala. The case is the same even in the Sivatattvaratnakara which bases itself on the text of the Abhilashitarthachintamani. After all it cannot be denied that India was saturated with art and it would be idle to contend that the very existence of a Chitrashala accounts for the restriction of art to it. It was more particularly to be found in a lesser degree everywhere else. Anyway, the value of the Chitragriha as a Vinodasthana was fully recognised by our ancients and it was given its own place in the life of an aesthetic citizen, Nagaraka.


1. Akbar receives the Jain monk Hirasuri in his Chitrashala. XIX. 1.

2. Tilakamanjari, p 24.

3. Nalacampu, p. 83. Royal citrasalas in the palace are mentioned as situated in the Raksasa or Nairrta dik according to the Mayamata. Mayamata Chap. 29 sl. 58.

4. Raghuvamsa, XVI, 16.

5. Tilakamanjari, p. 88. And Mayamata Ch, 29 sl 101.

6. Padataditaka (Caturbhani) p, 12.

7. Dhurtavitasamvada (Caturbhani) p. 27.

8. Mrichhakatika, Act IV.

9. Kuttinimata, sl. 307.

10. Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmahottarara

11. Though scenes of battle and bloodshed were forbidden in private houses we have evidences of these having been painted in public art galleries, public halls, temples and the like. As an example can be cited the famous and majestic Tripurantakamurti painted on the walls of the inner shrine of Brihadisvara in Tanjore. Harichandra suggested pictures of battlemen in the lines. Jivandharacampu p. 28.

12. Uttaramacarita, Act I.

13. Raghuvamsa

14. Naisadha, X, 35.

15. Then comes an exhaustive list of choice pictures depicting the imporatn incidents in Parasurama’s life. Balaramayana, Act IV.

16. Gathasaptasati, I. 35.

17. K. S. S. Lamb III Taranga 11.17.

18. Malavikagnimitra, Act 1.

19.Viddhasalabhanjika, Act 1.

20. Naisadha, XVIII. 20, 21, 26.

21. Kadambari, p. 536. Harsacarita, p. 148.

22. Kadambari, p. 99.

23. Ibid. P, 241.

24. Ibid, p. 176.

25. Navasahasankacarita, II. 1.

26. Sahrdayananda, IX, 31.

27. Raghuvamsa, XVI, 16.

28. Vikramankadevacarita, IV, 30.

29. Kadambari, p. 241.

30. Sundarakanda, Sarga VI, 36-37-38.

31. Kadambari, p. 99.

32. Uttararamacarita, Act I.

33. Uttararamacarita, Act I.

Sita is fatigued after looking at all the images in the Chitrashala and is advised by Ram to take rest near the windows of the picture-house and enjoy fresh air.

34. Udayasundarikatha, p, 133.

35. Ratnavali, Act III.

36. Tilakamanjari, p. 7.

37. ‘Alamkurvatya’ might mean both ‘adorning the palace by her presence’ and adorning the palace by means of Rangoli etc’.

38. Narada Silpa, Patha 66, Citrasalalaksanakathana.

39. Tilakamanjari, p. 34.

40. Karpuramanjari, p. 37.

41. Karpuramanjari

42. Nalacampu, p. 40. Kathasaritasagara, Lambaka 9, Taranga 5, Sls, 33, 34.

43. Nalacampu, p, 195.

44. Viddhasalabhanika, Act I.

45. Gadyacintamani, p. 35.

46. Ibid, p. 34.

47. Kadambari, p. 136.

48. Natyasastra Chap, II, Sls. 88, 89, 90. Abhilasitarthachintamani and Sivatattvaratnakara.

First published in Triveni, vol. 7, 1934

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