Study Material: Indian Culture and Heritage - Indian Painting

Indian Culture and Heritage Study Material

Indian Painting

When you go to the market or to a museum you will find many paintings, wall hangings or work done on terracotta. Do you know that these paintings have their origin in ouir ancient past. They depict the life and customs followed by the people of those times. They also show how the kings and queens dressed or how the courtiers sat in the royal assembly. Literacy records which had a direct bearing on the art of painting show that from very early times painting both secular and religious were considered an important form of artistic expression and was practised. This need for expression is a very basic requirement for human survival and it has taken various forms since prehistoric times. Painting is one such form with which you may have been acquainted in some way or the other. Indian painting is the result of the synthesis of various traditions and its development is an ongoing process. However while adapting to new styles, Indian painting has maintained its distinct character. “Modern Indian painting in thus a reflection of the intermingling of a rich traditional inheritance with modern trends and ideas”.


Painting as an art form has flourished in India from very early times as is evident from the remains that have been discovered in the caves, and the literary sources. The history of art and painting in India begins with the pre-historic rock painting at Bhimbetka caves (M.P.) where we have drawings and paintings of animals. The cave paintings of Narsinghgarh (Maharashtra) show skins of spotted deer left drying. Thousands of years ago, paintings and drawings had already appeared on the seals of Harappan civilization. Both Hindu and Buddhist literature refer to paintings of various types and techniques for example, Lepyacitras, lekhacitras and Dhulitcitras. The first was the representation of folklore, the second one was line drawing and painting on textile while the third one was painting on the floor.

The Buddhist text Vinayapitaka (4th–3rd century) describes the existence of painted figures in many royal buildings. The play Mudrarakshasa (5th Century A.D.) mentions numerous paintings or Patas. The 6th Century AD text on aesthetics-Kamasutra by Vatsyayana has mentioned painting amongst 64 kinds of arts and says that it was based on scientific principles. The Vishnudharmottara purana (7th century A.D.) has a section on painting called Chitrasutra which describes the six organs of painting like variety of form, proportion, lustre and portryal of colour etc. Thus, archaeology and literature testify to the flourishing of painting in India from pre-historic times. The best specimens of Gupta paintings are the ones at Ajanta. Their subject was animals and birds, trees, flowers, human figures and stories from the Jataka.

Mural paintings are done on walls and rock surfaces like roofs and sides. Cave no. 9 depicts the Buddhist monks going towards a stupa. In cave no. 10 Jataka stories are depicted. But the best paintings were done in the 5th – 6th centuries AD during the Gupta age. The murals chiefly depict religious scenes from the life of the Buddha and the Buddhist Jataka stories but we also have secular scene. Here we see the depiction of all aspects of Indian life. We see princes in their palaces, ladies in their chambers, coolies with loads over their shoulders, beggars, peasants and ascetics, together with all the many beasts, birds and flowers of India.

Materials used in the paintings: Different materials were used in different types of paintings. Mention of chitra shalas (art gallery) and Shilpasashtra (technical treatises on art) have been made in literary sources. However, the principal colours used were red ochre (dhaturaga), vivid red (kum kum or sindura), yellow ochre (haritala), indigo (blue) lapis lazuli blue, lampblack (kajjala), chalk white (Khadi Mitti) terra verte (geru mati) and green. All these colours were locally available except lapis lazuli which came from Pakistan. Mixed colours e.g. grey were used on rare occasions. Use of colours were decided by the theme and local atmosphere. Remains of Buddhist paintings have also been found at the Buddhist caves at Bagh in the North and at various Deccan and southern sites of sixth and ninth centuries. Though the theme of these paintings is religious but in their inner meanings and spirit, nothing could be more secular, courtly and sophisticated. Though only a small part remains of these paintings but they depict a crowded world of Gods and goddesses semi divine being like kinnars and apsaras, a rich and varied flora and fauna, gaiety, love, grace and charm. Example can be seen in cave 3 at Badami (Karnataka), at temples of Kanchipuram, at Jain caves of Sittanavasal (Tamil Nadu) and the Kailasa and Jain caves at Ellora (eighth and ninth centuries). Many other South Indian temples such as Brihadeshwara temple at Tanjavur are decorated with wall paintings on themes from epics and mythology. If Bagh, Ajanta and Badami represent the classical tradition of the North and Deccan at its best, Sittana Vassal, Kanchipuram, Malayadipatti and Tirunalaipuram show the extent of its penetration in the south. The paintings of Sittanavasal (abode of the Jaina Siddhas) are connected with jaina themes while the other three are Saiva or Vaishnava in theme and inspiration. Despite having a very traditionally secular design and theme the paintings of these times started showing the impact of medieval influences i.e. flat and abstract surfaces on the one hand and linear and somewhat angular designs on the other.


During the period of Delhi Sultanate, mural painting has been reported from the royal palaces and royal bed-chambers and mosques. These chiefly depict flowers, leaves and plants. During the time of Iltutmish (1210-36) we have references of paintings. During the time of Alauddin Khalji (1296-1316) we have mural painting, miniature painting (of illustrated manuscripts) and paintings on cloths. During the Sultanate period, we notice the Persian and Arabic influences on Indian painting. We have references of the coming of Persian and Arabic illustrated manuscripts from Iran and the Arab world for the Muslim elites. During this period, we have paintings from other regional states. The decorative paintings of the palace of the Gwalior king Man Singh Tomar impressed both Babur and Akbar. 

During 14th – 15th centuries A.D. miniature painting emerged as a powerful movement in Gujarat and Rajasthan and spread to Central, North and Eastern India because of the patronage of rich Jain merchants. Mandu in M.P., Jaunpur in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bengal in Eastern India were other great centres of manuscripts illustrated with paintings. In Eastern India, in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, during the Pala kingdom in the 9th – 10th century A.D., a new kind of painting developed called the miniature painting. The miniature, as the name suggests, were small works which were made on perishable materials. In this category, Buddhist, Jain and Hindu manuscripts were illustrated, on palm leaves. They resemble the Ajanta style, but on a miniature scale. These were made on the request of the merchants, who donated them to the temples and monasteries.

From the thirteenth century onwards, the Turkish Sultans of northern India brought with them important features of Persian court culture. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries illustrated manuscripts of Persian influence were produced at Malwa, Bengal, Delhi, Jaunpur, Gujarat and the Deccan. The interaction of Indian painters with Persian traditions resulted in the synthesis of the two styles evident in the works of the sixteenth century. During the early sultanate period, significant contribution to the art of painting was made by the Jain community of Western India. Illustrated manuscripts of Jain scriptures were presented to temple libraries. These manuscripts depicted the lives and deeds of the Tirthankars. The art of textual illustration got a new look under the Mughals. Akbar and his successors brought revolutionary changes to painting and sensual illustrations. From this period book illumination or individual miniatures replaced wall painting as the most vital form of art.

Emperor Akbar patronised artists from Kashmir and Gujarat; Humayun brought two Persian painters to his court. For the first time painters’ names were recorded in inscriptions. Some great painters of this period were Abd-us-Samad Dasawanth and Basawan. Beautiful illustrations are found on the pages of Baburnama and Akbarnama. Within a few years an integrated and dynamic style resulted from the synthesis of Persian and Indian style and the independent style of Mughal painting was developed. Between 1562 and 1577 a series of nearly 1400 cloth paintings were produced representing the new style and were placed in the imperial studio. Akbar also encouraged the art of making portraits.

The art of painting reached its climax during the period of Jahangir who himself was a great painter and connoisseur of art. Artists began to use vibrant colours such as peacock blue and red and were able to give three dimensional effects to paintings. Mansur, Bishan Das and Manohar were the most gifted painters of Jahangir’s time. Mansur had made an outstanding portrait of the artist Abul Hasan and specialised in paintings of birds and animals. Though Shah Jahan was more interested in architectural splendours, his eldest son Dara Shikoh patronised painting like his gradfather. He preferred depicting natural elements like plants and animals in his painting. However withdrawal of royal patronage to painting under Aurangzeb led to the dispersal of artists to different places in the country. This helped in the development of the art of painting in Rajasthan and the Punjab hills giving rise to distinct schools of paintings, for example, Rajasthani and Pahari Schools.

These works were painted on a small surface and were called miniature painting. They painted themes drawn from epics, myths and legends. Other themes were Barahmasa (seasons) and Raga mala (melodies). Miniature painting was also developed at local centres like Kangra, Kulu, Basoli, Guler, Chamba, Garhwal, Bilaspur, and Jammu. The rise of the Bhakti movement in India in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries also inspired illustrative texts on the themes of Vaishnava devotional cults. In the pre-Mughal era mural paintings on the walls of temples gained prominence in the northern part of India.


In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries paintings comprised semi westernised local styles which were patronised by British residents and visitors. Themes were generally drawn from Indian social life, popular festivals, and Mughal monuments. These reflected the improvised Mughal traditions. Shaikh Zia-ud-Din’s bird studies for Lady Impey and the portrait paintings of Ghulam Ali Khan for William Fraser and Colonel Skinner are the examples of some excellent paintings of this period. In the later nineteenth century art schools on the European model were established in major Indian cities like Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Oil paintings of Raja Ravi Varma of Travancore depicting mythological and social themes became highly popular at this time.

Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, E.B. Havell and Ananda Kehtish Coomaraswamy played an important role in the emergence of the Bengal school of Art. The Bengal School had a great flowering at Shantiniketan where Rabindranath Tagore set up the Kala Bhavan. Talented artists like Nandalal Bose, Binod Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij rendered training to aspiring artists. Nandalal often derived inspiration from Indian folk art and also from Japanese painting while Binod Behari Mukerjee was deeply interested in oriental traditions. Jamini Roy, another great painter of this period, drew inspiration from Qrissa’s pata painting and Kalighat painting of Bengal. Amrita Shergil, a great painter received education in Paris and Budapest. Considered a prodigy from a Sikh father and Hungarian mother, she painted on Indian themes in bright colours specially Indian women and peasants. Though she died very young, she left behind a rich legacy of Indian paintings.

Gradually some deeper changes took place in the thinking of the English educated urban middle class which began to be reflected in the expressions of the artists. Increasing awareness about British rule, ideals of nationalism and the desire for a national identity led to creations which were distinct from earlier art traditions. In 1943, during the period of the second world war Calcutta painters led by Paritosh Sen, Niroda Majumdar and Pradosh Dasgupta formed a group who depicted the condition of the people of India through new visual language, and novel techniques.

Another significant development was the formation of the Progressive Artists Group in Bombay in 1948 under Francis Newton Souza. The group also included S .H. Raza, M.F. Hussain, K.M. Ara, S.K. Bakre and H.A. Gode. This group broke away from Bengal School of Art and represented the modern forceful art of independent India. In the 1970s artists began to critically survey their environment. Daily encounters with poverty and corruption, the political morass of the country, the explosive communal tension, and other urban issues became the themes or subject matter of their works. The Madras School of Art under Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury and K.C.S Paniker emerged as an important art centre in post independence period and influenced a new generation of modern artists.

Some of the artists who made their mark as modern Indian artists are Tyeb Mehta, Satish Gujral, Krishan Khanna, Manjit Bawa, K.G. Subramaniyan Ram Kumari, Anjolie Ela Menon, Akbar Padamsee, Jatin Das, Jehangir Sabavala and A. Ramachandran. Two government institutions have been set up to promote art, music etc in India. The National Gallery of Modern Art has the largest collection of modern art under one roof. The second one is the Lalit Kala Akademi which recognises and patronizes artists in all fields.


The artistic expression of the Indian people is not limited to painting on canvas or paper only. Decorative painting on walls of homes even in rural areas is a common sight. Rangoli or decorative designs on floor are made for auspicious occasions and pujas whose stylised designs have been passed on from one generation to the other. The designs are called rangoli in the North, alpana in Bengal, aipan in Uttaranchal, rangavalli in Karnataka, Kollam in Tamilnadu and mandana in Madhya Pradesh. Usually rice powder is used for these paintings but coloured powder or flower petals are also used to make them more colourful. Adorning walls of houses and huts is also an old tradition. The following are some of the examples of folk art of this kind.


Mithila painting also known as Madhubani folk art is the traditional art of the Mithila region of Bihar. They are produced by village women who make three dimensional images using vegetable colour with few earthen colours and finished in black lines on cow dung treated paper. These pictures tell tales especially about Sita’s exile, Ram-Laxman’s forest life, or depict the images of Lakshmi, Ganesha, Hanuman and others from Hindu mythology. Apart from these women also paint celestial subjects like sun and moon. Tulsi, the holy plant also is to be found in these paintings. They also show court scenes, wedding and social happenings. Drawings in Madhubani pictures are very conceptual. First, the painter thinks and then she “draws her thought”. No pretence is there to describe the figures accurately. Visually they are images that speak in lines and colours and are drawn for some rituals or festivals on household and village walls to mark the seasonal festivals or special events of the life cycle. Intricate flora, animal and birds motifs can also be found along with geometrical designs to fill up the gap. In some cases it is a special practice for mothers to make these art items in advance for their daughters as a marriage gift. These paintings also convey advice on ways to lead a good married life. There is also a social variation in subjects and use of colours. One can identify the community to which the painting belongs from the colours that are used in them. Paintings made by the upper, more affluent classes are colourful while those made by the lower caste people use red and black line work. But the technique of painting is safely and zealously guarded by the women of the village to be passed on by the mother to the daughter. Nowadays Madhubani art is being used as decorative gift items, greeting cards and has become a source of income for local women folk.


The literal meaning of Kalamkari is a painting done by kalam (pen). This art got enriched as it came down from one generation to another. These paintings are made in Andhra Pradesh. It is hand painted as well as block printing with vegetable dyes applied on cloth. Vegetable dyes are used for colour in the Kalam Kari work. A small place Sri-Kalahasti is the best known centre of Kalamkari art. This work is also found at Masaulipatnam in Andhra Pradesh. This art is mainly related to decorating temple interiors with painted cloth panels, which was developed in the fifteenth century under the patronage of Vijaynagar rulers. Subjects are adopted from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and Hindu religious mythology. This art form is a continuous legacy from father to son. After deciding the subject of the painting, scène after scene is painted. Every scene is surrounded by floral decorative patterns. These paintings are made on cloth. They are very durable and flexible in size and made according to theme. Figures of deities have a very rich border embellishments and were created for the temples. Owing to Muslim rulers in Golconda, the Masulipatnam kalamkari was widely influenced by Persian motifs and designs. The outlines and main features are done using hand carved blocks. The finer details are later done using the pen. This art was started on garments, bed covers and curtains. The artists use a bamboo or date palm stick pointed at one end with a bundle of fine hair attached to the other end to serve as brush or pen. The kalamkari dyes are obtained by extracting colours from plant roots, leaves, along with salts of iron, tin, copper, alum etc.

Orissa Patachitra: Similar to Kalighat Pats, one comes across another kind of Pats which are found in the state of Orissa. The Orissa patachitras, mostly painted on cloth are more detailed and more colourful and most of these depict stories of Hindu gods and goddesses.

Phad Paintings: Phad is a type of scroll painting. The paintings depicting exploits of local deities are often carried from place to place and are accompanied by traditional singers, who narrate the theme depicted on the scrolls. This type of painting is a most famous painting of Rajasthan, mainly found in the Bhilwara district. Phad painting depicts the heroic deeds of a heroic figure, the daily life of a peasant, rural life, animals and birds, flora and fauna. These paintings are created using bright colours and subtle colours. The outlines of the paintings are first drawn in black and later filled with colours. The main themes of the phad paintings depict the deities and their legends and the stories of erstwhile Maharajas. Raw colours are used for these paintings. The unique features of phad paintings are the bold lines and a two dimensional treatment of figures with the entire composition arranged in sections. The art of painting the phads is approximately 700 years old. It is said that it was originated in Shahpura, some 35 kms from Bhilwara in Rajasthan. The continuous royal patronage gave a decisive impetus to the art which has survived and flourished for generations.

Gond Art: A very highly sophisticated and abstract form of Art works are also produced by the Santhals in India. The Gond tribe of the Godavari belt who are as old as the Santhals produce figurative works.

Batik Print: Not all the folk arts and crafts are entirely Indian in their origin. Some of the crafts and techniques have been imported from the Orient like the Batik. But these have now been Indianised and Indian Batik is now a matured art, immensely popular and expensive.


Warli painting derives its name from a small tribe inhabiting the remote, tribal regions of Maharashtra. These are decorative paintings on floors and walls of ‘gond’ and ‘kol’ tribes’ homes and places of worship. Trees, birds, men and women collaborate to create a composite whole in a Warli painting. These paintings are made mostly by the women as part of their routine at auspicious celebrations. Subjects are predominantly religious with simple and local materials like white colour and rice paste and local vegetable glue on a plain contrasting background, made in a geometric patterns like squares, triangles, and circles. Dots and crooked lines are the units of these composition. Flora and fauna and people’s day to day life also form a part of the painted. The paintings are expanded by adding subject after subject in a spiraling manner. The rhythm of the Warli way of life is beautifully captured in simple images. Unlike other tribal art forms, Warli paintings do not employ religious iconography and is a more secular art form.


Kalighat painting derives its name from its place of origin Kalighat in Kolkata. Kalighat is a bazaar near the Kali temple in Kolkota. Patua painters from rural Bengal came and settled in Kalighat to make images of gods and goddesses in the early nineteenth century. These paintings on paper made with water colours comprise clear sweeping line drawings using bright colours and a clear background. Subjects are images of Kali, Lakshmi, Krishna, Ganesha, Shiva, and other gods and goddesses. In this process, artists developed a unique new form of expression, and effectively portray a wide range of subjects commenting on the social life of Bengal. Similar kind of pata paintings may be found in Orissa. This painting form has its roots in the culture upheavds of 19th century colonial Bengal.

As its market grew, the artists began to liberate themselves from the routine depiction of Hindu deities and began to explore the world of contemporary social events in their paintings. The genre derived much inspiration from the introduction of photography, western style theatrical performances, the rise of babu culture in Bengal as a result of the impact of British colonial and administrative system. The emergence of the unique lifestyle of the nouveau riche of Kolkota in response to these diverse influence also inspired these paintings. All these stimuli gave birth to a new imagery that occupied the centre stage of Bengali literature, theatre and visual arts of the period. Kalighat paintings became the best mirror of this cultural and aesthetic shift. Based on their preexisting models of the Hindu deities, the artists created a whole repertoire of images, courtesans, actresses, heroines, pompous babus and conceited dandies, resplendent in their fancy attire and hair styles, smoking pipes and playing the sitar. Kalighat paintings are often referred to as the first works of art that came from Bengal.


India is a virtual treasure house of the most exquisite handicrafts. Simple objects of daily life have been crafted with delicate design which give expression to the creativity of the Indian artisan. Every state of India can boast of some unique creation which is special to the region, for example, Kashmir is famous for embroidered shawls, carpets, namdar silk and walnut wood furniture. Rajasthan is famous for its tie- nd-dye (bandhnï) fabrics, jewellery, using precious stone and jems, blue glazed pottery and minakari work. Andhra Pradesh is famous for Bidri work and Pochampalh saris while Tamil Nadu is well known for bronze sculpture and Kajeevaram silk saris. Mysore is well known for silk, sandalwood items and Kerala is famous for ivory carvings and rosewood furniture. Chanderi and kosa silk of Madhya Pradesh, chikan work of Lucknow, Brocade and silk saris of Benaras, cane furniture and goods of Assam, Bankura terracotta modelling and handloom items of Bengal are just a few examples of unique traditional decorative arts and crafts which constitute the heritage of modern India. These arts have been nurtured for thousands of years and provided employment to a great number of artisans who carried forward the art to the next generation. Thus you see how the Indian artisans with their magic touch can transform a piece of metal, wood or ivory into objects of art.

  • The earliest specimens of creative painting in India can be traced to the prehistoric times.
  • References to paintings of various types and their techniques are available in both Brahminical and Buddhist literature.
  • Buddhist rock-cut caves of Ajanta in the western Deccan are famous for their wall paintings.
  • The Mughals began a new era in painting by synthesising Indian painting with the Persian tradition.
  • The Rajasthani and Pahari schools of painting have contributed significantly in the enrichment of Indian painting.
  • In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, painting comprised of semiwesternised local styles based on Indian themes.
  • Establishment of art schools on European model in major Indian cities like Calcutta, Bombay and Madras and particularly the emergence of the Bengal school of art were the other milestones in Indian painting during the modern period.
  • The progressive artists like Francis Newton Souza, S.H. Raza, and M.F. Hussain broke away from the Bengal School of Art to represent the modern forceful art of independent India.
  • Various folk art forms like Mithila paintings (Madhubani), Kalamkari painting, Warli painting and Kalighat painting took Indian painting to new heights by adding new dimensions to it.

Courtesy: NIOS

Your rating: None Average: 7 (2 votes)