Posted on

History of Indian painting

Indian painting has a very long tradition and history in Indian art, though because of the climatic conditions very few early examples survive.[1] The earliest Indian paintings were the rock paintings of pre-historic times, such as the petroglyphs found in places like Bhimbetka rock shelters. Some of the Stone Age rock paintings found among the Bhimbetka rock shelters are approximately 10,000 years old.

India’s ancient Hindu and Buddhist literature has many mentions of palaces and other buildings decorated with paintings, but the paintings of the Ajanta Caves are the most significant of the few ones which survive. Smaller scale painting in manuscripts was probably also practiced in this period, though the earliest survivals are from the medieval period. A new style was introduced with Mughal painting, representing a fusion of the Persian miniature with older Indian traditions, and from the 17th century its style was diffused across Indian princely courts of all religions, each developing a local style. Company paintings were made for British clients under the British raj, which from the 19th century also introduced art schools along Western lines. This led to modern Indian painting, which is increasingly returning to its Indian roots.

Indian paintings can be broadly classified as murals, miniatures and paintings on cloth. Murals are large works executed on the walls of solid structures, as in the Ajanta Caves and the Kailash Nath temple. Miniature paintings are executed on a very small scale for books or albums on perishable material such as paper and cloth. Traces of murals, in fresco-like techniques, survive in a number of sites with Indian rock-cut architecture, going back at least 2,000 years, but the 1st and 5th-century remains at the Ajanta Caves are much the most significant.

Paintings on cloth were often produced in a more popular context, often as folk art, used for example by travelling reciters of epic poetry, such as the Bhopas of Rajasthan and Chitrakathi elsewhere, and bought as souvenirs of pilgrimages. Very few survivals are older than about 200 years, but it is clear the traditions are much older. Some regional traditions are still producing works.

Overview of the main genres

It seems clear that miniature painting, often illustrating manuscripts, has a very long history, but Jain miniatures from about the 12th century, mostly from West India, and slightly earlier Buddhist ones from the Pala Empire in the east are the oldest to survive.[6] Similar Hindu illustrations survive from about the 15th century in the west, and 16th century in East India, by which time the Mughal miniature under Akbar was also sometimes illustrating translations into Persian of the Hindu epics and other subjects.

The great period of Mughal court painting begins with the return of Humayun from exile in Persia 1555, bringing Persian artists with him. It ends during the reign of Aurangzeb who rather disapproved of painting for religious reasons, and disbanded the large imperial workshop, by perhaps 1670. The artists dispersed to smaller princely courts, both Muslim and Hindu, and the “post-Mughal” style developed in many local variants.These included different Rajasthani schools of painting like the Bundi, Kishangarh, Jaipur, Marwar and Mewar. The Ragamala paintings also belong to this school, as does the later Company painting produced for British clients from the mid-18th century.

Modern Indian art has seen the rise of the Bengal School of art in 1930s followed by many forms of experimentations in European and Indian styles. In the aftermath of India’s independence, many new genres of art developed by important artists like Jamini Roy, M. F. Husain, Francis Newton Souza, and Vasudeo S. Gaitonde. With the progress of the economy the forms and styles of art also underwent many changes. In the 1990s, Indian economy was liberalised and integrated to the world economy leading to the free flow of cultural information within and without. Artists include Subodh Gupta, Atul Dodiya, Devajyoti Ray, Bose Krishnamachari and Jitish Kallat whose works went for auction in international markets. Bharti Dayal has chosen to handle the traditional Mithila painting in most contemporary way and created her own style through the exercises of her own imagination, they appear fresh and unusual.

Prehistoric rock art

The pre-historic paintings were generally executed on rocks and these rock engravings were called Petroglyphs. These paintings generally depict animal like bison, beer and tigers etc.The oldest Indian paintings are rock art in caves which are around 30,000 years old, such as the Bhimbetka cave paintings.


The history of Indian murals starts in ancient and early medieval times, from the 2nd century BC to 8th – 10th century AD. There are known more than 20 locations around India containing murals from this period, mainly natural caves and rock-cut chambers. The highest achievements of this time are the caves of Ajanta, Bagh, Sittanavasal, Armamalai Cave (Tamil Nadu), Ravan Chhaya rock shelter, Kailasanatha temple in Ellora Caves.

Murals from this period depict mainly religious themes of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu religions. There are though also locations where paintings were made to adorn mundane premises, like the ancient theatre room in “Jogimara” Cave and possible royal hunting lodge circa 7th-century AD – Ravan Chhaya rock shelter.

The pattern of large-scale wall painting which had dominated the scene, witnessed the advent of miniature paintings during the 11th and 12th centuries. This new style figured first in the form of illustrations etched on palm-leaf manuscripts. The contents of these manuscripts included literature on Buddhism and Jainism. In eastern India, the principal centers of artistic and intellectual activities of the Buddhist religion were Nalanda, Odantapuri, Vikramshila and Somarpura situated in the Pala kingdom (Bengal and Bihar).

Eastern India

In eastern India miniature painting survives from the 10th century. These miniatures, depicting Buddhist divinities and scenes from the life of Buddha were painted on the leaves (about 2.25 by 3 inches) of the palm-leaf manuscripts as well as their wooden covers. Most common Buddhist illustrated manuscripts include the texts Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita, Pancharaksa, Karandavyuha and Kalachakra Tantra. The earliest extant miniatures are found in a manuscript of the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita dated in the sixth regnal year of Mahipala (c. 993), presently the possession of The Asiatic Society, Kolkata. This style disappeared from India in the late 12th century. The influence of eastern Indian paintings can be seen in various Buddhist temples in Bagan, Myanmar particularly Abeyadana temple which was named after Queen consort of Myanmar, Abeyadana who herself had Indian roots and Gubyaukgyi Temple. The influences of eastern Indian paintings can also be clearly observed in Tibetan Thangka paintings.

Western India

Surviving illustrated manuscripts from Western India, mainly Gujarat, begin around the 11th century, but are mostly from the 13th onwards. Initially surviving examples are all Jain. By the 15th-century they were becoming increasingly lavish, with much use of gold. The manuscript text most frequently illustrated is the Kalpa Sūtra, containing the biographies of the Tirthankaras, notably “Parshvanatha and Mahavira”. The illustrations are square-ish panels set in the text, with “wiry drawing” and “brilliant, even jewel-like color”. The figures are always seen in three-quarters view, with distinctive “long pointed noses and protruding eyes”. There is a convention whereby the more distant side of the face protrudes, so that both eyes are seen.