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Indian Painting

Early Modern period (1526―1857 CE)

Mughal painting

Mughal painting is a style of Indian painting, generally confined to illustrations on the book and done in miniatures, and which emerged, developed and took shape during the period of the Mughal Empire between the 16th and 19th centuries. The Mughal style was heavily influenced by Persian miniatures, and in turn influenced several Indian styles, including the Rajput, Pahari and Deccan styles of painting.

Mughal paintings were a unique blend of Indian, Persian and Islamic styles. Because the Mughal kings wanted visual records of their deeds as hunters and conquerors, their artists accompanied them on military expeditions or missions of state, or recorded their prowess as animal slayers, or depicted them in the great dynastic ceremonies of marriages.

Akbar’s reign (1556–1605) ushered a new era in Indian miniature painting. After he had consolidated his political power, he built a new capital at Fatehpur Sikri where he collected artists from India and Persia. He was the first monarch who established in India an atelier under the supervision of two Persian master artists, Mir Sayyed Ali and Abdus Samad. Earlier, both of them had served under the patronage of Humayun in Kabul and accompanied him to India when he regained his throne in 1555. More than a hundred painters were employed, most of whom were from Gujarat, Gwalior and Kashmir, who gave a birth to a new school of painting, popularly known as the Mughal School of miniature Paintings.

One of the first productions of that school of miniature painting was the Hamzanama series, which according to the court historian, Badayuni, was started in 1567 and completed in 1582. The Hamzanama, stories of Amir Hamza, an uncle of the Prophet, were illustrated by Mir Sayyid Ali. The paintings of the Hamzanama are of large size, 20 x 27″ and were painted on cloth. They are in the Persian safavi style. Brilliant red, blue and green colors predominate; the pink, eroded rocks and the vegetation, planes and blossoming plum and peach trees are reminiscent of Persia. However, Indian tones appear in later work, when Indian artists were employed.

After him, Jahangir encouraged artists to paint portraits and durbar scenes. His most talented portrait painters were Ustad Mansur, Abul Hasan and Bishandas. Shah Jahan (1627–1658) continued the patronage of painting. Some of the famous artists of the period were Mohammad Faqirullah Khan, Mir Hashim, Muhammad Nadir, Bichitr, Chitarman, Anupchhatar, Manohar and Honhar. Aurangzeb had no taste for fine arts, probably due to his Islamic conservatism. Due to lack of patronage artists migrated to the Deccan and the Hindu courts of Rajputana, greatly influencing the styles in these centers.

Deccan painting

Deccan painting was produced in the Deccan region of Central India, in the various Muslim capitals of the Deccan sultanates that emerged from the break-up of the Bahmani Sultanate by 1520. These were Bijapur, Golkonda, Ahmadnagar, Bidar, and Berar. The main period was between the late 16th century and the mid-17th, with something of a revival in the mid-18th century, by then centered on Hyderabad.

Compared to the early Mughal painting evolving at the same time to the north, Deccan painting exceeds in “the brilliance of their color, the sophistication and artistry of their composition, and a general air of decadent luxury”. Other differences include painting faces, not very expertly modelled, in three-quarter view, rather than mostly in profile in the Mughal style, and “tall women with small heads” wearing saris. There are many royal portraits, although they lack the precise likenesses of their Mughal equivalents. Buildings are depicted as “totally flat screen-like panels”.

Rajput painting

Several different styles of Rajput painting developed from the late 16th century onwards in the Hindu royal courts of Rajputana. Each Rajput kingdom evolved a distinct style, but with certain common features. Rajput paintings depict a number of themes, events of epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Krishna’s life, beautiful landscapes, and humans. Many miniatures were individual album pieces, but there are also illustrated books, and there was at the same time some mural painting on the walls of palaces, forts, and havelis. This especially so in the Shekhawati region, where Marwari businessmen, mainly active in the large cities, competed to have brightly painted exteriors of the houses they maintained in their home region.

Pahari painting

The Pahari style developed and flourished during 17th to 19th centuries stretching from Jammu to Almora and Garhwal, in the sub-Himalayan India, through Himachal Pradesh. The Pahari paintings can be grouped into two groups- Jammu or Dogra school; and Basholi and Kangra school. Each created stark variations within the genre, ranging from bold intense Basohli Painting, originating from Basohli in Jammu and Kashmir, to the delicate and lyrical Kangra paintings, which became synonymous to the style before other schools of paintings developed.

Mysore painting

Mysore painting is an important form of classical South Indian painting that originated in the town of Mysore in Karnataka. These paintings are known for their elegance, muted colors and attention to detail. The themes for most of these paintings are Hindu Gods and Goddesses and scenes from Hindu mythology. In modern times, these paintings have become a much sought-after souvenir during festive occasions in South India.

Tanjore painting

Tanjore painting is an important form of classical South Indian painting native to the town of Tanjore in Tamil Nadu. The art form dates back to the early 9th century, a period dominated by the Chola rulers, who encouraged art and literature. These paintings are known for their elegance, rich colors, and attention to detail. The themes for most of these paintings are Hindu Gods and Goddesses and scenes from Hindu mythology. In modern times, these paintings have become a much sought-after souvenir during festive occasions in South India.

The Bengal Patachitra

The Bengal Patachitra refers to the painting of West Bengal. It is a traditional and mythological heritage of West Bengal. The Bengal Patachitra is divided into some different aspects like Durga Pat, Chalchitra, Tribal Patachitra, Medinipur Patachitra, Kalighat Patachitra etc. The subject matter of Bengal Patachitra is mostly mythological, religious stories, folk lore and social. The Kalighat Patachitra, the last tradition of Bengal Patachitra is developed by Jamini Roy. The artist of the Bengal Patachitra is called Patua.

The tradition of Orisha Pattachitra is closely linked with the worship of Lord Jagannath. Apart from the fragmentary evidence of paintings on the caves of Khandagiri and Udayagiri and Sitabhinji murals of the Sixth century A.D., the earliest indigenous paintings from Odisha are the Pattachitra done by the Chitrakars (the painters are called Chitrakars). The theme of Oriya painting centers round the Vaishnava sect. Since beginning of Pattachitra culture Lord Jagannath who was an incarnation of Lord Krishna was the major source of inspiration. The subject matter of Patta Chitra is mostly mythological, religious stories and folk lore. Themes are chiefly on Lord Jagannath and Radha-Krishna, different “Vesas” of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra, temple activities, the ten incarnations of Vishnu basing on the ‘Gita Govinda’ of Jayadev, Kama Kujara Naba Gunjara, Ramayana, Mahabharata. The individual paintings of gods and goddesses are also being painted.The painters use vegetable and mineral colours without going for factory made poster colours. They prepare their own colours. White colour is made from the conch-shells by powdering, boiling and filtering in a very hazardous process. It requires a lot of patience. But this process gives brilliance and premanence to the hue. ‘Hingula’, a mineral colour, is used for red. ‘Haritala’, king of stone ingredients for yellow, ‘Ramaraja’ a sort of indigo for blue are being used. Pure lamp-black or black prepared from the burning of cocoanut shells are used. The brushes that are used by these ‘Chitrakaras’ are also indigenous and are made of hair of domestic animals. A bunch of hair tied to the end of a bamboo stick make the brush. It is really a matter of wonder as to how these painters bring out lines of such precision and finish with the help of these crude brushes. That old tradition of Oriya painting still survives to-day in the skilled hands of Chitrakaras (traditional painters) in Puri, Raghurajpur, Paralakhemundi, Chikiti and Sonepur.

Company style

As Company rule in India began in the 18th century, a great number of Europeans migrated to India. The Company style is a term for a hybrid Indo-European style of paintings made in India by Indian and European artists, many of whom worked for European patrons in the British East India Company or other foreign Companies in the 18th and 19th centuries. The style blended traditional elements from Rajput and Mughal painting with a more Western treatment of perspective, volume and recession.

Early Modern Indian painting

At the start of the 18th century, oil and easel painting began in India, which saw many European artists, such as Zoffany, Kettle, Hodges, Thomas and William Daniel, Joshua Reynolds, Emily Eden and George Chinnery coming out to India in search of fame and fortune. The courts of the princely states of India were an important draw for European artists due to their patronage of the visual and performing arts. For Indian artists, this Western influence, largely a result of colonialism, was viewed as “a means for self-improvement,” and these Western academic artists who visited India provided the model. They did not, however, provide the training. According to R. Siva Kumar, “This task, which fell on the various art schools established in the 1850s, gave an institutional framework to the Westernization of Indian art.”

The earliest formal art schools in India, namely the Government College of Fine Arts in Madras (1850), Government College of Art & Craft in Calcutta (1854) and Sir J. J. School of Art in Bombay (1857), were established.

Raja Ravi Varma was a pioneer of modern Indian painting. He drew on Western traditions and techniques including oil paint and easel painting, with his subjects being purely Indian, such as Hindu deities and episodes from the epics and Puranas. Some other prominent Indian painters born in the 19th century is Mahadev Vishwanath Dhurandhar (1867–1944), A X Trindade (1870–1935), M F PithWalla (1872–1937),Sawlaram Lakshman Haldankar (1882–1968) and Hemen Majumdar (1894–1948).

In the 19th century, according to R. Siva Kumar, “selective Westernization for self-improvement gave way to a nationalist cultural counter-stance around the turn of the century — universally, the first step toward a political resistance toward colonial rule.” In practice, this materialized as an assimilation of “diverse Asian elements,” expanding tradition more than reviving it. Leading artist of the time, Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), utilized both the Western-influenced realism and Asian elements which brought him “close to early modernism. “A reaction to the Western influence led to a revival in historic and more nationalistic Indian art, called as the Bengal school of art, which drew from the rich cultural heritage of India.

Bengal school

The Bengal School of Art was an influential style of art that flourished in India during the British Raj in the early 20th century. It was associated with Indian nationalism, but was also promoted and supported by many British arts administrators.

The Bengal school arose as an Avant Garde and nationalist movement reacting against the academic art styles previously promoted in India, both by Indian artists such as Ravi Varma and in British art schools. Following the widespread influence of Indian spiritual ideas in the West, the British art teacher Ernest Banfield Havel attempted to reform the teaching methods at the Calcutta School of Art by encouraging students to imitate Mughal miniatures. This caused immense controversy, leading to a strike by students and complaints from the local press, including from nationalists who considered it to be a retrogressive move. Havel was supported by the artist Abanindranath Tagore, a nephew of the poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore. Abanindranath painted a number of works influenced by Mughal art, a style that he and Havel believed to be expressive of India’s distinct spiritual qualities, as opposed to the “materialism” of the West. His best-known painting, Bharat Mata (Mother India), depicted a young woman, portrayed with four arms in the manner of Hindu deities, holding objects symbolic of India’s national aspirations.

Tagore later attempted to develop links with Far-Eastern artists as part of an aspiration to construct a pan-Asianist model of art. Those associated with this Indo-Far Eastern model included Nandalal Bose, Mukul Dey, Kalipada Ghoshal, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Vinayak Shivaram Masoji, B.C. Sanyal, Beohar Rammanohar Sinha, and subsequently their students A. Ramachandran, Tan Yuan Chameli, Ramananda Bandyopadhyay and a few others.

The Bengal school’s influence on Indian art scene gradually started alleviating with the spread of modernist ideas post-independence. G. Subramanyam’s role in this movement is significant.


During the colonial era, Western influences started to make an impact on Indian art. Some artists developed a style that used Western ideas of composition, perspective and realism to illustrate Indian themes. Others, like Jamini Roy, consciously drew inspiration from folk art. Bharti Dayal has chosen to handle the traditional Mithila Painting in most contemporary way and uses both realisms as well abstractionism in her work with a lot of fantasy mixed in to both. Her work has an impeccable sense of balance, harmony and grace. By the time of Independence in 1947, several schools of art in India provided access to modern techniques and ideas. Galleries were established to showcase these artists. Modern Indian art typically shows the influence of Western styles, but is often inspired by Indian themes and images. Major artists are beginning to gain international recognition, initially among the Indian diaspora, but also among non-Indian audiences.

The Progressive Artists’ Group, established shortly after India became independent in 1947, was intended to establish new ways of expressing India in the post-colonial era. The founders were six eminent artists – K. H. Ara, S. K. Bakre, H. A. Gade, M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza and F. N. Souza, though the group was dissolved in 1956, it was profoundly influential in changing the idiom of Indian art. Almost all India’s major artists in the 1950s were associated with the group. Some of those who are well-known today are Bal Chabda, Manishai Dey, V. S. Gaitonde, Krishan Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tayyab Mehta, Beohar Ram Manohar Sinha and Akbar Padamsee. Other famous painters like Jahar Dasgupta, Prakash Karmakar, John Wilkins, and Bijon Choudhuri enriched the art culture of India. They have become the icon of modern Indian art. Art historians like Prof. Rai Anand Krishna have also referred to those works of modern artistes that reflect Indian ethos.

Also, the increase in the discourse about Indian art, in English as well as vernacular Indian languages, appropriated the way art was perceived in the art schools. Critical approach became rigorous, critics like Geeta Kapoor, R. Siva Kumar, contributed to re-thinking contemporary art practice in India. Their voices represented Indian art not only in India but across the world. The critics also had an important role as curators of important exhibitions, re-defining modernism and Indian-art.

Indian Art got a boost with the economic liberalization of the country since the early 1990s. Artists from various fields now started bringing in varied styles of work. Post-liberalization Indian art thus works not only within the confines of academic traditions but also outside it. In this phase, artists have introduced even newer concepts which have hitherto not been seen in Indian art. Deva Jyoti Roy has introduced a new genre of art called Pseudo realism. Pseudo realist Art is an original art style that has been developed entirely on the Indian soil. Pseudo realism takes into account the Indian concept of abstraction and uses it to transform regular scenes of Indian life into a fantastic image.