Long before Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso and other modern masters of Europe began to play with different perceptions of reality, traditional Indian art forms had been stylizing the real for centuries. Whether it be the dream-like 2-D universe of Indian miniature art or the geometric stylings of Gond and Warli paintings or the bold comic-book panels of the rare Nakashi style, Indian artistic traditions have always been ahead of the game.
Traditional Indian art forms are rooted in reality – images of animals, plants, and people engaged in work or play predominate – but don’t wish to copy or mime it. Instead, they want to create reality in their own distinct flavour, which is what gives traditional Indian art its rich, deep variety. Another special feature of the Indian tradition is that it is unbroken and alive – artisans today still make blue and terracotta pottery like the ones found dating back thousands of years from sites like Mohenjo Daro; and painters still practice the miniature art traditions that began before 1000 CE. That’s not all: traditional Indian art forms, especially the classical schools, are quite cosmopolitan, showing influences from Greece, Central Asia, Persia and China. India being the melting pot it is, has always been open to cultural influences from across the world.
The earliest Indian art is prehistoric rock paintings discovered in Mangar Bani in Haryana, estimated to be nearly one lakh years old! Clearly humans in India have been playing with form and colour since a long time. Cave paintings found their artistic peak in the magnificent frescoes seen in the Ajanta and Ellora caves in Maharashtra (8th century) and the vivid ceiling-to-floor paintings of Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu (11th century). Impressive as these large frescoes were, Indian art traditions show that sometimes the microcosm houses entire universes, as in the case of the Indian miniature art form. It is only when you actually look at a miniature painting in real life that you understand a.) how tiny these paintings actually are and b.) being tiny doesn’t stop them in any way from being spectacular. Many miniature paintings are as small as a large egg and the larger ones are as big as an A4 sized sheet! Miniature art – which originated in the 9th-10th centuries – was so small because it was often meant to go on the page to illustrate a manuscript, often a religious epic, legend, or the life of a king. By the time the Mughals came to India, India already had a thriving miniature art tradition from the Rajputana desertscape to the foothills of Himachal Pradesh to the plateau of the Deccan.
One of the most exciting developments in Indian miniature art came around with the Persian influences of the Mughal era. It helped that the Mughal emperors, beginning from Humayun, actively patronized the arts, drawing many Persian artists to India. In Indian miniature art from the 15th and 16th centuries we can see the ornate floral and garden motifs of Persian paintings make an appearance, but adapted to Indian flora and fauna, such as lotus flowers, mango and banana trees, and peacocks and monkeys. After the decline of the Mughals, Indian miniature art of the Rajasthani and Kangra schools continued to flourish, patronized by Rajput kings. Much of this art was based on religious themes and episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
A sub-form of the miniature was the Pichwai, or the “background painting” often hung behind the idol of Lord Krishna in temples. Pichwais originated in the 17th century, are much larger than miniatures, and often have themes from the life of Krishna as their subject. Filled with intricate detail and gorgeous blues and golds, Pichwais continue to inspire contemporary painters. Another popular miniature art form is the Phad of Rajasthan – the name reminiscent of a scroll or a foldable manuscript. A scroll painting that depicts an entire tale through panels, traditional phads were portable stories, carried by storytellers from village to village. Odisha’s spectacular and vivid Patachitra paintings are analogous to the Rajasthani Phad. Some of the finest examples of Phads, Pichwais and other Indian miniature art are now housed in famous galleries around the world, from the Victoria and Albert Museum and Sotheby’s in London to MOMA, New York.
If Mughal and Rajput patronage led to the heyday of the miniature in India’s North, the encouragement of the Maratha and Vijayanagar dynasties brought Tanjore paintings to blossom in the South in the 17th and 18th centuries. Often painted on wooden planks, these paintings feature vivid colours and gold inlays. Featuring iconic depictions of Murugan, Balaji, and Sraswathi, Tanjore paintings continue to be a living tradition.
While miniature and temple art forms in North and South India flourished because of royal patronage, folk and tribal art traditions survived because art was the everyday language of people. Perhaps, this is what accounts for the enduring popularity of art forms like Gond paintings. Colourful, bold, and surprisingly geometric – each stroke in a Gond painting is a defined shape – Gond art was traditionally practiced by Gond tribespeople from Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha. Populated with lush trees, nightscapes, deer, lions, birds and tigers, versatile Gond art can be compared both to Australian Aboriginal art as well as the work of famous 19th-century French painter Henri Rousseau. Of course, Gond art is much older than Rosseau’s work, with some historians suggesting Gond people practiced it as early as the 6th century CE. Gond art is still thriving, finally recognized as a living cultural heritage, much like the Madhubani paintings of Bihar’s Mithila region. This colourful art style often features women, stylized flowers and animals, and intricate patterns. The Madhubani tradition, said to be at least two thousand years old, is still around, and is notable because its painters have mainly been and remain women.
While Gond and Madhubani paintings are highly colourful, Warli art, originating from the Warli tribe in Maharashtra, is a stunning example of monochrome. Traditionally painted as chalk-white figures and shapes on an earthy, red-ochre background, this art form is filled with stick-figure like drawings and traditional geometric motifs. Highly intricate, Warli painting, once created by women on the walls of huts, has now been adapted to canvas and paper.
Thus, the history of Indian art is packed with rich and diverse details, as well as artists rooted and proud in their traditions. However, this sense of cultural pride underwent a temporary shift when Indians encountered later-day European colonizers. Unlike the Greeks of the ancient era, who appreciated Indian art and made an enormously important contribution to Indian sculpture, the encounter with the first the Portuguese and then the British in the 16th and 17th centuries wasn’t as rosy.
Deeming Indian art and sculpture too simplistic and primitive, the Portuguese, French, and British colonizers were intent to impose their architectural and artistic styles in India. The British of the 18th and 19th centuries favoured romantic landscapes and realistic portraits; Indian art, with its emphasis on deliberately flat depictions and ornate motifs did not appeal to their sensibility. Thus, Indian art began to be devalued. The British commissioned watercolour and oil paintings of the sort they preferred not to indigenous artists but to artists on the East India Company’s (and later the British government’s) payroll. Naturally, Indian artists, with their distinct visual vocabulary and techniques could not fit in immediately. To propagate Western ideas and norms about art, the British established many schools of art in the 19th century, including the JJ School of Arts in Bombay. Initially, none of these schools taught Indian art techniques.
Modern art of India
What we call the “modern art” of India emerged by the end of the 19th century. It is important to note that this is different from contemporary Indian art. After the British stopped patronage to traditional and folk art forms, local artists had already evolved a distinct “Company” style of painting, using watercolours to paint British and Indian subjects. In this mix emerged one of the most famous Indian painters of modern times: Raja Ravi Verma (1848–1906) of Travancore, Kerala. Ravi Verma used the Western classical style to paint perennially popular Indian themes from mythology. Unlike miniature artists who had used stone and mineral dust to create brilliant colours, Ravi Verma worked with oil and water colours. His works were often printed in lithographs, or copies made using stone and metal sheets. The result was stunning and fresh, bringing mythological figures and episodes alive for art-lovers in a wholly new way. Immensely popular even in his own lifetime, Raja Ravi Verma is considered the first of modern Indian painters. Prints of his lithographs still abound in the temples of many Indian homes.
The rise of Modern Indian art is one of the most significant developments in recent Indian culture. It coincided with a growing national consciousness and cultural pride. Increasingly, the post-Ravi Verma painters weren’t just satisfied with Indian themes; they wanted to bring the spotlight on India’s distinct visual vocabulary and techniques as well. At the forefront of this movement was the Bengal School of Art, which originated in Calcutta and Shanti Niketan in West Bengal and soon spread through the entire country. Around the same time as modernists in England and America rebelled against forced notions of photorealism, Indian greats too propagated an avant-garde style. Painters like Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) and Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) drew inspiration from Mughal and Rajput miniatures as well as other Asian forms such as Japanese art to forge a distinct modern style. Often their subjects were everyday Indian people, and their themes nationalist, such as Nandalal Bose’s arresting portrait of Mahatma Gandhi and Abanindranath Tagore’s imagining of India as a mother-goddess. Later Bengal School masters like Gaganendranath Tagore (1867-1938) experimented with caricature and cubism to produce an abstracted, highly evocative visual style. Ramkinkar Baij (1906-1980) experimented with techniques from modernist Western and Indian classical sculpture to depict marginalized tribal people and overlooked deities from Indian mythology, such as in his famous depiction of a Santhal family in Shanti Niketan. Important as the Bengal School of Art was, it remained dominated by male artists. However, another formidable – and female – talent was burgeoning in parallel in the North, and her name was Amrita Sher-Gil.
Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) was Indo-Hungarian, though India remained her primary inspiration till the end of her short, blazing life. Largely unknown in her time, Sher-Gil was heavily influenced by the frescoes of Ajanta and Ellora, and drew powerful rural landscapes and portraits of Indian women. Sher-Gil did not identify with the Bengal School, considering their views too retrogressive.
Meanwhile, even before the Bengal School of Art took off, another artistic style was blossoming in Kalighat in Calcutta. An indigenous Indian style, Kalighat paintings began as souvenirs that visitors to the Kali temple could take with them. Soon, this developed into a bold style which featured themes borrowed both from mythology and everyday life. Kalighat paintings are significant as they retained their distinctive regional sensibility despite the colonial onslaught. They influenced early modernist masters like Jamini Roy (1887-1942; affiliated with the Bengal School), the bold, striking works of which draw on traditions from Indian folk art, especially art from Bengal. Like Ravi Verma, Roy’s works continue to be popular.
Thus, by the time of India’s Independence from the British in 1947, Indian artists had begun to experiment with techniques inspired by Western cubism, Japanese watercolours, classical Indian sculpture, and Classical and folk Indian traditions to evolve trademark personal styles. Unlike the early modernists of the Bengal School, the later-day modernists did not necessarily believe in a return-to-the-past approach; they used the past as a touchpoint to create their own visions. More importantly, their subject had moved from Indian styles to Indian philosophies. Chief among such artists are names recognized among the world’s greatest modern artists: Francis Newton (F.N) Souza (1924-2002), Sayed Haider (S.H.) Raza (1922-2016), Tyeb Mehta (1925-2009), and Maqbool Fida (M.F.) Hussain (1915-2011). How did these great names come together in post-colonial India?
Shortly after 1947, F.N. Souza founded the Progressive Artists Group in Bombay, of which S.H. Raza was an early member. M.F. Hussain and Tyeb Mehta joined the group soon after its formation. Though the group’s formal lifespan was short (it disbanded in 1956), its impact on Indian art is immeasurable. The Progressive Artists Group truly reintroduced the concept of the abstract in Indian art and emphasized that abstraction had always been an essential component of the Indian tradition.
For F.N. Souza, the concrete inspiration behind the abstract were his Goan Catholic heritage, Indian temple sculptures from Mathura and Khajuraho, as well as tribal art from India and Africa. Souza’s work is vivid and visceral, and celebrates the body and its erotic landscape unabashedly, much like the figurines of Khajuraho. Having moved to London in 1950, and the United States in 1967, Souza’s work is also informed with Western cultural influences.
Like Souza, S.H. Raza too moved out of India by the early 1950s. In his early career, Raza was fascinated both by the central Indian forests of his childhood as well as the French countryside of his new home. Thus, in this phase he painted pastoral scenery celebrating the beauty of the wild. However, as his career advanced, Raza returned to subjects inspired by India. He grew particularly fascinated by the geometric symbols of Indian art and philosophy, particularly the bindu or the dot. For Raza, the bindu was the point of concentration that contained all universes. Raza’s abstract paintings on Indian geometric motifs made his name and have been among the most expensive paintings sold by an Indian artist.
More figurative than Souza and Raza is the work of M.F. Husain. Husain, who counted Souza as his mentor, is distinct from the rest of the progressive artist’s group in the sheer range of his influences and blurring of boundaries between Avant Garde and popular art. Among the influences of Husain’s long career were Indian cinema – he briefly painted cinema signboards for a living – festivals, sculpture, mythology, and poplar culture. Typically, his work is colourful, dynamic and features prominent human and animal figures. Husain, who died in 2011, is sometimes considered the godfather of contemporary Indian art.
If Husain’s colourful figures celebrate the joy of human existence, Tyeb Mehta’s people and animals try to capture its pain and pathos. Mehta’s work is often described as sculptural, given his thick applications of paint and his homage to Indian sculpture. However, Mehta’s work also draws inspiration from Western classical techniques as well as the panel-like style of Indian miniatures. Horrified by the violence that occurred during the Partition of India (1946-47), Mehta paints stark, minimalistic and bold figures, often depicted in a catastrophic mid-fall motion. Like Husain, Mehta too was influenced by Hindi Cinema, which perhaps accounts for his larger-than-life-sized panels and triptychs.
Any discussion of the evolution of abstract art in India is incomplete without the mention of Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), whose stunning geometric drawings and photographs capture India in a way unlike any other. Mohamedi uses the interplay of light and shade and intersecting lines in her work to create depth and architecture and evoke powerful emotions. Though Mohamedi was largely ignored in India in her time to the expense of her male peers, she is now recognized as one of the world’s most unique abstract artists. Mohamedi’s work is distinct from the colourful and figurative imaginings of the other modern masters.
Contemporary Indian art
Husain, Mehta, and Mohamedi form the bridge between modern masters and contemporary Indian artists. Although there is no definite point which marks the contemporary period, it can be roughly taken to refer to the period post 2000, featuring established and upcoming names. The artists included in this vast umbrella draw on a staggering wealth of resources: from folk and classical Indian art and handicrafts to world art to digital and mixed media to sculpture, pastiche, caricature, pop art, among others! What’s more, several contemporary Indian artists work within folk tradition, keeping their schools alive and popular, such as Gond painters like Bhajju Shyam (born 1971) and Durgabai Vyam (born 1972), and Madhubani masters like Dulari Devi (born 1971) and Pushpa Kumari (1969).
Contemporary artists like Ramesh Gorjala (born 1979) are inspired by traditional art forms, but use them to create a completely unique vision. Born in Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh, the hub of the gorgeous ancient kalamkari block-printed technique, Gorjala uses elements from kalamkari to create his stunning interpretation of Indian gods and goddesses. Gorjala’s deities are often large and fill up the entire canvas, their skin inscribed by intricate stories and motifs.
Artists like Seema Kohli (born 1960) span the worlds between painting, sculpture, ceramics, and mixed media to create works which are both highly individualistic and rooted in Indian tradition. Kohli reimagines the Indian nykaa or romantic heroine in highly intricate, rich, and stylized dreamscapes adorned with gold and silver leaf details. Any mention of Kohli is incomplete without her Golden Womb series. Kohli has famously said that she looks “within the womb to discover that which is outside.” The richly detailed drawings and paintings of this series pay a homage to the womb as the source of all creation. Filled with motifs such as enclosing circles, winged women, and trees, these paintings are a celebration of the feminine principle.
Women are also the subject of contemporary master Thota Vaikuntam (born 1942), who continues to be inspired by the powerful and beautiful women of Telangana. Thota Vaikuntam’s work celebrates the Indianness of his subjects, their dark skin, colourful sarees, expressive eyes, and sense of graceful power. His work can be unabashedly erotic and is striking for celebrating the beauty of real women, in all shapes and sizes.
Jayasri Burman (born 1960) also celebrates Indian figures and motifs in her pen and ink drawings, watercolour and mixed media paintings, and sculpture. Burman’s work has a dreamlike quality and recreates the symbolism of Folk art in a contemporary fashion. Like Burman, her husband Paresh Maity (born 1965) too uses dreamscapes, although Maity’s work is reminiscent of the bold stylings of Russian-French modernist Marc Chagall. Inspired by both Western abstract paintings and classical Indian sculpture, Maity’s paintings and installations are often powerful and dynamic.
For contemporary Indian artists like Ashok Bhowmik (1952), the subject is everyday life and social issues. Bhowmik’s work is stark and uses a primary complementary palette to depict the relationship between people and animals. The figures are geometric and stylized, reminiscent of puppetry, and often posed against a minimalistic, solidly coloured backdrop. Bhowmik is a master of the complex and rare technique of cross-hatching. In cross-hatching, the artist uses an ink-pen nib from the 1940s and 50s to create intersecting sets of parallel lines, which give the image depth and shadow. The nib pen used in cross hatching is dipped in ink again and again and can be sharpened with a pencil. Such nibs are no longer available in the market, so a painting that shows cross-hatching is a unique, rare piece. In India Jogen Chowdhury (born 1939) and Ashok Bhowmik are known for their mastery of cross-hatching.
Other prominent contemporary painters like Manu Parekh (born 1939) turn to exterior places to depict rich interior landscapes. For Parekh, the muse is the city of Benares, which he depicts in vivid blacks, hot pinks, and fluorescent reds and greens. Though Parekh has lived in many cities, Benares remains an everlasting inspiration, whether in his flower series, or series of portraits. Parekh’s arresting work is special because it combines two completely different inspirations: the work of Souza (the Progressive Artist’s Group) and Rabindranath Tagore (the Bengal School). If Parekh continues to be inspired by the vibrancy of Benares, contemporary legend Lalu Prasad Shaw (born 1937) finds endless delight in his famous babu and bibi (Bengali gent and lady) figures. Shaw’s artworks are often either lithographs or use the medieval European technique of tempera – in which pigment is dissolved in a sticky material like egg yolk – to create stunning, vivid portraits. Often these portraits capture babu and bibi in a playful, wholly contemporary avatar. Shaw’s work is a playful, contemporary rendition of the Kalighat style, with babu and bibi often found holding lipsticks and hats.
And these names are just the tip of the colourful iceberg! Contemporary art in India is burgeoning and ever-evolving, with a special focus on diversity, mixed media, and installations. As Indian art continues to soar, so does the interest of connoisseurs. While collecting art once used to be thought of as a Western preoccupation, the Internet has exposed Indians to the possibility of bringing an immortal artwork home. More and more Indians are also interested in buying traditional and contemporary Indian art, recognizing the unbroken tradition of which even they, you, the art-lover is an essential part.