On the whole, formal
elements in Indian art represent purely mental attitudes.
This makes it largely introspective. The idea, as in Yoga,
is to do away with all distracting influences and fugitive
emotions. This makes environment in Indian art secondary.
The main concern of Indian iconography, even when it
adopts certain features in ornaments, costumes, etc. from
contemporary life, is religious and metaphysical.
The question of environment in Indian art needs to be
viewed on the context of the idea of Sadrishya in
Hindu aesthetic, which does not imply naturalism,
verisimilitude, illustration or illusion in any
superficial sense. What really matters is Pramana,
"creation of truth", which means "ideal
According to Hindu aesthetics, particularly during
medieval period, art is essentially conventional, for it
is only by convention that nature can be made
intelligible, and only by signs and symbols that
communication is made possible. That is why symbols play
such a crucial role in Indian art.
Convention in this view has no derogatory implication as
in the case of decadent art. It boils down to set of
formulae evolved to express the true meaning of the
objects that artists paint or sculpt.
Methods of responding space in art will always respond
more or less to contemporary habits of vision, and this is
all that is required for art. Perspective is nothing, but
the means, employed to convey to the spectator, the idea
of 3-dimensional space, and among the different kinds of
perspective, which art has made use of in different ages,
the one claiming to be "scientific" has no
particular advantage from the aesthetic point of view.
Very often Indian artists make representation of nature in
their work purely symbolical.
In early Indian art, roughly from 2nd century BC to 3rd
century AD, there is certain emphasis on social
environment. Artists, as in Amaravati and Barhut, try to
object contemporary life and seek not only to render
episodes from Buddha's life through symbols, but also to
represent the worship of Yaksha, Naga, and
trees so prevalent among the common people during this
But this is not an entirely demotic art devoted to the
representation of various aspects to popular life. Artists
are always at pains to emphasize that the outward features
of nature make only limited sense. Nature as they depict
it is of deep symbolical significance. There is some
evidence of water cosmology in their work, which cannot be
understood without the help of early Indian literature.
The view, also, informs Indian painting until 6th century
AD, as is evident in the wall paintings of Ajanta and Bagh.
With the beginning of Gupta period new element makes it
appearance. Artists are no longer concerned with people,
but with gods and their habitat. But even with this shift
in emphasis, they do react to environment, though to much
limited degree. Representation of nature becomes much more
stereotyped. Vishnudharmottara Purana, written
during this period, devotes a section to painting and it
explains how the conventions are to be observed.
In the following centuries, as seen in the paintings at
Sittanavasal, Ellora and Tanjore, the world of the gods
comes fully into its own and there is little trace of
Indian painting after 10th century, as in the palm leaf
Buddhist manuscripts, also leaves contemporary life, as
well as nature severely alone. Ignoring their
surroundings, painters concentrate solely on Buddhist gods
and goddesses and Mandalas... Since they have only
restricted space at their disposal, they are content to
paint images of gods and goddesses. This imbues the
manuscripts they illustrate with magical power making them
object of worship by devotees. The only environment these
painters care for is that of Tantric Buddhist beliefs.
They are not bothered in the least either about nature or
social conditions of the period.
The illustrated palm leaf manuscripts, produced by Jains
in 13th century and later, also concern themselves
entirely with gods, goddesses and Yakshas and Vidhyadevis,
to start with. But with the introduction of paper,
painters in Western India find a little more space for
their compositions and soon begin painting episodes from
the lives of Jaina Tirthankaras as narrated in Kalpasutra.
Even though their attention is focused on the story, Jain
artists of his period are more aware of their environment
than Buddhist painters. They try to render contemporary
architecture, though in very much simplified form and
contemporary costumes as well. Their treatment of
landscape is generally ornamental. Their primary purpose,
however, is to do justice to the stories. They have no use
for any innovation, which is outside the scope of their
By the end of 14th century, Jain painters become a little
more alive to their social environment. In the manuscripts
of Kalakachharya Katha, they use Muslim stereotype
to represent all foreigners, who figure in the stories.
This shows that they have precise idea by now of Turks,
who ruled over Northern and Western India during this
period. Their work is based on personal observation and
also on Iranian figures, appearing in contemporary
illustrated Persian manuscripts. In the more elaborate
manuscripts of Kalakachharya Katha of this period,
painters even borrow and introduce persian elements in
their border decorations, which sometimes depict scenes
from the daily life of common people, both Muslim and
Landscapes in these manuscripts are painted as separate
compositions without forming background to any particular
scene. Decorative designs are often borrowed from
contemporary architecture. Manuscripts reveal the life of
the people and court far more vividly than any literary
source of the period.
There is still keener awareness of the environment in some
of the manuscripts, painted in the first half of 16th
century. Digambara Jain painters of the period depict many
aspects of contemporary life hitherto untouched by
artists. It is for the first time, for instance, that they
illustrate certain features of rural life, tillers of the
soil and herdsmen at work and women engaged in daily
They, also, render various aspects of life in cities -
palace scenes, marriage festivities...- not seen in
previous manuscripts. Nature, too, gets more attention
than before and there are full-page illustrations
depicting forests as well as wild animals.
This period also sees the production of some illustrated
manuscripts, which overcome the limitation of the folk
phase. Manuscripts of Niamat Namha (1500-1510 AD),
painted in Malwa, and of Laur Chanda (1500-1525 AD),
painted in U.P., prepare the ground for Mongol painting.
Artists are fully aware of their surroundings by now. One
new feature of this phase of Indian art is closer
association of painting with literature. Painters
illustrate Avadhi romances for the first time, giving
glimpses of the daily life of the people. They depict
water a little more realistically than before.
Under Akbar, painting receives new impetus. New painters,
even as they imbibe certain features from the older Indian
tradition, are under the sway of Persian art and are
influenced, to a limit extent, even by European art. Religious
themes, now, become of secondary interest. Nature is no
longer symbolical, but provides proper background to the
composition. Painters still observe certain conventions in
the treatment of mountains and trees, but make conscious
effort to portray nature more realistically than before.
Their work also giver better idea of daily life of the
court and people. Even those who illustrate Hindu epics, Ramayana
and Mahabharata, during the period make their
compositions as realistic as possible. Architecture
becomes important element in painting during this period.
By the time of Jehangir, painters depict variety of people
at work - bookbinders, jewelers, etc - with new verve.
They are fully alive to their environment and their work
contributes most interesting record of the life of the
period. They carry the art of portraiture to new stage of
refinement and sophistication.
Another interesting feature of Mongol painting is faithful
representation of birds and animals. Painters no longer
treat them as decorative motifs, but as living creatures.
Art of painting, which flourishes in many centers of
Rajasthan, Malwa and Bundelkhand during this period, and
later on in Kangra hills, is far more faithful to the old
tradition, but it also comes under the sway of Mongol
painting. Thus, nature in Rasjasthan painting is treated
far more elaborately than in any previous Indian art. But
the treatment is not faithful to appearance; it rather
follows contemporary Hindi poetry. The aim of the artist
is to create appropriate atmosphere for the intense drama
of love and romance.
As for themes, Rajasthan painting, at least in the
beginning, is entirely devoted to representations of the
episodes from Krishna legends and Puranic and folk
stories. Architecture in Rajasthan painting received very
little attention, except in Kangra paintings. But in
depicting the frolics of Krishna, painters draw
contemporary sports, picnic and dances.
Rajasthan art is not strictly religious as understood. It,
no doubt, deals with religious themes to meet the demands
of common people. It real forte lies in its use of
brilliant enamel-like colors.
The late Kangra paintings are informed with gentler view
of life. Landscape is more dense and lush than before,
romance is more colorful and the emotion of love more
vibrating than before. No one can appreciate this
brilliant phase of Indian painting without understanding
of Brajbhasha poetry, which inspires it. But, while Kangra
painters are alive to their natural surroundings, they are
indifferent to the political turmoil around them.