Indian Paintings

The Ancient, Colorful World of Indian Paintings

India had a fine tradition in the art of painting, and most of the paintings of the early medieval period were based on religious themes and showed episodes from the Hindu epics or Jain and Buddhist literature. The exquisite beautiful coloured paintings at Ajanta and Ellora were created between AD 600 and 1000. The Paintings and sculptures are devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Most of the Paintings tell ancient tales of courtly life and depict Buddhist legends from the Jataka tales. Like murals, paintings on the cloth were also an ancient pictorial format in India. Literary evidence indicates that pictures on fabrics-probably iconic images of deities were carried in processions and displayed on walls during the medieval period.

The illustrated manuscript, another major Indian painting format, was probably introduced at a much later date than murals or cloth painting. The earliest known illustrated books were made from leaves of the talipot palm and date to about the eleventh century. Once the texts and illustrations were completed, these pages were stacked and strung on one or two cords through pre-bored holes; they were protected by a pair of covers, usually wooden, at the top and bottom of the pile. This distinctively Indian manuscript format with its stacked horizontal leaves is known as pothi.

The Advent of Mughals

During the period of the Delhi Sultans, the art of paintings declaimed as the rulers obeyed the teachings of the Koran which discouraged the reproduction of the human form through sculpture and paintings. The rule of the Mughals saw the revival of the best in paintings and it marked an improved stage in the growth of this art. Humayun brought two famous painters with him. Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus samad. They introduced the art of miniature paintings to India. Miniature paintings are small but highly detailed paintings.

Akbar brought Persian and Indian artists together and a new style of paintings was born the Indo Persian school of paintings. Miniature paintings were also used to illustrate manuscripts and books examples of which can be seen in the Baburnama the Akbarnama the Tutunama etc.

Jahangir was deeply interested in painting two of the most eminent painters of his time were Abul Hassan and Ustad Mansur.

Shah Jahan’s reign saw the art of paintings reach its zenith. Artists of his time were influenced not only by the Hindu style but the European style as well. Portrait paintings became lifelike and graceful during his time unlike the stiff ones of the earlier times.

Aurangzeb believed in the tenets of the Koran and discouraged painters in his court. They migrated to the various regional kingdoms where they established different schools of paintings.

Native India Paintings

About the same time that Mughal emperors commissioned pictures from their ateliers in Agra, Delhi and Lahore, the Rajputs began to develop distinct styles of miniature paintings like the Kangra, the Rajasthani and the Deccani as well as manuscript illumination. The main theme of the paintings of the Kangra and the Rajasthani schools was devotional. Firmly rooted in the Hindu religion and the timeless world of Indian village and folk painting, the Rajasthani Rajput style was created by artists for whom the eternal order underlying human existence was ultimately more important than its fleeting, particularized manifestations. Most Rajput paintings tell a story or depict a subject very clearly and in the most vivid, immediate way possible.

The manner in which the components of the Rajput style were manipulated by different Rajasthani schools depended on a host of variables; the aesthetic preferences of the ruler-patron; the abilities and tastes of the painters; the state’s geographic, political, religious, and social situation. As Hindus and Indians, the Rajput rulers preferred subjects taken from texts in Sanskrit or one of the Indian vernaculars. Hindu religious themes, especially myths of the religion’s colorful and dynamic divinities were popular. The most popular Hindu god shown in Rajasthani painting was Krishna. In addition to Hindu myths and legends, Rajput painters also illustrated scenes from famous cycles of Indian love poetry.

Perhaps the most unusual paintings by Rajasthani artists are depictions of poems that describe in words the feeling evoked by a raga (a musical note having 5-7 notes arranged in a particular sequence).

Kangra paintings are richly coloured, which are filled with elegant rhythms and exceptionally varied pictorial details. Many of them feature surging landscapes based upon the scenery around the river Beas that flows through Kangara.

The region over which the Deccani sultans held sway was culturally diverse, its inhabitants comprising a cosmopolitan mix of Indian Muslims and Hindus, Persians, Afghans, Turks, Arabs, and Africans. The earliest known Deccan pictures were painted at Ahmednagar during the late sixteenth century under the Nizam Shahi sultans. They are brightly colored combinations of Persian and indigenous Indian styles. The Deccani paintings focused more on-court scenes and scenes of battle.

Unlike their counterparts in the Deccan, painters from South India maintained a distinctive regional identity until the late nineteenth century. The earliest surviving works from this region are fragmentary murals found at widely scattered sites in Deccan and further South. These paintings are rendered in several flattened, linear versions of the naturalistic classical Indian style as seen at Ajanta.


Religious Significance of Paintings

Paintings were an important part of propagating religion at one time. Mural paintings since the 6th century depicted various deities belonging to the Hindu and Buddhist pantheon, including Lord Shiva testing Arjuna by taking the form of a tribal hunter (Kirata), Lord Vishnu rescuing an elephant which was seized by a giant crocodile, Indra in his court, etc. The cave shrine of Sittannavasal in Pudukottai has a mural representation of a faithful gathering of lotuses to decorate the resting place made by the Gods for a Jain saint after he attained liberation.


In the south, the temples were storehouses of paintings. The inner walls of the prakara and the mandapas and the ceilings were profusely adorned with paintings of scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata the Bhagavatam, etc. In the Brihadeswara temple in Thanjavur all around the inner walls of the garbhagriha various karanas (dance poses) of Bharatanatyam have been painted in vivid colours that have not faded even after 1000 years. Here you can buy original masterpieces from all traditions and styles of Indian Paintings.


Q1. What is unique about Indian art?

Indian art is famous the world over for its supreme aesthetics and exotic appeal. One characteristic that makes Indian art stand apart in the international art arena is that it is not produced for the sake of art- that Indian artists create artwork with a predefined purpose, goal, or utility. The purpose can range from utilitarian to spiritual, but there is always a definite aim for the production of any form of Indian art. 

Q2. What is the purpose of Indian painting?

The Chitrasutra, a treatise on art that forms a part of the Vishnudharmottara Purana talks about the different purposes of Indian painting. All paintings are supposed to bring auspiciousness to the home of the person who commissioned them. Besides this, the goal of Indian paintings can range from spiritual ones such as removing misfortune, halting nightmares, and attracting the benevolence of the deity of the household to simple goals such as filling the space in a house.

Q3. How is the art of painting important in Indian culture?

The art of painting in the context of Indian culture is as old as the birth of civilization in the subcontinent. The first incidence of painting comes from the rock shelters of Bhimbetka, where Stone Age humans were learning the earliest ways of survival, and the art of painting continues to thrive in various regions of India with the painstaking efforts of trained artists who possess skills transferred through generations. Thus one can say that the art of painting in Indian culture is a visual record of India’s rich history and is a matchless source for understanding the soul of India. 

Q4. What are the two main types of paintings in India?

Though the most vital textual work on Indian art- the Chitrasutra, provides a long list of the types of paintings in India, for ease of understanding, the academic world has divided Indian paintings into two categories. Based on the subject material, the paintings are categorized into- a) religious or spiritual paintings, where Hindu goddesses, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh Art, and other divinities or a religious theme is presented, and b) secular paintings, where the human realm alongside topics which are not connected to the divine world are painted. 

Q5. What is Indian artwork called?

Indian artwork or Indian painting is commonly called “Chitra” (चित्र) in texts and by art experts and artists, a term that means “that which is beautiful”. 

Q6. What influenced Indian art?

Indian art, much like the art of any nation and region gains its influences from its environment. Natural- flora, fauna, seasons, phases of the day, and celestial bodies and man-made- human life, religion, society, political events and figures, and history elements provide the Indian artist with their musings and appears as the theme or secondary attributes of Indian art. 

Q7. Who started painting in India?


According to the ancient Indian text Vishnudharmottara Purana, the first painting was created by the great sage Narayana, who used the juice from a mango tree and painted Urvashi, a celestial maiden whose beauty surpassed all exquisiteness of the universe. 

Q8. How did Indians get the paint?

Ancient Indian master artists searched pigments for their artworks in their surroundings. The colors were acquired from flowers and other parts of trees as well as naturally occurring minerals in rocks. Every master had his procedure of preparing colors, which he passed on to his students who preserved the techniques for future generations. 

Q9. Which Indian state is famous for painting?

Uniqueness in every aspect of life is a characteristic of Indian states and paintings are no exception. Each region in India has an art form endemic there, which gathers accolades and demand from all over the world. Some of the most famous Indian painting groups are- Tanjore paintings of Tamil Nadu, Madhubani art of Bihar, Patachitra of Orissa, and Warli paintings of Maharashtra

Q10. What are the main features of Indian art?

The treatise on Indian art and aesthetics lay out 6 rules that make a perfect artwork. These are known as “Shadaanga” or six limbs and are as follows- a) Rupabheda or the understanding of form, b) Pramanam or correct measurement, c) Bhava or emotiveness of the subjects, d) Lavanya Yojanam or beauty in artistic composition, e) sadrishyam or true to life representation and f) Varnakabhangam or the techniques of sketching and painting the subjects in a painting. When all these six attributes reach their perfection, an ideal artwork in Indian art is conceived. Consciously or subconsciously, Indian artists from different regions and school follow these principles to ensure the aesthetic quality of their work.