All Eyes on India

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, January 2012 | Go to article overview

All Eyes on India


Stern, Fred, The World and I


If you have never before encountered a painting by traditional artists of the Indian subcontinent you are likely to be delighted when you see your first one. This is especially true if you are tired of endless scenes of Dutch landscapes, Renaissance Madonnas, pop art and the many abstractions that come pouring from the brushes of American and European painters.

Manuscript Painting from 1100-1500

The earliest surviving examples of the art of India are Buddhist manuscript pages from monasteries and date from around 1100. These were created on palm leaves by Buddhist monk artists in Bengal, today's Bangladesh. Most were opaque watercolors illustrating either scenes from the life of Buddha or scenes from Buddhist mythology.

You are likely to notice differences with Western art in addition to the opaque watercolors used. For example, Indian artists did not know how to handle perspective, so there is a certain flatness to their compositions. But the coloring is absolutely magnificent. The greens and yellows especially have a richness often absent in Western art. You will notice that many of the gods are rendered in a deep blue. There is a reason for this. A woman demon tried to poison the god Krishna, but he sucked her dry without in any way doing harm to himself, and the milk of her poison turned him blue.

In addition to portraying the lives of the aristocrats, native Indian painters pioneered the art of botanical and animal illustration with deer, a variety of birds, and of course, the ubiquitous elephants and tigers as their subject matter.

The Mughals: Invaders of the Subcontinent

The Mughals were the rulers of much of India from 1536 to 1858 but their origin was Persian. Consequently, Mughal period paintings, murals and manuscripts offer a unique blend of Indian, Persian and Islamic styles. The Mughals religion which was Muslim is especially important in present day Asia and ultimately led to the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

When the Mughals came to India they were accompanied by a full complement of scribes and artisans. Although the Mughals were Muslim, their Indian subjects were Hindus. Upon completion of the Mughal conquest they began recruiting native Indian craftsmen and architects. Artists accompanied the Mughals when they went hunting or engaged in military adventures of various types. Artists also captured other events in the rulers' lives including the visits of neighboring nabobs (rulers) on foot or horseback, or in the audience chamber.

The capital of the Mughal empire was in Agra, where the Taj Mahal stands today. There as you probably know, the wife of one of the Mughal emperors, Shah Jahan, is buried. The most famous of the Mughal emperors was Akbar, a progressive and visionary man who encouraged cultural pursuits and innovation. Among his many accomplishments Akbar created sumptuous gardens and luxurious residences. By the time he died in 1605 the course of India's artistic future was assured.

In images produced after 1536 AD, you are likely to encounter Rajahs (the Indian equivalents of counts and princes) on horseback hunting tigers, elephants and other wild animals. Artists painted in superb gouaches in which water colors are mixed with a zinc compound to give a characteristic dense appearance. The horses have elegant saddles, stirrups and other trappings. The hunting scenes depicted usually take place in a mountainous landscape, luscious with flowers and meadows. Or you might see Rajahs courting their ladies on elegant balconies or in the splendor of palatial gardens.

The Influence of Hinduism and Classical Tales

It would be incorrect to assume that the Mughals were in full control of the subcontinent. Independent rulers (Maharajahs) were ensconced in the Himalayan foothills and the Punjab. They, of course, had their own entourages and produced art that differed from that sponsored by the Mughals. …

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