The Indian subcontinent has nurtured some of the oldest human settlements and civilisations in the world. Having hosted countless cultural awakenings, innovations and exchanges since prehistoric times, the region boasts a rich and fascinating artistic history that continues to influence aesthetic movements and captivate spectators even today.
Beginning with the sculptural masterpieces of Buddhist and Hindu art from the first millennium to the ground-breaking modernist art of the 20th century, here we explore India’s captivating art history through a selection of works from Saffronart’s upcoming Winter Live Auction this December.
Early Buddhist Art
Some of the earliest records of artistic experimentation in Northern India during the Common Era can be traced to the Kushan Empire, which, during its peak, extended from Ujjain, Mathura and Sarnath, across the Hindu-Kush to Afghanistan and Bactria. Under Kanishka, their fifth and most famous ruler, the empire witnessed a period of great wealth and flourishing visual arts traditions. The Kushans are credited with some of the earliest depictions of Buddha in sculptural form, which includes the 2nd century red sandstone sculpture below.
Medieval Indian Art
From the 4th to 6th century AD, a large portion of northern India was conquered and ruled by the Gupta Empire, who produced some of the most recognised and celebrated works of sculpture and architecture in Indian history. The incredible developments in technology, literature, religion and visual arts during this period went on to shape the artistic productions of the many smaller dynasties that emerged in the following centuries.
One of the most significant characteristics of art produced during the medieval period, i.e., the 7th to 14th century AD, is the influence of religion and religious texts. As evident in the above 8th century sandstone carving depicting Ganga, the river goddess in Hinduism, the representation of religious figures, storylines and even philosophies through sculpture grew to become a significant practice. This tradition is noticeable even in the sculptures of kingdoms of southern India, especially the Hoysala Dynasty. As observed in the 12th century grey schist sculpture of Lord Ganesha, the sculptures produced under the Hoysala Empire showcase a classical style that is distinct to that of the northern schools.
Along with stone, bronze was another prominent medium in the sculptures of medieval India. While stone sculpturing was often practised on temple walls and similar architecture, bronze works were smaller in size and relatively easier to transport – giving them a prominent role in the diffusion of Indian philosophies, practices and religion, especially Buddhism, in Southeast Asia. The 12th century Pala sculpture of Uma-Maheshwara, and the 14th century Kulu sculpture depicting Vaikunta Vishnu from our collection showcases that bronze sculpturing thrived not only in the realm of artistic innovations, but also in transmitting cultural discoveries and tradition.
Painting Courts and Indigenous Art
Following the golden age of Indian sculpturing was a period that saw the development of a diverse range of painting schools including Mughal, Rajputi, Deccani and Pahari courts. The period also saw the resurgence of age-old indigenous art practices such as Pat or scroll painting. Developed in then-Calcutta, Kalighat Pat is a scroll-painting technique that gained momentum in Bengal during the 19th century as the port city transformed into a thriving industrial and commercial centre. As seen in the above Kalighat Pat from the 1860s, practitioners of the Kalighat art form traditionally depicted scenes from the life of Lord Krishna as well as other narratives from Hindu mythology.
Early Bengal School
The presence of British and European trading companies and governing bodies in India during the 18th and 19th century led to the creation of a new school of art known as the Company School. The school depicted Indian people, sceneries and subjects in a traditional Royal Academy-style of painting, thus recording life in Colonial India from a foreign perspective.
The Early Bengal School of Art was launched as a response to the increasing prominence of the Company School. Artists of the Early Bengal School, who remain largely anonymous till date, combined the artistic styles of the East and West to forge a direction that was vastly different from any other artistic movement prevalent during this time.
The final phase of colonial rule in India saw many attempts by artists to merge the artistic traditions of European schools with the age-old traditions, themes and practices of Indian art. One of the most significant artists from this time, Raja Ravi Varma was known for incorporating oil as a medium and adopting European naturalism and realism to portray distinctly Indian mythological themes.
The movement towards India’s independence from colonial rule urged artists to launch a new style of art that accommodated the changing social, political and cultural conditions of the country. For Jamini Roy, this meant seeking a new aesthetic style that reflected his cultural roots and fulfilled his need for a more personal artistic identity. He went on to introduce a new style of modern painting that celebrated and preserved the country’s regional artistic traditions, particularly Kalighat patuas, while simultaneously reconceptualising them to adapt to the changing times.
Modern Art in Independent India
The year 1947, when India gained her independence, also welcomed the launch of one of the most influential artistic alliances in India: the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. Initiated by artists S H Raza, F N Souza, K H Ara, M F Husain, H A Gade and S K Bakre, the group went on to lead the modern art movement in India. Although most of these artists began with a formal training in traditional realistic painting, capturing urban scenes, landscapes and still life through their art, the post-Independence era encouraged them to reach beyond the scope of European Realism and the Revivalist movements of the early 20th century. While the immediate response to their entry in the art world was shock and aversion, their presence was met with national and international respect, recognition and admiration in the years that followed.
The 1960s were a period of great artistic experimentation and discovery. Increased exposure to European and American modern art movements, as well as a renewed interest in the imagery of classical and regional Indian art, aided the artists of modern India – such as Ram Kumar, Prabhakhar Barwe, M F Husain, S H Raza as well as the other Progressives – to develop their own independent styles that eventually came to define their careers.
During this period, artist Ram Kumar moved from figurative works to an increasingly abstract renderings of cities and landscapes, whereas M F Husain developed an artistic style that efficiently brought together European modern art traditions and classical Indian forms, subjects and motifs. For S H Raza, the ‘60s were a key period of experimentation, aided by his exposure to the works of American Abstract Expressionists, whereas for Prabhakar Barwe, it was a period when he delved into the genres of Pop Art as well as Tantric philosophy and its imagery.
While many of the modernists were settling into their own unique artistic style and identity, artists such as Jagdish Swaminathan and Bhupen Khakhar were still in the early stages of their career during the ‘60s. Swaminathan, who was concerned with the creation of a truly Indian modern art that was developed by turning inward, explored and adopted the symbology of ancient cave paintings and the nation’s age-old indigenous art during this period. Meanwhile, Khakhar, who had just moved to Baroda from Bombay, would create an iconic style that featured elements of Hindu symbolism and elements of the Baroda School in formats that were inspired by Western Pop Art.
Late 20th Century
The latter half of the 20th century saw Indian artists experimenting with diverse mediums, techniques and disciplines, as one can see in the works of Himmat Shah whose sculptures were made from materials as wide as brick, cement, plaster as well as terracotta and bronze. Despite their differences in medium, the majority of art produced in this period of Indian history were connected by a similar purpose – an examination of life in the modern age.
From exploring the aftermaths of the Partition of India to examining the contemporary struggles of migrants, refugees and the destitute, art became deeply relevant, conceptual and heavy in metaphors alluding to matters of social significance. These qualities are demonstrated in Krishen Khanna’s bandwallah series as well as Zarina Hashmi’s semi-abstract woodcut and intaglio prints.
“The history of art is the history of revivals.” These words by British novelist Samuel Butler powerfully resonate with the evolution of Indian art. Since its ancient beginnings, a plethora of artistic traditions and movements have prospered in the subcontinent, each reflecting the distinctive and diverse political, cultural and social influences of the period from which they were conceived. Nevertheless, as seen in this brief journey through India’s rich artistic past, these multiple independent aesthetic movements bear many similarities despite their differences in time, geographic origins, and socio-political circumstances. From the influence of the Ajanta frescoes and Mughal miniature on the Early Bengal School of Art, to Himmat Shah’s sculptures that were inspired by the prehistoric masterpieces of the Indus Valley Civilisation, Indian art has frequently touched upon the past when directing the future.