Demystifying South Asian Art and Culture with Special Reference to India

Shankara Ragaputra of Megh Raga, Sub-imperial Mughal | Source: Christie's

In 1947, the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. About two decades later the eastern segment of Pakistan was declared independent and became what is known today as Bangladesh. Although the essay focuses on Indian art (pre-historic and historic), at no point does it invalidate the shared cultural and artistic traditions of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — as the influences of the other two countries greatly impacts Indian art.[1]

What is Indian art? Indian art, according to Coomaraswamy and dated back to at least to the BCE 2nd century, is very different from modern art. “It is the statement of a racial experience, and serves the purposes of life.” Simply, art in India means paintings, sculptures, architecture and a wide variety of artifacts such as potteries, jewellery, toys, and utensils.[5]

In colonial and Indian historiography, Indian art has often been misunderstood, demeaned and read as a gendered discourse. It is especially in the writings of James Mill, Hegel, Alexander Cunningham that a negative imagery of Indian art of the last few centuries is projected. The authors gendered Indian art as feminine, marginalising its status through suggesting it to be obscene, derogatory, conceptually obsolete and static.[6] Mysteriousness and ‘monstrosities’[7] were also attributed. Finally, it was dismissed as fine arts. However, the writings of A.K. Coomaraswamy act as a counter-discourse, imparting new meaning and superior status to Indian art — one which was rational, conceptual, creative and ‘masculine’.

Our earliest knowledge of Indian art is acquired from over 150 Mesolithic[8] rock-cut painting sites spread across the Indian subcontinent. Mostly in white, red or both, these paintings depict a wide variety of themes: different species of animals, hunting and gathering, fishing and food preparation. Mostly concentrated in central India — at the sites of Bhimbetka, Jaora, Kathotia, Lakhajoar and Kharwar — these paintings provide essential insights into the lives of Mesolithic communities.[9] There is no one answer as to why prehistoric people engaged in such artistic pursuits.

The array of non-sectarian art continued in the Indus Valley Civilisation. A great variety of pottery with distinctive colours, shapes, and designs like black-on-red, black-and-red, grey and buff wares, shaped in forms such as dishes on stands, cylindrical perforated jars, goblets large slender-footed bowls and decorated with simple lines, geometric and pictorial patterns, were produced.[10]

A plethora of terracotta objects also characterised the art of Harappa or Indus culture. These included figurines of animals such as the humped bulls, unicorns, toy carts, bangles and numerous female figurines erroneously classified as ‘Mother goddess’ figurines.[11] The classification is erroneous because the ‘cultic’ and ‘spiritual’ significance of these female figurines is not known.[12]

A discussion about pre-historic art would be incomplete without the mention of numerous engraved steatite seals, jewellery, and a bronze statue of the ‘dancing girl’ and ‘priest king’ from the Indus Valley culture that reveals a long-standing tradition of art activity in the region.

The non-sectarian nature of Indian art came to an end in the historic period, an age marked by the advent of powerful ruling houses and the development of Buddhism and purāṇic pantheons in the subcontinent. Art was no longer trivialised as decorative or ‘art for art’s sake’ but was strongly aligned with the political ideology and religious inclination of the sovereign.[13]

Art of the early historic period (3rd century BCE onwards) chiefly constituted Buddhist sculptures and monuments in the enduring material. The lustrous-monolithic Chunar sandstone pillars with animal capitals,

Furthermore, the emergence of Gandhara and Mathura schools of art (roughly between the 1st and 5th century CE) marked a watershed in the history of Indian sculptures. While the Gandhara school flourished in the north-western frontiers of the Indian subcontinent (Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kashmir) and revealed Graeco-Roman influence, the entirely indigefnous Mathura school thrived in the region of Mathura (in western Uttar Pradesh). Although different in style, the two centres mastered the production of Buddha, Bodhisattvas and jatakas. The influence of Mathura school lasted longer in India. The best examples are sculptures from Sanci, Bharhut and Besnagar.[15]

Simultaneously, with the growing popularity of Hinduism and genesis of Jainism, temple building activity proliferated in the subcontinent. Sculptures lost their individuality and became part of the broader iconographic programme of the temples. In North India, temples in stone may be traced back to the 5th century CE. The earliest shrines were in the form of caves, seen at Udayagiri. It was only by the 6th or 7th century CE that a definite Nāgara (Northern) idiom evolved.[16] In South India, temples in durable material came later. It may be dated to the 7th century CE. The earliest examples include the monolithic temple models from Mahabalipuram (in Tamil Nadu) that became the standard Draviḍian (Southern) temple idiom.

Various regional temple forms began taking shape by the 6th century CE. These distinct architectural forms gradually became a “formula” that came to be associated with a particular region. For instance, the Rekhā deul-style came to be associated with the temples of Odisha, the Śekhari-style with the temples of Madhya Pradesh, the Phaṁsanā-style with the temples of Kashmir, the Karnāṭa-Draviḍa style with the temples of Karnataka and Andhra, and Draviḍian-style with the temples of Tamil Nadu.

The highly evolved tradition of temple building continued until the Islamic invasion in the medieval period (12th/13th century CE). At that point, a rich tradition of painting and Islamic architecture engulfed the Indian subcontinent for a few centuries.


[1] Mitter (2001:7)

[2] Coomaraswamy (2008:xi)

[3] Mitter (2007:9)

[4] Coomaraswamy (2008:xii)

[5] Mitter (2007:8)

[6] Garimell (1997:22-41)

[7] “The many heads and multiple arms of divinities, animal-headed gods, explicitly sexual scenes on temple walls, and such other representations evoked several derogatory responses to Indian art”. See, Dhar (2011:4). For a detailed account on the subject see, Mitter (1977).

[8] The term Mesolithic is used for Holocene hunting-gathering cultures characterised by the use of microliths.

[9] Singh (2013:89-93)

[10] Ibid, 158-59

[11] Ibid, 160 & 171

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid, 356

[14] Elephant capital at Sankissa, lion capital at Vaishali and Sarnath, Bull capital at Rampurva etc.

[15] Singh (2013:464)

[16] Meister (1988-89:254)


Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. 2008(1969). Introduction to Indian Art. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Dhar, Parul Pandya, ed., 2011. “A History of Art History: The Indian Context”. In Indian Art History: Changing Perspectives, 1-23. New Delhi: D.K. Print World.

Garimella, Annapurna. 1997. “Engendering Indian Art”. In Representing the Body: Gender Issues in Indian Art, 21-44. New Delhi: Pauls Press.

Meister, Michael W. 1988-89. “Prāsāda as Palace: Kūṭina Origins of Nāgra Temple”, Artibus Asiae, Vol. 49, No. 3/4: 254-80.

Mitter, Partha. 1977. Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reaction to Indian Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

————(2001). Indian Art. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Singh, Upinder. 2013(2009). A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India. New Delhi: Pearson

Deepak Jain is currently serving as a Contributor in Synergy.

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