Architecture, Painting, Sculpture: Art in South Asia
The earliest manifestations of local art probably consist of animal paintings on baked ceramic vases, discovered in the ruins of Harappa, in the Pendjab, and of Mohendodaro, in the Sind region, dating from 3,000 to 3,500 years BC. These paintings were executed with mineral paints and vegetables very similar to those still used today in various parts of South Asia.
Only with the Buddhist Maurya Empire did the first stone works appear, with a technique similar to that used for woodworking. Architecture also becomes more sophisticated and its aesthetic side gains new importance, suffering Persian influence. Shortly before the Christian era, some Indian orientations and styles were defined, always obeying, as still happens today, a certain rigidity of style.
The Art and the Castes
If in the early days artists were mainly from the Sudra caste, the lowest, the art came to be practiced by Indians of all castes, even by princes. The influence of Buddhist thought from the Maurya Empire, which did not accept the caste system, certainly contributed to this.
Ajanta and Elore
Some of the best preserved examples of paintings and sculptures in India are found inside a group of caves at Ajanta and Elora, 400km from Bombay. This type of art, before the Christian era, disappeared with the end of the Maurya empire.
Hindu culture also left a beautiful artistic legacy, especially in sculpture and architecture.
The Erotic Temples of Khajurao
From the 12th century AD there are very well preserved temples, which surprise foreigners due to their erotic reliefs (which contrast with the current conservatism of Indian society). These figures were inspired by Tantrism, a path to achieving Enlightenment.
The Muslim Presence
It had in the Indies had two aspects. On the one hand, the Arab invasions, with their religious fanaticism, were quite harmful to the arts, with the destruction of temples, the persecution of all kinds of non-Muslim art and the annihilation of Buddhism. On the other hand, the Mongols brought new values and an important artistic contribution, especially in architecture and painting on paper, with a cultural fusion occurring over time, to the point where one could speak of an Indo-Muslim art.
The Mongolian Domain
Under Mongolian rule, architecture lived its heyday in cities such as Agra, Delhi and Lahore (this one, today, belonging to Pakistan), with the construction of palaces, mosques and funerary monuments, such as the famous Taj Mahal. He developed a new style of painting on paper, of European influence, approaching worldly themes, generally linked to the activities of the nobility. Anyone familiar with medieval European illuminations will be surprised by the similarity between them and those found in ancient Indian books. Although old books with illuminations are, in principle, museum pieces, whose departure from the country is prohibited, single sheets are freely sold, as well as reproductions made in more recent periods.
A Journey Through Asian Contemporary Art
A Rich Heritage
The foreigner traveling in India today is surprised not only by the wealth of ancient monuments, temples, mosques, sculptures and paintings, but also by the country’s contemporary artistic production, in the domain of sculpture in wood, ivory and metal, and of painting on fabric or paper.
Some notions of this art are necessary to better understand it. One of its peculiarities is that traditional works of art are not signed, except, in very rare cases, by artists of European influence. The main reason, however, is religiously motivated: art is a gift emanating from God and the artist is only the source from which divine inspiration springs. This is also because, sometimes, the work is produced by a team of artists from different specialties. For this reason, many Westerners, accustomed to works of art, often in tawdry but always signed, tend to misclassify India’s rich and elaborate artistic production as “crafts”.
Art Linked to Traditional Motifs
It also happens that the Indian artist does not invent themes as he pleases, but works within traditional motifs linked to religion and obeying norms handed down from generation to generation. To understand them, the ideal is to face them in their religious context.
Buddhist art, born in the Indies, developed mainly in the far north of India and Nepal. The best example of this art are the tangkas (pronounce: “tancas”), which have as one of their main themes the so-called mandalas and the Buddha himself. Mandalas are religious symbols, circled around a square shape – the four walls of a sanctuary – with side openings representing exits to the four cardinal points. By the symmetry of its shape, the mandala is considered a symbol of harmonic unity and psychic integrity or, in Jungian jargon, of the self: Jung had his disciples draw mandalas. Used in meditation, they work as a kind of concentrator of energies. Tibetans say that those who focus on the mandala for five minutes a day never lose their lucidity.
There are tangkas that represent the Buddha himself, prominently, as the central character, usually seated on the sacred lotus flower, in a meditative position, among his disciples. The Buddha depicted in this type of work is slender, covered with the robes of monks and has his hair tied up in a bun on top of his head, surrounded by a halo. There are also tangkas with Hindu representations, usually deities with multiple arms.
In Hindu art, almost all painting is done on cotton of different textures or on silk. The artists’ favorite subjects are scenes from the life of Krishna, sometimes accompanied by his friend Arjuna or some of his worshipers in an attitude of offering or devotion.