Indian Art: History, Types & Styles

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  • 0:04 Indian Art
  • 0:41 History
  • 2:53 Types & Styles
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, we'll explore the interesting art history of the Indian subcontinent, from the earliest cave art to modern examples. We'll examine architecture, paintings, and sculptures and discover the main features of these works.

Indian Art

India has a rich and complex history spanning thousands of years. India was the only major Asian culture known to be visited by the ancient Greeks and Romans and has caused fascination as an exotic and mysterious land ever since. Such an image developed partly in thanks to its exuberant and unique art.

Indian art is a term used in art history to group and study the different artistic expressions created in the historical regions of the Indian subcontinent, including modern-day India, Bangladesh, and areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It covers several art forms, historical periods, and influences.

History

Archaeologists have found evidence of prehistoric rock art in India, an early art form consisting of carvings or drawings on cave rocks. The oldest examples are the Bhimbetka petroglyphs found in central India and believed to be at least 290,000 years old. Rock art continued to be created as cave paintings, representing animals and humans. The oldest examples of these paintings date from about 7000 BCE.

Cave paintings in the Bhimbetka archeological site (c. 7,000 BCE)
Cave paintings

The people of the Indus valley civilization on the border of modern India and Pakistan produced the earliest known Indian art sculptures, from between 2500 and 1800 BCE. They were small terracotta and bronze figures depicting animals and humans, like cows, monkeys, and dancing positions.

Buddhism originated in India at some point in the 6th century BCE. Religious artists made sculpture pieces, including stone and bronze. They also produced magnificent examples of Indian cave art, with entire temples being carved in stone and decorated with Greek-influenced columns and sculptures. By the 5th century CE, sculpture was a common practice among Indian Buddhists and Hindus.

Hinduism continued to be the focus of art creation for centuries, sculptures of Shiva and other deities, and huge stone temples like the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, built in the 11th century in northern India.

Islam gradually gained importance in India and under the Mughal Empire, established in the 16th century. Art creation grew under the sponsor of the Islamic rulers, and it's during this time that the Taj Mahal was built. Arts flourished, and many buildings and art pieces were created.

The Taj Mahal (17th century) is a landmark of Mughal architecture
Taj Mahal

India became a British colony in the 19th century, which had a big impact on art. The British established art schools that promoted European styles, and back in Europe people demanded Indian objects. This resulted in local artistic traditions merging with foreign influences. A romanticized Indian style developed, which exaggerated traditional ornaments to please the European buyers.

Shakuntala, a painting by Raja Ravi Varma (19th century)
Shakuntala

After India's independence in 1947, artists have searched for new styles. Contemporary Indian art has been international in scope and very experimental, but it still incorporates references to the long and rich artistic history of the country.

Types & Styles

Traditional Indian art usually had a religious character and Buddhism, Hinduism, and later Islam, have been a common theme throughout the centuries. The pieces often feature mythological, human, and animal forms and had elaborate ornaments. Unlike other areas influenced by Islam, Indian art didn't abandon figurative representations.

Architecture focused mostly on religious buildings. Many Hindu temples featured very distinctive towers in the form of truncated pyramids and had elaborate ornamentation with hundreds of sculptures. However, many were later destroyed under Muslim rule, among other things, because of their erotic decorations.

Pattadakal Temple, c. 8th century
Pattadakal Temple

Mughal architecture incorporated many Islamic elements. Arches and domes became common, and the decoration was full of geometric patterns and stylized flowers.

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