A Soulful Perspective of Indian Art

“The highest business of Indian art has always been to describe something of the Self, of the soul, contrary to Western art, which either harps at the superficially beautiful or dwells at the vital-unconscious level.” (Sri Aurobindo. Foundations of Indian Culture) 

Indian art consists of diversified art forms. It includes painting, sculpture, pottery and textile arts like woven silk. It can be found all along the Indian subcontinent, including present Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and parts of Afghanistan. Indian art is strongly characterized by its sense of design which is evident in its modern and traditional forms.
The origin of Indian art can be traced to prehistoric settlements in the 3rd millennium BC. On its journey to modern times, Indian art has had cultural influences as well as the combination of religious traditions viz. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Islam. An attempt is initiated here to provide a glimpse on the varied art forms prevalent in India over time.

Rock Art
Rock art of India includes relief carvings on rocks, engravings and paintings. A survey estimates about 1300 rock art sites with over a quarter of a million figures and figurines. The earliest rock carvings in India were discovered by Archibald Carlleyle, twelve years before the Cave of Altamira in Spain. 
Several painted rock shelters were found in Central India, situated around the Vindhya mountain range. Of these, the 750 sites making up the Bhimbetka rock shelters have been enrolled as a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the earliest paintings are almost 10,000 years old. These paintings commonly show scenes of human life alongside animals and hunting with stone weapons. 

Indus Valley Civilization 
The Indus Valley civilization took no interest in public large-scale art. Several gold, terracotta and stone figurines of girls in dancing poses reveal the presence of dance forms. The terracotta figurines included cows, bears, monkeys, and dogs. The most common form of figurative art found are small carved seals ranging in size from 3⁄4 inch to 11⁄2 inches square. 
Seals have been found at Mohenjo-Daro depicting a figure standing on its head, and another on the Pashupati Seal, sitting cross-legged in a yoga-like pose. Part bull, part zebra with a majestic horn has always been a source of speculation. The most famous piece is the bronze Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro which shows remarkably advanced modeling of the human figure for this early date.

Mauryan Art 
The emperor Asoka adopted Buddhism about midway through his 40 year reign and patronized several large stupas at key sites from the life of the Buddha. However, very little decoration from the Mauryan period survives today. 
The famous detached Lion Capital of Asoka with four animals was adopted as the official Emblem of India after Indian independence. 
Many small popular terracotta figurines are recovered in archaeology, in a range of often vigorous and somewhat crude styles depicting both animals and human figures, usually females presumed to be deities.

Colossal Yaksha Statuary 
The Yakshas were the object of popular worship in the early periods of Indian history. They are broadly classified as nature-spirits, benevolent or mischievous and associated with water, fertility, trees, treasure and wilderness. 
Yakshas became the focus of the creation of colossal cultic images, typically around 2 meters or more in height. They are considered as probably the first Indian anthropomorphic productions in stone. The Yaksha statues are often pot-bellied, two-armed and fierce-looking. 
The female equivalent of the Yakshas was the Yakshinis with voluptuous figures associated with trees and children. Among the colossal Yaksha statues prevalent in several locations in northern India, the art of Mathura is considered as the most advanced in quality during this period.
Buddhist Art 
Buddhist art begin in the period after the Mauryans. Some key sites are Sanchi, Bharhut and Amravati. Stupas were surrounded by ceremonial fences with four profusely carved ‘torana’s or ornamental gateways facing the cardinal directions. These are in stone, though their clearly adopting forms are developed in wood. They and the walls of the stupa itself are heavily decorated with reliefs, mostly illustrating the lives of the Buddha. The caves at Ajanta, Karle, Bhaja and elsewhere contain early sculpture. 

Gupta Art
The Gupta period is generally regarded as a classic peak of north Indian art for all the major religious groups. Painting was widespread and still survives in the Ajanta Caves. Almost all the notable works are religious sculpture. The period saw the emergence of the iconic carved stone deity in Hindu art, as well as the Buddha-figure and Jain Tirthankar figures on a very large scale. The main centres of sculpture were Mathura Sarnath and Gandhara. The Gupta period marked the "golden age" of classical Hinduism and saw the earliest constructed Hindu temple architecture, though survivals are a few.
Temples of Khajuraho
The Khajuraho group of monuments has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was constructed by the Chandela clan of the Rajput dynasties. Other than the usual Hindu temples, 10% of the sculptures depict twisted bodies of men and women that reflect the day-to-day socio-cultural and religious practices in Medieval India. Ever since they were discovered, the degree of sexuality depicted in these sculptures has drawn both negative and positive criticism from scholars. 

Mughal Art
The Mughal Empire had emperors with a patronage for fine arts. Emperor Humayun, during his reestablishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1555, brought with him Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd al-Samad, two of the finest painters from Persia. 
During the reign of Akbar, the number of painters grew from around 30 to 130. According to the famous historian Abu'l-Fazal, Akbar was hands-on in his interest of the arts. He inspected his painters regularly and rewarded the best. The paintings of this time presented local Indian flora and fauna. Persian miniatures reflect the vibrancy and inclusion of Akbar's kingdom. 
Akbar’s son, Jahangir preferred each painter’s work on a single piece. An illustrated memoir of Jahangir, named Tuzuk-i Jahangiri was created under his rule. Jahangir was succeeded by Shah Jahan whose most notable architectural contribution is the Taj Mahal. Aurangzeb forcibly took the throne from his father Shah Jahan. With a ban on music and painting his reign saw the decline of Mughal patronage of the arts.

Bengal School of Art
The Bengal School of Art commonly referred as Bengal School, was an art movement and a style of Indian painting that originated in Bengal, primarily Kolkata and Shantiniketan. It flourished throughout the Indian subcontinent during the British Rule in the early 20th century. It was associated with Indian nationalism movement (swadeshi) and led by Abanindranath Tagore. Through the paintings of 'Bharat Mata', Abanindranath established the pattern of patriotism. 
Painters and artists of Bengal school were Nandalal Bose, M.A.R Chughtai, Sunayani Devi (sister of Abanindranath Tagore), Manishi Dey, Mukul Dey, Kalipada Ghoshal, Asit Kumar Haldar, Sudhir Khastgir etc. The school gained momentum with the mannered work of Raja Ravi Varma and his followers. Other artists of the Tagore family were Rabindranath Tagore and Gaganendranath Tagore. Many other artists like Jamini Roy and later S.H. Raza took inspiration from folk traditions. 

Contemporary Art
In 1947, India became independent of British rule. A group of six artists - K. H. Ara, S. K. Bakre, H. A. Gade, M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza and Francis Newton Souza - founded the Bombay Progressive Artists' Group in the year 1952, to establish new ways of expressing India in the post-colonial era. 
In spite of the group dissolving in 1956, its profound influence in changing the idiom of Indian art is beyond question. Present-day Indian art is varied as it had been never before. Among the best-known artists of the newer generation include Bose Krishnamachari, Ganesh Pyne, Bikash Bhattacharjee etc. 

India has such a rich cultural heritage of art that there is so much to explore for modern day Indian painters. Indian painters should cling to the essentials and that is the vision of the inner eye, the transcription, not of the religious, but of the spiritual and the occult. Only then the legacy shall carry on in the able hands of the intelligentsia of this diversified nation which in itself contains the essentials of global art form.

[References: Wikipedia and several web pages on Google]