Though evolution, maturity & refinement of Indian art is a continuous process but, for ease of understanding & distinguishing significant changes over a period, the Indian art has been segmented into several heads. In the present article, the description of Indian art is confined to architecture, sculpture and painting as evidenced in the buildings of the periods concerned. The school of styles of Indian art as known by actual remains may be classified as follows…..
a. Pre-Buddhist art
b. Early Buddhist art (300 B.C. to 50 A.D.)
c. Kushan or Graeco Buddhist art (50 to 320 A.D.)
d. Gupta art (320 to 600 A.D.)
e. Classical Indian art (600 to 850 A.D.)
f. Medieval art (800 to 1800 A.D.)
g. Modern art (1800 A.D. onwards )
One may observe that the above classifications are not rigid and there is overlapping. It is only a pointer. Further the non- sectarian character of the styles of Indian art must be recognized so that it is only by special details that one can distinguish Jain from Buddhist stupas or Buddhist from Hindu sculpture. All our artists have ever desired to make themselves a channel for the passage of ideas from a divine world to this physical earth, and all equally regarded personal and discrete intellectual activity as incompatible with the apprehension of remote truth. This process of intuition is the exact reverse of the modern theory which considers a conscious self- expression as the proper aim of art.
Pre-Buddhist Art: Hindu art is not found during the period of the Vedas and the Upanisads probably because of the perish-ability of the medium or because of absence of idol-worship. The art found in the Indus Valley is fed on elements and materials of popular religion and folklore. The Indus-art was represented by large towns, many seals, sculpture, poetry, jewels and figurines. The art of the Indus civilization was also utilitarian represented by baths and granaries, for instance.
In Pre-Buddhist era, paintings on rocks have been found in large number. Paintings on rocks have been found in the central plateau of the country as for instance in the Son Valley in Mirzapur (U.P.), Manikpur and its neighborhood (Banda, U.P.) Singhanpur, Kabra Pahar, Hoshangabad and Panchmarhi (Madhya Pradesh). The paintings depict hunting scenes, pastoral life and dancing. Further the primitive art was concerned with worshipping the deities like the Yakshas, Nagas and feminine deities signifying powers of fertility, South India furnishes us with examples of these and of the worship of mother goddess. The popular gods are generally spirits of the Earth and of mountains, such as shown in the sculpture at Bharhut. The cult of Yakshas (a divine being in the service of Kuber, god of wealth) led to its artistic expression in the construction of detached statues of the deity worshipped and are found, for instance, in Mathura, Baroda and Besanagar. This popular art was the precursor of the art of the cultured classes, attaining its first great development in the time of Ashoka and is seen at its best in his pillars.
Early Buddhist Art: The early Buddhist Art is reflected in religious monuments. These monuments can broadly be categorized into two kinds – the rock-cut & structural. The structural architectures comprise two of principal varieties – the stupa & the temple. A very unique aspect of the early Buddhist art is that there is no representation of Buddha himself. It means, the images of Lord Buddha himself are missing in sculptures & paintings. Rather, Buddha is represented by the symbols like footprints. There are numerous examples of stupa in Sanchi, Sarnath, Bharhut, Taxila, Amravati and Nagarjunkonda; of rock-cut architecture in Barabar and Nagarjuni hills in Bihar, Bhaja, Bedsa, Elephanta, Ajanta and Ellora in Western India, Mahabalipuram, Undavalli and Bhairavakonda in Southern India while those of the temple are found in Sanchi, Besanagar, Taxila, Deogarh, Bhitargaon, Badami, Bodhgaya and Nalanda. But the earliest examples are only in Sanchi, Bodhgaya, Mathura, Amravati and Bharhut. In this early development the greatest perfection is reached in the field of sculpture so that Marshall remarked that ‘Ashokan sculptures are masterpieces in point of both style and technique — the finest carving, indeed, that India has yet produced and unsurpassed, I venture to think by anything of their kind in the ancient world.’ The Ashokan pillars are masterly examples as for instance the Ashokan capital at Sarnath. The characteristics of the early Buddhist styles are the complete naturalism of its design with a distinct element of sensuousness, its wood-carving technique, and the general absence of foreign influences, except in a few details. The representation of animals is excellent.
Kushan or Graeco-Buddhist Art: In this phase, a controversy emerges as to how the Buddha statue developed, whether it was a foreign importation or an indigenous evolution. As per India’s culture through the ages Buddha was first represented by his relics, personal possessions and trees, then by his life and later through his material form. Both Mathura and Gandhara schools of art claim this honour and it may probably be the case that both developed this form simultaneously and independently and both the schools represent finished products and point to older beginnings. Further the Buddha with moustaches as in the Gandhara style is Greek and unthinkable in the Indian system where Buddha the Yogi reminds us of the Vedic conceptions. Also the Mathura style resembles the forms of divinities and Rishis as found in Bharhut. In coins also one can see the development of the Indian type as in those of Kadphises. Thus the Buddha image is Indian in both conception and origin and is fashioned strictly according to the iconographic or stylistic traditions exemplified and embodied in the older indigenous work. The Kushan art is to be found in Afghanistan, Mathura, Kashmir, Besanagar and Amravati. The Gandhara art is hybrid in which provincial Roman forms are adapted to the purposes of Indian imagery. Thus one finds Apollo as the prototype of Buddha. Mathura art is natural, direct and full of life.
Gupta Art: It is represented by sculpture and architecture as at Sarnath and Ajanta and pales off insensibly into the classical art. The art represents perfect harmonization of the different elements of the Indian art. The sculptural art of Gupta Age, rooted in fertile historical context and indigenous tradition, had been patronized by saints, monks, kings and merchants. The noble, calm and effervescent religiosity reflecting out of the sculptures of Gupta period is outcome of the unity of all spiritual experience. Sculpture has contributed most to the high esteem in which the Gupta art is held. The voluptuousness of the earlier art is modified by a balanced synthesis in accord with the moral sense of community. Nudity is eliminated. The inner spirit shines through the external form. This is exemplified in the Buddha images of the period, for example, the seated Buddha image from Sarnath, the standing Buddha in the Mathura museum and the colossal copper statue of Buddha, now in Birmingham museum. The spiritual expression, the tranquil smile and the serene contemplative mood show us the highest triumph of Indian art in the statue of Sarnath. Buddha is given in these statues beautiful curly hair, bands of graceful ornamentation and transparent drapery. Thus the Gupta art reveals the Indian genius in which spirituality is expressed in external forms with great grace, refinement and beauty.
The art of the Gupta period reveals the following chief characteristics. It is marked by refinement and restraint, signs of a highly developed cultural taste, and aesthetic enjoyment. Balance, freedom and elegance are properly combined. Secondly, there is worship of beauty but not at the cost of good taste. Beauty was the expression of the nobility of the soul within and could not be sullied by notions or feelings of sheer sensuousness. Thirdly, the Gupta art had great religious and spiritual appeal. The artists were shilpa-yogins, the monks who had dedicated their lives to higher things of life and gave their best by chiselling the stones. Fourthly, there is great simplicity of style combined with felicity of expression. The technique and the subject were blended in a harmonious whole. Thus the Gupta period gives us the Indian art at its best. Some mention is necessary of Ajanta which typifies in more senses than one, the Gupta art.
Classical Indian Art: It is represented by Ajanta, Ellora, Elephanta, Mahabalipuram and Borobodur. The classical style is marked by balance, harmony, suppleness and serenity. Ajanta is more Buddhist while Ellora is Brahmanic which according to some people is marked more by strength than by grace which is there in Ajanta. Also architecture and decoration are more developed. The best classical style is marked by supreme transparency, the movement of the spirit shines radiantly as in the statue of Siva in Kailash temple at Ellora and the gestures seem to express an eternal youth. Flesh and spirit are inseparable.
Medieval Art: In this phase one may distinguish between the Hindu buildings represented in the main by temples and the Muslim buildings represented in the main by mosques and mausoleums. There was also the development of Rajput and Moghul Schools of paintings. Further in the forts built during this period we have common developments. Also both in design and technique we find a Hindu-Muslim synthesis. The most important temples are to be found in Bhubaneswar, Puri, Konarak, Khajuraho, Gwalior, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Mount Abu, Patan, Modhera, Thana, Balsana, Pedgaon, Palitana, Vrindavan, Vishnupur, Baranagar, Mysore, Dharwar, Mahabalipuram, Kanchipuram, Tanjore, Tiruchirapalli, Chidambaram, Hampi, Rameshwaram and Madurai. The Muslim monuments have their finest representations in Delhi, Agra, Multan, Gour, Ahmadabad, Champaner, Dhar, Mandu, Jaunpur, Daultabad, Bijapur, Golkonda, Srinagar, Sasaram, Fatehpur Sikri, Allahabad, Ajmer, Aurangabad and Lucknow. The temple architecture in its best form is classical but after the fourteenth century it is overlaid by rigidity and ornamentation and in sculpture in the South there is a surrender to violence, frenzy, tension and exaggerated lines. One can also see splendid civil architecture like the Rajput palaces. These palaces crowning the summits of lofty crags or flat-topped hills, fortified on every side, or overlooking lakes or reservoirs, seem to be a living part of the soil on which they stand, and themselves have something of the grandeur and nobility of mountains. The most conspicuous features of detail are the curved overhanging cornices, the small domes, plain or ribbed, and the massive bastions of the larger buildings. The most prominent are in Chittorgarh, Gwalior, Amber, Jodhpur, Bikaner and Udaipur. The Muslim architecture is best represented by the Taj Mahal.
Modern Art: The modern period in its beginning saw the decline of crafts, of architecture, sculpture and painting. It is only in the last decade of the nineteenth century that we had a revival especially in painting now followed by a re-awakening in dancing and music. Architecture and sculpture are not much developed. The old designs continue. In the civil buildings, the Indians have now a tendency to copy the West. Still India has good architects (of classical school) as in Shantiniketan. In painting Bengal has taken the lead in the revival of Ajanta art. In other places besides the classical school we have a conscious imitation of the Western art. Governments’ schools of art and private bodies are also active in the matter. We have art collections in museums, by private bodies and individuals, there are art-Magazines like Marg (Bombay) and Journal of Oriental Art (Calcutta). Specimen of modern Indian architecture are to be found in Belur Math (Bengal), Birla Temple (Delhi), Hindu University (Varanasi), Glass Temple (Kanpur), Shantiniketan Buildings Bolpur and Victoria Memorial Calcutta, besides palaces in Rajputana.
Such, in outline, is the evolution of the Indian art. The ancient and the medieval represented the best elements. The present is still feelings its way.