Post-Classical Indian Painting
Gujarat Illuminated Manuscripts, Vijayanagar Murals at Lepakshi.

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Devananda's Fourteen Auspicious
Dreams of the Brahmani Devananda.
Illustration from a Kalpasutra
Manuscript (c.1465) Gujarat, India.

Post-Classical Indian Painting
(14th-16th Century)


Vijayanagar Painting (1336-1565)
Gujarat Illuminated Manuscripts (12th to 16th Century)
Illustrations from Mewar and Malva (15th and 16th Century)
Hindu Art in Orissa (16th-17th Century)

• For a short guide to the art of the Indian sub-continent,
please see: India: Art of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture.

• For more detailed articles, see: Classical Indian Painting (Up to 1150 CE), Mughal Painting (16th-19th century), Rajput Painting (16th-19th century) and Indian Sculpture (3300 BCE - 1850).

Illustration from a Kalpasutra
manuscript showing women of the
royal court celebrating the sixth
night after the birth of Mahavira.
(c.1490) Gujarat, Western India.

Bhimbetka Petroglyphs at
the Auditorium and Daraki
Chattan rock shelters.
Cupule Art in the Madhya
Pradesh region of India.
For information on India's
and Pakistan's first great
Neolithic culture, see:
Indus Valley Civilization
(3,300-1300 BCE).


In the 11th century Moslems of Turk-Afghan origin entered the Upper Punjab through the north-western passes and a hundred years later had established themselves in the northern Deccan. The Islamic infiltration meant the disruption of traditional Indian society and the end of the classical period in art and culture. The unsettled condition of the Indian communities in the north precluded the development of painting on a large scale, although a school of miniature painting was founded which bridged the gap between the mural-painting of the classical period and the Rajput miniatures. In the south a group of Deccan princes came together to found Vijayanagar, the last Indian empire, which was to become a centre of refuge for Hindu culture. The rest of the subcontinent fell back into the kind of provincialism which all the past empires had struggled against. The brilliance of Indian classicism, which had brought unity to painting, was ended, and from now on art developed only in the sheltered atmosphere of the provinces. Different schools began to solve their artistic problems on their own and with their own special methods. This isolation encouraged the addition of local elements which changed the traditional cultural and religious forms and led to a more popular expression of thought and belief.

To see how post-classical Indian painting fits into the evolution of art in Asia, please see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).

Vijayanagar Painting (1336-1565)

Confronted by the victorious entry of the Moslems into the Deccan the southern kingdoms made a political truce and together founded, in 1336, an empire which took its name from the capital, Vijayanagar ("City of Victory"). For more than two hundred years, despite a constant succession of wars against neighbouring sultans, the empire was able to remain independent. Even after its defeat its unique culture was preserved. When the Moslem states united and ended their resistance in 1565 the capital was pillaged and burned but punitive raids were not carried out further south. By this time their long years of contact with Hindu civilisation had made them less harsh, less fanatical. To the south of the Deccan, Indian art was able to develop without any hindrance, producing beautiful, vigorous works right into the 19th century.

The "City of Victory" was spread over several square miles on a bend of the Tungabhadra River, and its past greatness is reflected in the ruins. It is the only archeological site which provides important examples of Indian civic architecture of the day. Once again, alas, all the paintings which decorated the houses, palaces and temples of this immense metropolis - highly praised by all contemporary travellers - have disappeared.

The only surviving frescoes which are of the same style date from 1535 and cover the ceiling of the cathedral hall of the great temple of Lepakshi. They are scenes devoted to the god Shiva. The charcoal drawings show great skill, particularly in details, but the overall effect is not so happy. The sense of movement is stiff, sometimes clumsy. There is, however, no lack of elegance and from time to time the painting shows brilliant spontaneity. While the conception is somewhat arid there is a degree of sharpness of observation. Here stylisation, at all events, triumphs. The artist has been able to give an illusion of volume through his drawing but makes no attempt at a three-dimensional effect. All the faces are shown in profile, with their prominent pointed noses and "fish-eyes", without eyelids. The other eye is shown, projecting from the forehead, giving the impression of a strange three-quarter profile. These same characteristics are also found in illuminated works from Western India. The colours are few but very fine, a reminder that Southern India is rich in colour pigments of all kinds. Apart from greens and brown ochres the painters at Lepakshi subtly vary the use of dominant colours. A formal design, depicting young maidens at a festival, marvellously illustrates the beauty of the southern women, with their sumptuous saris, jewels on their brows and their heads bare, revealing long black tresses. Lepakshi provides a last glimpse of classical painting.

After the collapse of Vijayanagar, the empire disintegrated, although its cultural influence was still found in later works in Southern India, particularly the colourful, though rather bald, scenes depicted in the temples at Anegundi (17th century) and at Tiruparutikundram, and the rich, brightly hued, decorative effects of Cochin and Travancore paintings.

NOTE: For examples of the finest architecture in Asia and SE Asia, please see: Angkor Wat Khmer Temple, (Cambodia); Kandariya Mahadeva Temple (Khajuraho, India); and Taj Mahal (Uttar Pradesh, India).


Gujarat Illuminated Manuscripts (12th to 16th Century)

Gujarat, south of Rajastan, is one of India's richest provinces. Rivers water its fertile valleys and there are good ports which, even from the beginning of the Christian era, were in commercial contact with Persia and Europe. The important merchant class which grew up there were all followers of Jainism. From the 10th until the 13th centuries Gujarat was ruled by the Chalukyas and underwent a period of great prosperity which the Moslem conquest of 1299 did nothing to interrupt. The Gujarati were arms manufacturers and bankers and managed to control the commerce of the region. This enabled the province to keep a certain independence in the face of the Islamic threat and moreover to maintain the old artistic traditions.

However, with the constant threat of plundering Moslems the painters sought a means of expression which would be less unwieldy and easily preserved: book illustration fulfilled both conditions. Moreover Jainism attributes a great prestige to the written word, and all good believers knew that the ordering of a holy book would bring them one step closer to salvation. In this way a great quantity of illuminated manuscripts were produced, mostly kalpasutras, holy texts of the Jainist faith which enumerate sacrifices and regulate rituals, and Lives of the Saints. Several of them have come down to us. The oldest, from the 12th and 13th centuries, were executed, like Pali manuscripts, on palm leaves; the greater part of the surface is devoted to scrupulously executed writing while illustration is restricted to a small frame in which one or two figures are outlined in a narrow, angular fashion, against a red background. There is absolutely no realism in these paintings. The poses are quite conventional, but they have a strength and nobility and a tremendous intensity. The other colours used are blue, yellow and green. The faces mostly appear in profile and have pointed noses, extremely exaggerated lidless eyes on the near side, with the other projecting to the front like the Lepakshi faces.

From the 14th century the introduction of paper modified the format of the manuscripts. They became larger, and as greater space was devoted to illustration the painter was able to add more detail to his work, including decoration, architectural elements and plants. The drawing was even more stylised and complex and lost none of its extraordinary precision. Friezes edge the pages as well as the texts, with various motifs such as animals, flowers and arabesques, which hint at the influence of Persian art from the west. Gold and silver were used, adding extra lustre to the writing as well as the painting and giving a sumptuous effect to the whole. However, since its primary aim was to illustrate the holy texts, Jain painting remained essentially narrative and was intellectual rather than aesthetic in conception.

Apart from the kalpasutras and other holy works, it is to the Gujarat school that we owe the oldest of all secular manuscripts, the Vasanta-Vilasa, which is a description of springtime by a husband very much in love with his young wife. This 15th-century manuscript leads on naturally to the early Mewar illustrations, which depict the mystic, springtime loves of the great god Krishna, and the literature and painting devoted to love which nourished during the following centuries.

Illustrations from Mewar and Malva (15th and 16th Century)

In the 14th century Timur (1336-1405), King of Transoxiana, raided Delhi, leaving the city in ruins, and Northern India divided among a number of sultanates all of which struggled to achieve hegemony. Malva was one of these, and played no mean role in the history of Indian miniature painting. At the same time the small principalities of the Punjab and Rajastan took advantage of the political situation; a Rajput family of the Sisodiya clan in this way succeeded in maintaining the independence of the state of Mewar for a time.

Mewar knew two centuries of prosperity despite the internecine warfare. This was due to the enlightened outlook of its monarchs, the Sisodiyas, who patronised the arts and made their court the centre of the new Western Indian school. The first known work is a manuscript, written on paper, which dates from the beginning of the 15th century; for the first time we have full-page illustrations. Around 1500 there followed a series of six manuscripts which confirmed the originality of the new style. They include two Vaghavata-Puranas, one Gita-Govinda (dramatic poem) and a Chaurapanchasika (a love poem) of the 12th century by the Sanskrit poet, Bilhana. The quality of the latter work is such that the name of the book has been given, by extension, to the whole of this small group of paintings. On the whole they are devoted to Krishna and to love, and the illustrations, freed from the restricting form of the manuscript, show a tremendous wealth of inspiration. The painter broke with any ideas of the past which did not suit the spirit of the present. It is true that they still owe something to the paintings of Lepakshi and to the Jain miniatures, but while at Vijayanagar we saw a decaying classicism and at Gujarat a dependence on static, unadventurous tradition, the Mewar creations have an air of extraordinary freshness. One has the impression that the artist achieved a freedom of form and colour not known before. Against a background of midnight blue, dark reds and greens applied mat on to the surface and sometimes broken up by stylised architectural elements, we have schematic silhouettes of figures. Women wear brilliant skirts and bodices, their heads and bosoms draped in orhni, transparent stoles which are a pretext for the most ravishing painted arabesques. Despite a somewhat hieratic style of figure painting, the figures are full of spontaneity and fantasy. There is a certain naturalism again in the close observation of men and nature. The works are bathed in an atmosphere of lyrical tension.

In 1436 an independent Moslem dynasty was founded at Malva with its capital at Mandu. The rulers scorned the arts for themselves but tolerated local artistic activity. A kalpasutra, on paper, was copied and illustrated at Mandu in 1439. The style is Gujarat but there is a greater subtlety in the composition details and a richness of composition, with different episodes of the same scene placed side by side in the same picture but separated by delicate frames. This idea of absorbing the narrative at a single glance is repeated in the miniatures of Malva and Mewar in the 17th century. The fact that Islamic art had very little influence on Indian painting before the Mughal period can be explained by the fact that the first Moslem invaders, great builders as they were, inspired by the grandeur of Seljukid Persia, had no painting tradition behind them. For a long time the works of the Persian miniaturist school of painting were unknown in the Indian sultanates although by the 15th century some influence was being felt. In the 16th century a Book of Recipes (Nimat-Nameh) was commissioned by a Malva sultan who, it was said, renounced all the responsibilities of government in order to devote himself entirely to the education of his sixteen thousand wives. There is clearly some Persian inspiration in the backgrounds, dotted with little bunches of flowers, in the clothes and in the figures, shown semi-profile with slit eyes. But the representation of the women, in profile, with their rounded cheeks, pointed noses and wide-open eyes is purely Indian. This work is the only example we have from the pre-Mughal period; along with the kalpasutra of Mandu it proves the existence, in Malva, of an artistic growth which was to have an important effect two hundred years later.

Hindu Art in Orissa (16th-17th Century)

While most of the Orissa paintings date from the 17th and 18th centuries they should be included in the pre-Mughal period, since the influence of the Delhi school on the development of religious art in this traditional bastion of Hindu culture was practically negligible.

From the 7th until the 13th centuries there was a rich output of art in Orissa. Its style was powerful and voluptuous and the temples of Buvaneshvara, Puri and Konarak are marvellous examples. Once more, however, the wall-paintings have disappeared, destroyed by the weather or concealed under later paintings in the great sanctuaries which are still in use. Nevertheless we have some idea of the nature of this fresco painting, thanks to the recent discovery of a few paintings dating from the second half of the 16th century. Their originality and the high technical quality of the work presuppose an advanced painting tradition. They can be seen today in the Asutosh Museum in Calcutta, sheets of well-sized paper, mounted on material. The most famous of them depicts an embassy of Moslem dignitaries at the court of the king of Orissa. The scene is monumental in composition and it can easily be imagined fastened to a wall. The colours - reds, blues and greens - are rich and cleverly balanced. The drawing is skilful, and carefully brings out the individual characteristics of each figure. Included in this collection are four pages of the Gita-Govinda, also painted on paper, which are of exceptional quality. They are divided into two bands; the draped gopis wear saris of such transparency that one is very much aware of their bare flesh as they wait on the moonlit banks of the Jamuna for their divine cowherd. The brush-strokes finely and sensitively wrap the young maidens in spiders' webs. In just the same way the wispy trees surrounding them are painted with just that delicate and precise touch to bring out their essential form. Does and peacocks, finely observed, play at their feet. This restrained, elegant, allusive painting owes little to the paintings of Vijayanagar or the Western Indian style. It seems more likely that it is the final flowering of an art associated with the great Orissa wall paintings: it also recalls especially the sculpture of Konarak.

After this dazzling flash of brilliance the illustrations of the following centuries are something of an anti-climax. The figures become heavy, the composition arid, with a multitude of decorative twirls reducing the pictorial space to nothing. They resemble in many ways the wall-paintings of Southern India in the 18th and 19th centuries. The paintings, on the whole, have an undeniably sensual and exotic effect; but the stereotyped illustrations belong to folk imagery, nothing more, and are not great works of art. In the 17th century wallpapers were produced which seemed to have taken their inspiration from Persia and Europe. See also: History of Illuminated Manuscripts (600-1200).

More about Art in Asia

For more information about painting, sculpture and architecture and other forms of Asian art, please see the following articles:

Chinese Painting
Characteristics and aesthetics.

Chinese Painters (c.220-present)
Chronological list of selected artists.

Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards)
Characteristics, history, development.

Japanese Art (c.14,500 BCE - 1900)
Guide to the arts & crafts of Japan.

Chinese Lacquerware (4,500 BCE onwards)
Characteristics and history.

Chinese Porcelain (c.100-1800)
Manufacture, types and styles.

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