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Evolution of Paintings in India, Types, Features, Examples

Indian paintings boast a venerable tradition deeply entrenched in the annals of Indian art history. Despite the challenging climatic conditions that have led to the scarcity of surviving early examples, paintings’ significance has endured across ancient, medieval, and modern epochs. The roots of Indian paintings extend back to prehistoric times, commencing with the ancient practice of cave paintings.

This rich heritage has evolved through various mediums, including ceramics, textiles, miniature paintings, and eventually finding expression in modern artistic forms. From the enigmatic cave art to the intricate details of miniature paintings, the trajectory of Indian painting reflects a profound journey through time, capturing the essence of the nation’s cultural and artistic evolution.

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Evolution of Paintings in India: Background

The earliest evidence of painting in India can be found in primitive rock paintings at sites like Bhimbetka, Mirzapur, and Panchmarhi. These paintings, dating back thousands of years, offer a glimpse into the artistic expressions of ancient communities.

Period Characteristics
Indus Valley Civilization
  •  Circa 3300–1300 BCE – Showcases painted ceramics
  • Symbolic meanings of designs not well understood
  • Represents an early form of artistic expression in the Indian subcontinent
Gupta Period
  •  4th to 6th centuries CE
  • Considered a golden age for Indian art
  • Origin and flourishing of painting
  • Emphasis on religious themes
  • Ajanta cave paintings exemplify exquisite artistry and narrative depictions
Medieval Period
  •  Emergence of Mughal and Rajput schools of painting
  • Mughal miniature paintings influenced by Persian art, depicting court scenes, portraits, and historical events
  • Rajput paintings reflect regional diversity with themes ranging from mythology to courtly love
Colonial and Modern Period
  •  Colonial era introduces European painting techniques
  • Raja Ravi Varma bridges traditional and modern styles, introducing realism and perspective
  • Bengal School in the early 20th century seeks to revive traditional Indian art forms and techniques
Contemporary Era
  •  Embraces a wide array of styles and mediums
  • Exploration of themes such as identity, globalization, and socio-political issues
  • Dynamic art scene with a fusion of traditional and modern elements

Throughout its history, Indian paintings have been shaped by religious, cultural, and social influences. Spiritual themes, symbolism, and a connection to ancient traditions remain integral to the vibrant tapestry of Indian art. The legacy of Indian paintings continues to evolve, reflecting the country’s rich cultural heritage.

Classification of Paintings in India

Indian paintings exhibit a diverse tapestry reflecting a rich cultural history. Murals, such as the intricate frescoes in Ajanta caves, convey religious narratives. Miniature paintings, a hallmark of the Mughal era, showcase meticulous details. Paintings on cloth, like Pattachitra and Kalamkari, blend storytelling with vibrant imagery. Tantra art delves into spiritual themes, while Rajput paintings highlight regional diversity with bold colours.

The Bengal School revives traditional forms, and contemporary Indian art explores identity and global issues. Despite climatic challenges, India’s art spans prehistoric rock paintings to modern expressions, weaving a colourful narrative through time and cultural influences.

Prehistoric Paintings

Prehistoric paintings, seen in locations such as the Bhimbetka Caves, Jogimara Caves, and Narsingarh Caves, provide a fascinating glimpse into ancient artistic expressions. These Petroglyphs, featuring diverse subjects and themes, span the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Chalcolithic periods, showcasing the evolving colours and sizes of prehistoric artworks.

Petroglyphs in Caves:

  • Early artworks created on cave rocks during prehistoric periods.
  • Known as Petroglyphs, these paintings showcase primitive artistic expressions.

Prominent Subjects:

  • Animals like elephants, rhinoceros, cattle, snakes, and deer.
  • Natural components such as vegetation are recurring themes.


  • Prehistoric paintings are categorized into Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Chalcolithic periods.

Pigment Minerals:

  • Ochre and geru are commonly used pigment minerals.
  • Various minerals of different colors contributed to the diverse palette.

Major Themes:

  • Group hunting scenes, grazing activities, riding sequences, and more.
  • Themes reflect the lifestyle and surroundings of ancient communities.

Evolution of Colors and Sizes:

  • Artworks showcase changes in colors and sizes over time.
  • Evolution reflects advancements or shifts in artistic techniques.

Examples of Sites:

  • Bhimbetka Caves in Madhya Pradesh.
  • Jogimara Caves in Chhattisgarh.
  • Narsingarh Caves in Madhya Pradesh.

Mural and Cave Paintings in India

Mural paintings in India, dating from the 10th century BC to the 10th century AD, are colossal artworks adorning walls and solid structures. Predominantly found in natural caves and rock-cut chambers, these expansive creations are too large for conventional canvases, contributing to their unique significance.

Major Themes: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism serve as major thematic elements in these murals, providing a visual narrative of religious and cultural tales.

Examples of Mural Paintings Locations

Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra

  • Significance: Sculpted in the 4th century AD from volcanic rocks.
  • Themes: Encompass human values, social fabric, Jataka stories, Buddha’s life, and intricate flora and fauna patterns.
  • Medium: Vegetable and mineral dyes.

Ellora Caves, Maharashtra

  • Period: From the 7th century AD.
  • Themes: Representations of Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism.
  • Notable Site: Kailasa temple with diverse religious artworks.

Bagh Caves, Madhya Pradesh

  • Connection to Ajanta School: An extension in design and ornamentation.
  • Characteristics: Neatly modelled figures, sharp contours, and terrestrial appearance.
  • Prominent Artwork: Rang Mahal in Cave No. 4 illustrating Buddhist and Jataka tales.

Armamalai Cave Paintings, Tamil Nadu

  • Transformation: Natural caves were converted into a Jain temple in the 8th century.
  • Subject: Depiction of Astathik Palakas and Jainism in vibrant murals.

Sittanavasal Cave (Arivar Koil) Paintings, Tamil Nadu

  • Resemblance to Ajanta and Bagh: Striking similarities in artistic style.
  • Coverage: Murals on walls, ceiling, and pillars.
  • Subject: Based on Jain Samavasarana theme.

Ravan Chhaya Rock Shelter, Odisha

  • Distinct Feature: Half-opened umbrella in ancient frescoes.
  • Historical Use: Likely a royal hunting lodge.
  • Remarkable Painting: Depicts a 7th-century royal procession.

Lepakshi Paintings, Andhra Pradesh

  • Timeline: 16th-century murals in Veerabhadra temple.
  • Period: Created during the Vijayanagara period.
  • Themes: Centred on Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Vishnu’s incarnations.

Jogimara Cave Paintings, Chhattisgarh

  • Timeline: Dates from approximately 1000-300 BC.
  • Features: Paintings and inscriptions in Brahmi script.
  • Content: Dancing couples, elephants, and fish are depicted with a strong red outline.

These mural paintings form an integral part of India’s artistic heritage, showcasing diverse themes, periods, and regional influences. From religious narratives to historical processions, each site offers a unique glimpse into the rich cultural tapestry of the country.

Miniature Paintings in India

Miniature paintings, known for their small size and intricate details, form a significant part of India’s artistic heritage. Developed primarily after the 11th century AD, these paintings exhibit unique features and underwent distinctive changes in different regions.

Common Characteristics

  • Small size with intricate details.
  • Human forms are depicted from the side with distinctive features like large eyes, narrow waists, and sharp noses.
  • Multiple colors and diverse bases are employed for each character.
  • Frequently painted on various surfaces, including paper, clothing, palm fronds, etc.
School/Region Period Features/Significance
Pala School of Art 750-1150 AD
  • Featured in manuscripts on palm leaf or vellum paper.
  • Prevalence of lonely single characters, rare group paintings.
  • Influenced by the Vajrayana school of Buddhism.
Apabhramsa School of Art 11th to 15th century
  • Jain religion prominent motif, later adopted by the Vaishnava School.
  • Main colors: red, yellow, and ochre with symbolic value.
Deccan Style of Painting 12th – 16th AD
  •  Flat application of colors, human figures outlined in black.
  • Faces viewed from a three-quarter angle, creating a detached look.
  • Landscapes with stylized trees, rocks, and non-naturalistic designs.
Delhi Sultanate 13th – 16th AD
  • Blend of Persian motifs and Indian traditional elements.
  • Preference for pictorial manuscripts, exemplified by the Nimatnama.
  • Fusion of indigenous and Persian styles.
Mughal Era 16th – 19th AD
  • Distinct style glorifying gods and depicting rulers’ lives.
  • Focus on hunting scenes, historical events, and court-related matters.
  • Fusion of Persian and Indian art styles.
Rajasthani Schools 17th – 19th AD
  • Synonymous with the Rajput School of Painting. – Influenced by Mughal court methods.
  • Presence of Mughal atelier painters in Bikaner, Jodhpur, or Kishangarh.
Pahari School 17th – 19th AD
  • Emerged in sub-Himalayan regions under Mughal rule.
  • Various schools grouped under ‘Pahari Paintings.’
South India 16th – 19th AD
  •  Well-established miniature painting practice in early medieval South India.
  • Distinctive use of gold, differentiating from North Indian schools.

The evolution of miniature paintings in India reflects diverse regional influences, religious motifs, and cultural nuances, showcasing the richness and variety of this intricate art form.

Folk Paintings in India

Folk paintings, the visual manifestations crafted by local artists, often draw inspiration from epics such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Bhagavata Purana. Additionally, these vibrant artworks depict scenes from everyday village life, showcasing the activities, customs, and rituals unique to the community.

Birds and animals, integral to rural landscapes, find their place in these paintings, contributing to a rich tapestry of rural existence. Furthermore, natural elements like the sun, moon, plants, and trees become subjects of artistic expression, reflecting a deep connection between folk artists and the natural world in their visual narratives.

Folk Painting Region Features/Significance
Madhubani Paintings Bihar
  • Common theme inspired by Hindu religious motifs like Krishna, Rama, Durga, Lakshmi, and Shiva.
  • Traditionally painted on walls with rice paste and vegetable colors on a base of cow dung and mud.
Pattachitra Odisha
  • Base treated with cotton, colors made from natural material.
  • Outlines drawn with a brush in red or yellow, filled in with colors.
  • Based on Jagannath and Vaishnava religions.
Patua Art Bengal
  • Painted on pats or scrolls; patuas travel to towns singing stories for food or money.
  • Traditionally on fabric, depicting religious stories.
Kalighat Painting West Bengal
  • Originally represented religious themes, evolved to depict changing social attitudes.
  • Expresses subaltern sentiments and directly addresses buyers.
Paitkar Painting Jharkhand
  •  One of the oldest schools of painting.
  • Depicts social and religious customs, and explores themes like life after death.
Kalamkari Paintings Andhra Pradesh
  • A pen made of sharp-pointed bamboo controls colour flow.
  • Fabric is cotton, colours made with vegetable dyes.
  • Freehand images inspired by Hindu mythology.
Warli Painting Gujarat-Maharashtra
  • Resembles prehistoric mural paintings at Bhimbetka.
  • Ritualistic scenes depicting fishing, hunting, farming, dances, animals, trees, and festivals.
Thangka Painting Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh
  •  Originally a form of veneration in Buddhism.
  • Created with natural vegetable or mineral dyes on a cotton canvas basis.
Manjusha Painting Bihar
  •  Also known as Angika art.
  • Done on jute and paper cartons. – Snake patterns are a constant presence in these paintings.

Modern Paintings in India

The inception of modern Indian art is often linked to the year 1857, with the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi preserving artworks from this transformative period. While the Impressionist movement denotes the beginning of modernity in the West, discussions on modern Indian art often commence with the Bengal School of Painting.

Modern or contemporary art in India is characterized by a departure from traditional norms, embracing an eclectic approach with global artistic expressions, emphasizing technique as both widespread and paramount, and highlighting the artist as a unique individual.

Evolution of Modern Paintings in India

Towards the end of the 19th century, Indian painting, an extension of miniature painting, faced a decline. Amidst minor styles like the “Bazar” and “Company,” and regional folk arts, the influence of naturalism introduced by Raja Ravi Varma emerged.

Abanindranath Tagore spearheaded a new school of painting known as the Bengal School, blending nostalgia and romanticism. This school, also called the Renaissance or Revivalist School, prevailed for over three decades.

Post-World War II, marked by India’s independence, brought new political and cultural forces. Artists grappled with unprecedented opportunities, steering towards modernization and adopting Western artistic ideas like impressionism and expressionism.

Contemporary Indian painting witnessed a shift where form surpassed content in significance. The rise of individualism posed a challenge, creating a disconnect between artists and the public.

Bengal School of Art

The Bengal School of Art emerged in the early 20th century as a response to the decline of traditional Indian painting during the British Raj. British collectors favoured Company Paintings, which simplified Indian subjects into exotic depictions aligning with European aesthetics.

The Bengal School, rooted in Indian traditions, aimed to counter this trend. Drawing inspiration from Mughal, Rajasthani, and Pahari styles, it presented elegant scenes of Indian customs and daily life.

Paintings in India UPSC

Indian paintings boast a rich tradition dating back to prehistoric cave art. From the symbolic designs of the Indus Valley Civilization to the Gupta Period’s emphasis on religious themes, the trajectory of Indian painting reflects cultural evolution. Mural paintings, found in locations like Ajanta and Ellora, depict Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain narratives. Miniature paintings, evolving after the 11th century, exhibit diverse regional styles. Folk paintings draw inspiration from epics and rural life, while modern Indian art, marked by the Bengal School, signifies a departure from traditional norms. Despite diverse influences, Indian paintings maintain a deep connection to spirituality, culture, and identity.

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Paintings in India FAQs

What are prehistoric paintings in India typically called?

Prehistoric paintings in India are typically called Petroglyphs. Name some prominent subjects in prehistoric paintings. Animals like elephants, rhinoceros, cattle, snakes, deer, and vegetation are prominent subjects.

What is the characteristic feature of mural paintings in India?

Mural paintings in India are characterized by being painted on walls or solid structures.

Which caves are known for their significant mural paintings in Maharashtra?

Ajanta Caves and Ellora Caves.

What are the major themes in Rajasthani miniature paintings?

Rajasthani miniature paintings often depict scenes influenced by Mughal court methods.

Which art form is characterized by small size and intricate details?

Miniature paintings in India are characterized by small size and intricate details.

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