South Asian Art Research Paper

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Unlike other cultures with a high degree of technological skill, the second–millennium BCE Indus- Sarasvati civilization in South Asia has left no evidence of monumental sculpture and architecture. Such large-scale grandeur, however, would later characterize the area—from great Buddhist stupas to the Taj Mahal. Architecture and painting embodied religious influences throughout history, especially Hindu and Islamic, and today exhibit contemporary secular expressions as well.

The cultural beliefs, ideas, and practices that find visual expression in the art of South Asia—which includes the present-day nations of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka— have had a formative influence on the rest of Asia and continue to provide important paradigms of being and becoming in modern world culture.


The beginnings of South Asian sculpture may be found in the early Indus-Sarasvati civilization (present-day northwestern India and eastern Pakistan) of the second millennium BCE. The mature phase of this civilization (2500–1700 BCE) carries evidence of a high level of technical knowledge and skill but, curiously, a lack of monumental sculpture or large structures such as temples or palaces. From its ruins, archaeologists have recovered small figurines in stone or cast bronze or copper, as well as terracotta animals and female figurines, the last presumed to be cultic objects. Archaeologists have also found a large number of steatite seals with impressions of bovine unicorns, buffaloes, bulls, tigers, rhinoceros, and other composite animal figures, as well as some enigmatic human forms, surmised to have had either commercial or ritual uses (or both).

Mauryan Sculpture, c. 324–c. 200 BCE

Little material evidence has been found between the Indus-Sarasvati period and the imperial Mauryan remains of the third century BCE. The reasons for this absence are unclear, but perhaps attributable to the use of perishable construction materials and prohibitions against material representations or portrayals of deities and/or their alternatives. Vedic ritual culture is presumed to have established itself around 1500 BCE, followed by the contemplative esotericism of the Upanishads around 800 BCE and the birth of Buddhism and Jainism in the sixth century BCE.

In 326 BCE, the incursion of Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great) into the northwest border of the South Asian subcontinent, as part of his conquest in 330 BCE of the extensive Persian Achaemenid Empire of Darius III, created a political vacuum that was swiftly filled by the first Mauryan king, Candragupta (reigned c. 321–297 BCE). Candragupta’s imperial ambitions were styled after Darius and Alexander, and scholars attribute his successor Asoka (reigned c. 273–232 BCE) with the Persian practice of building stone monuments, as well as with incorporating Achaemenid and Hellenistic motifs and devices in structures. In 265 BCE Asoka embraced Buddhism and proceeded to mark numerous prominent pilgrimage routes and Buddhist centers through his vast empire with tall polished stone pillars inscribed with edicts expounding the Buddhist law. Though this practice and the literary style of the inscribed proclamations are reminiscent of an Achaemenid method used to establish the law of the emperor, they also extend to an ancient indigenous Vedic tradition, the cosmic pillar. Achaemenid and Hellenistic decorative motifs, such as rosettes, palmettes, spirals, and reel-and-bead patterns appear on these pillars and on other structural remains from Asoka’s time, attesting to the cosmopolitan nature of his court and its culture.

Other monuments attributed to Asoka’s patronage include Buddhist stupas (relic-mounds) and rockcut caves, both of which became important settings for sculpture for a thousand or more years. Asokan monuments were created in sandstone and finished to a high polish, a technique that was lost to South Asia after Mauryan times.

A number of massive, frontal stone sculptures depicting male and female figures also remain from Mauryan times. These are representations of yakshas and yakshinis, supernatural elementals that had been popular in propitiatory worship for protection, fertility, or wealth. These beings and the gods of the Vedic pantheon became assimilated into early Buddhism and soon reappeared iconically as Buddhist threshold deities, protectors of devotees, bestowers of auspiciousness, and servants of the Buddha.

Sculpture during the Shunga Dynasty, c. 185–73 BCE

The Mauryan dynasty lasted for barely fifty years after the death of Asoka and was followed by the Brahminical Shunga dynasty in northern South Asia. Buddhist lay patronage, however, had developed a strong foundation, and monastic monuments continued to flourish during the second century BCE. Typical examples of the sculpture of this period are found among the remains of the stupa of Bharhut. The circular stone railing (vedika) enclosing the stupa has carved roundels on its horizontal and vertical components, often elaborated into ornate lotuses. Some of these roundels have carvings of human heads or animals at their center and some are filled in with narrative scenes from the life of the Buddha or episodes from tales of his past lives. At this stage, Buddha’s figure is never depicted; instead we see symbols such as the Bodhi tree (under which the Buddha attained enlightenment), the Wheel of the Law, or a stupa, according to narrative context. The relief carving is shallow and frontal and harks back to a tradition in wood. On the vertical entrance-posts of the vedika are chiseled large figures of yakshas and yakshinis, standing on animal or dwarf mounts.

This post-Mauryan Buddhist relief tradition reached its full maturity around the first century BCE, as evidenced in the gateways (torana) of the Great Stupa at Sanchi. This stupa, at the center of a monastic complex, was established by Asoka and further enlarged during Shunga times. Around 100 BCE, during the reign of the Satavahanas, four great gateways were erected at the cardinal entrances to this stupa. The horizontal and vertical elements of these gateways carry carvings thematically similar to those at Bharhut. These carvings demonstrate much greater technical assurance, however; the narrative arrangements, particularly on the extended horizontal architraves, show a refined clarity of form, a varied mobility of posture, and a judicious use of devices to enhance sense of depth where necessary. Large and powerful figures of elephants, lions, or dwarfs are carved out deeply on the vertical pillars and seem to support the upper portions. But perhaps the most perfect realizations on these gates are the shalabhanjikas, fertility symbols in the form of voluptuous women posed seductively, the rhythmic swing of their forms clinging to fruiting tree branches. The perfect combination of ecstatic sensuousness and contemplative repose in these figures became one of the aesthetic ideals of South Asian sculpture, seeking fulfillment in different forms through history.

Sculpture during the Kushan Dynasty, 78–200 CE

Around the beginning of the Christian era, the Kushan dynasty, originating in the borderlands of Central Asia and China, established itself as the imperial power in northern South Asia. The most famous king of this dynasty was Kanishka (reigned 78–101 CE). Around this time the first figural depictions of the Buddha make their appearance, almost simultaneously in the northwest province of Gandhara and the Gangetic metropolis of Mathura. Reasons for this iconic appearance are unknown, but may be related to doctrinal shifts in Buddhism from the more austere Theravada Buddhism toward the devotionalism of Mahayana Buddhism. Both the Gandhara and Mathura Buddha images express a consistent iconography, though they are stylistically divergent. The Gandhara Buddha is modeled after a Greco-Roman Apollonian prototype, while the Mathura figure derives from indigenous yaksha traditions. In both cases, the Buddha is draped in monastic robes, has a halo behind his head and a whorl of hair between the eyebrows (urna), and is shown with a cranial protuberance (ushnisha) symbolizing transcendental knowledge. He is either seated in meditation or standing erect with his right hand raised in a gesture of bestowing fearlessness.

Whereas predominant naturalism marks the features and costuming of the Gandhara figure, simplified rounded features, see-through draping, monumentality, and physical tension projecting power distinguish the Mathura image. Bodhisattva figures in the characteristic styles of Gandhara and Mathura also appeared at this time, wearing regal accoutrements and, in the case of named and worshipped bodhisattvas, carrying their distinctive attributes. The Kushan period also yields the earliest Brahmanical images in stone, representing the three major cults of Hindu worship—those devoted to Siva, Vishnu, and the Mother Goddess, particularly in her form as Durga, the destroyer of evil. Other prominent Brahmanical deities represented include Surya and Skanda.

Sculpture under the Guptas, (c. 320–c. 500)

During the fourth century, a new Hindu imperial dynasty established itself in northern South Asia, whose reign, patronage, and courtly culture are credited with the development of the classical style in South Asian art. This was the Gupta dynasty, whose most famous king was Candra Gupta II (reigned 375–415 CE). During this period, the major center for the production of Buddha images in the east shifted from Mathura to Sarnath. Idealized soft modeling and self-absorbed, tranquil features characterize the style of this period, which replaced the Kushan Buddhas. Standardized and compacted iconic elements and a vocabulary of distinctive hand gestures (mudras), meant to mark special occasions, accompanies these images. Others figures in the Buddhist pantheon undergo a similar elaboration and stylistic change, and the Buddha and several bodhisattvas also appear in bronze casts.

During this period relief sculptures draw upon a proliferation of Hindu deities, organized spatially in integrated contexts of ritual worship. Initially, these works were sited in niches inside cave-temples, but the stand-alone Hindu temple in stone also evolved at this time and henceforth became the setting for sculpture. Because the Guptas were followers of Vishnu, images of this deity and his incarnations (avatars), were frequently represented, and an increased emphasis on goddesses and other female images is apparent in the works.

A developed Saivite iconography, depicting mythical episodes connected with Siva and his consort, Parvati, also found expression at sites of cultic worship. Saivite cultic placement consigns the abstract phallic icon of Siva (the lingam) to the sanctum, faced from the entrance of the temple by Siva’s mount, the bull Nandi, and surrounded along a clockwise circumambulatory path by niches carrying other gods and goddesses and scenes showing the pastimes of Siva.

By the end of the fifth century, all these figures evolved into an aesthetic that shared the monumental repose of the Gupta Buddha but integrated it with a power of massiveness and restrained ecstatic delight. Contemporaneously, in the Deccan (central India), a related but more voluptuous aesthetic developed in Buddhist and Hindu figural expression, under the patronage of the powerful Vakatakas, related by marriage to the Guptas. Examples of the full fruition of the Vakataka Buddhist style are visible at the cave excavations at Ajanta in southern central India, while the early excavations at nearby Ellora or at the island of Elephanta, dateable to the early sixth century, show examples of Deccan Saivite sculpture of this period at its ripeness.

Developments in Sculpture, Sixth to Twelfth Centuries

Though the stand-alone Hindu stone temple first appeared in South Asia under the Guptas, it evolved into maturity in the sixth century under the Western Calukya dynasty (543–757; c. 975–c. 1189) in the southern Deccan, and through the seventh century in southern India under the Pallavas (c. 550–728 CE). Sculpture during this period continued to develop local variants of the Gupta iconography and style, but in these southern centers so did a marked tendency toward a greater plastic dynamism in the figures. A fine example of this may be observed in a panel from seventh-century Pallava Mamallapuram depicting Durga battling the buffalo demon. Here the dramatic interest and the portrayal of power in motion replaces the iconic stillness and massiveness of Gupta deities. Subsequent sculpture in southern India continues to develop in fluidity, reaching perhaps the zenith of integrating stillness and movement in the tenth-century image of the dancing Siva, Nataraja, which was developed in South India under Cola patronage.

From the tenth to the twelfth century, South Asian sculptors evolved such a consummate skill and facility in carving that sculpture during this period spills out of the measured enclosure of niches and dominates the temple surface. The temple as an integral whole projects the impression of the mighty, immobile, cosmic Mount Meru, which contains the multitudinous, varied activity of the world at its base. The sculpted forms of deities and celestial denizens stand or interact in various fluid postures, expressing the ecstatic repose of transcendental action. In the case of the temples at Orissa and Khajuraho in eastern and central India, respectively, a strong erotic element also found expression, indicating the prominent presence of Tantric cults. This high achievement of the successful marriage of static soaring temple forms and teeming mobile surfaces marked the final creative outburst of the South Asian tradition in sculpture.

Buddhism disappeared from India by the thirteenth century and gradual Islamic dominance of northern South Asia from the twelfth century inhibited the production of large-scale Hindu temple complexes. The Vijayanagara kingdom of the south and other pockets that offered resistance to Muslim conquest managed to continue the tradition until the sixteenth and seventeenth century, but with a progressive diminution of creativity.

Islamic architecture brought a new visual language of domes, arches, and minarets to the South Asian building environment and found expression in mosques, tombs, and forts. Marrying Afghan and Turkish styles with the Indic skill in stone carving, it left its most prominent marks in the cities of north central India and to some extent in the Deccan region, from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. Eschewing figurative sculpture due to religious prohibition, this architecture nevertheless gives us the most exquisite carved, inlaid, and latticed surfaces with calligraphy, foliate patters, and intricate geometric designs.

Under Mughal rule (1526–1857 CE), Islamic architecture reached its greatest heights in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The gates, halls, pavilions, mosques, and tombs commissioned by the third Mughal emperor, Akbar (1543–1605), at Agra and Fatehpur Skiri can be seen as precursors to the legendary beauty of the Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jehan (1592– 1666) in Agra as a tomb for one of his wives, Mumtaz. Placed at the far end of a garden, the Taj’s soaring dome and minarets in white marble, combined with the majestic simplicity of its design and the perfection of its proportions, evoke a supernatural archetype. Close up, its massive white marble surface reveals colorful borders with flowers, leaves, and Qur’anic calligraphy inlaid using a pietra dura (relief mosaic with semiprecious stones) technique.

After 1857, most of South Asia was brought under the British crown as a colony of Great Britain. The colonial period, leading up to the division and political independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, was known for its imperial Victorian architecture, particularly in the major colonial centers of Calcutta (Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai), Madras, and Delhi. Following independence, both India and Pakistan have entered into the mainstream of a global modernity, where international functional concerns mix with national and regional identity issues in fashioning a contemporary South Asian architecture.


The earliest remaining examples of painting in South Asia are Buddhist cave murals such as those in the monasteries at Ajanta. Here, two phases of painting, corresponding to two phases of excavation, may be distinguished, the earlier being from the first century BCE and the later from the fifth century CE. The themes depict stories and scenes, mainly from the life of the Buddha. The murals are made with mineral colors on a specially plastered surface and, particularly in the later phase, are characterized by hieratic scaling (more important figures are bigger), Buddha and bodhisattvas shown in formal poses and with stylized physiognomy, and others depicted more realistically. Elements of three-dimensional modeling and perspective are mixed in with two-dimensional “flat” figuring, to introduce a semblance of realism in representations where narrative interest clearly takes precedence over natural illusion.

Early Manuscripts

In painting, following Ajanta of the Vakataka period, few other fragmentary murals in cave or temple settings remain. The earliest surviving manuscript paintings are eleventh-century illustrated Buddhist and Jaina palm-leaf manuscripts of religious texts. These texts were venerated as sacred objects and offered as religious donations by patrons.

Extant eleventh- and twelfth-century Buddhist palm-leaf manuscripts come largely from regions in eastern India and often have generic scenes from the life of the Buddha painted on the inner surfaces of the wooden boards that bind the palm leaves; such scenes also serve as dividing elements between segments of text. The images are iconic and seldom directly related to the text. Hieratic scaling and static figural postures executed using a rhythmic outline and filled in with flat opaque mineral colors characterize the painting style.

The Jaina manuscripts were mostly produced in the Gujarat region of western India. By the last quarter of the fourteenth century, paper had become the preferred medium for Jaina manuscripts, and a rectangular form more suited to larger illustrations gradually replaced the elongated palm-leaf format. Jaina manuscripts make use of a restricted and bold color scheme and rhythmically outlined, flattened figures, as in the Buddhist tradition. There is no attempt to depict spatial depth. A characteristic of the figures is their invariable presentation in profile with the eye on the invisible side of the face protruded into visibility.

The oldest extant illustrated Hindu manuscripts date to the second half of the fifteenth century and follow the conventions of Jaina painting. Hindu myths and epics had by this time become standardized and pervasive in popular South Asian culture, and episodic representations of these themes found expression in these illustrations. From the early sixteenth century, a bold shift appears in this tradition, prioritizing the image over the text. The by-then standard rectangular form of the page was mostly occupied by the pictorial representation, with an abbreviated textual description in the upper margin and the extended text on the obverse of the page. This tradition made its appearance in Rajasthan and the western Gangetic kingdoms of northern India and is presumed to have originated in royal and other wealthy patronage. The contemporaneous rising popularity of medieval Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu), with its use of an erotic symbology to describe the mystical pastimes of Krishna (Vishnu’s most famous incarnation) must have played its part in fueling this production. The incorporation of a Vaishnav mystical context into literary and courtly amorous narratives characterizes this painting tradition and initiated a thematic stream that continued through the history of South Asian painting. Though these paintings attempt to convey spatial depth, they are essentially flat, with stylized figures shown in static profile, making hieratic gestures in starkly simplified color planes. This painterly aesthetic, commonly known as the “Rajput style,” remained a viable South Asian idiom of painting throughout subsequent centuries, resurfacing in various times and places.

Mughal Painting, 1526–1857

The sixteenth century also witnessed the hegemonic rule of the Mughals in northern South Asia, resulting in a new school of painting, unsurprisingly and commonly known as Mughal painting. The initiation of this school occurred in the mid-sixteenth century during the rule of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun (reigned 1530–1540 and 1555–1556). Humayan brought two master painters from the court of Tabriz—Abdus Samad and Mir Sayyid Ali—to found his atelier at Delhi in 1555. Within a year, Humayun died and was succeeded by his son, Akbar (reigned 1556–1605). Akbar had an abiding passion for the arts of painting and storytelling and quickly built up his father’s atelier to illustrate a large number of Persian and Hindu secular and religious texts. Akbar’s earliest commission was the illustration of the Tutinama (Tales of the Parrot). A large number of artists recruited from existing South Asian painting traditions worked under the direction of the Persian masters, resulting in a hybrid style and aesthetic which, by the time of Akbar’s second commission, had developed a distinctive identity. Mixed perspective, structured visibility of interiors, and natural elements such as mountains and trees are taken from Persian prototypes; hieratic patterning, bold coloring, and narrative arrangements are reminiscent of indigenous traditions; uniquely new with the early Mughal painting style were a patterned variety of coloring, a judicious introduction of three-dimensional modeling, and a crowded swirl of highly individualized figure-types laid out in a space divided by forms from nature (such as trees or rocks) to give an added sense of depth.

From the mid-sixteenth century, the influence of Renaissance naturalism, introduced into Akbar’s court by Jesuits, began to gain prominence in the works produced in his atelier. Space and volume were defined by light and shade. Aerial perspective was introduced, as were atmospheric effects to depict spatial recession.

These techniques continued to gain prominence in paintings from the courts of Akbar’s successors. The Mughal atelier remained as prolific under Akbar’s son, Jahangir (reigned 1605–1627), though the thematic interest shifted from dynamic narrative episodes to carefully attentive portraiture, scenes of psychological interest, and detailed though stylized studies of flowers and animals. A number of superb allegorical portraits of the emperor come to us from this court. Though the Mughal atelier continued during the reign of Jahangir’s son and successor, Shah Jahan (reigned 1628–1658), it seemed to have lost its vitality and inventiveness. The paintings of this period are marked by a courtly stiffness and formalism and lack the boldness of color or composition of either Rajput paintings or earlier Mughal work. The Mughal atelier largely dispersed during the reign of the Islamic puritan Aurangzeb (reigned 1658–1707), son and successor of Shah Jahan.

Seventeenth- and Eighteenth- Century Developments

In the Deccan kingdoms of central India, small Islamic states had established themselves since the fourteenth century and developed independent cultural traditions. Among these, the most important were the kingdoms of Golconda and Bijapur, which remained independent until late in the Aurangzeb’s reign. With cultural roots in Persia and Turkey, these kingdoms developed their own painting traditions, known as the Deccani style, marked by a rich coloration dominated by lavender, gold, and green, a jeweler’s eye for decorative pattern, and mystical or fantastic stylizations.

From Akbar’s time, a number of the Rajput courts came under the suzerainty of the Mughals, developing close courtly liaisons. Mughal stylistic influences began appearing in the paintings of a number of these courts. In the late seventeenth century, after the dispersal of artists from Aurangzeb’s court, further assimilation of Mughal thematic and stylistic idioms continued in the Hindu Rajput states. Here, the earlier predominance of Hindu religious themes was complemented by formalized portraiture of the maharaja seen in court or in gardens or terraces with attendants, or in equestrian or hunting scenes. But these scenes, and some Mughal stylistic elements, were mostly incorporated into flat decorative “Rajput” compositions in courts of this period, such as those of Kota and Mewar. The Bikaner paintings of the same period, on the other hand, show a much closer affinity to the naturalism of Mughal style combined with the decorative patterning and mystical palette of the Deccan courts.

The Mughal court saw a brief and brilliant revival during the reign of Aurangzeb’s grandson, Muhammad Shah (reigned 1719–1748). The idealized moody romanticism of the paintings produced under him, thematically focused on courtly love and characterized by naturalistic atmospheric effects, carried over once more to inspire two of the finest and most charismatic schools of late Rajput and Pahari painting respectively, those of Kishangarh and Kangra.

In the mid-eighteenth century, a fruitful collaboration between Raja Savant Singh (reigned 1748–1764) of the Rajput state of Kishangarh and the two master artists of his court, Bhavani Das and Nihal Chand, both originally from Delhi, led to the formation of a unique and distinctive style of painting. Extending the moody romanticism of the late Mughal court, Kishangarh painting of this period produced a large corpus of highly stylized depictions of its patron raja and the object of the raja’s affection, the court singer Bani Thani, with the two portrayed as Krishna and Krishna’s beloved Radha, respectively.

A similar effect, using different means and developing a different and more refined aesthetic, also appeared around the mid-eighteenth century in the hill states of Guler, Jasrota, and Kangra, and is attributed to the efforts of two artist brothers, Manaku and Nainsukh (1710–1778), and their students. Nainsukh’s work in the court of Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota (1724–1763) in particular can be said to originate the highly prized late Kangra School. The thematic mainstay of this school, like the school in Kishangarh, drew upon the dalliances of Radha and Krishna. Here the late Mughal romantic figures and style are transformed by a dream-laden, tranquil, naturalistic backdrop into a languorous intimate amorous moment in the secret wood, where time stands still and the divine couple, stylized using an aesthetic of balanced refinement, savor eternal delight in time-born bodies.

From the mid-eighteenth century, the British presence in South Asia exerted a powerful influence on courtly taste, moving it toward photorealism. The advent of photography itself contributed in no small measure to this change. Indigenous artists trained in earlier courtly styles now adapted their work to imitate the camera. Whereas some of these artists continued serving native patrons, particularly through portraiture, the British employed several artists to record scenes of South Asian life, its landscapes, and its flora and fauna. The work of these artists forms a body known as the Company School.

Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

At the beginning of the twentieth century, as part of a nationalistic rethinking of identity, the Calcutta artist Rabindranath Tagore and his students deliberately moved away from Western-influenced styles. Known today as the Bengal School, these artists fashioned a distinctive style affiliated with an international antimaterialist movement and Pan- Asianism by integrating elements of Rajput, Mughal, Japanese, and Pre-Raphaelite style. From the second quarter of the twentieth century, international Modernism began increasingly to influence South Asian art, opening up a variety of creative adaptations. Today, the contemporary art scene in South Asia is among the most vibrant and prolific in the world, with increasing numbers of artists making bold forays into individualized modes of expression suited to the social, cultural, and local contexts of the subcontinent.


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