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What makes Indian traditional art Indian?

What makes Indian traditional art Indian? Why doesn’t Indian traditional art use the realistic oil-painting approach, commonly used in international paintings and what are the influences of our great art forms? Since the beginning of time, words have not been enough in communicating ideas, imparting wisdom or depicting tales. As a race, we’ve resorted to a stronger, visual representation of thoughts and data, to try and understand the bizarre world around us, from it’s overwhelming information, to the simplicity of forms, to the nuances of day to day life in this existence, be it of the royalty or the common people, or the animals or the supernatural.

Art is not just a medium to convey these realities or other-worldly depictions that birth and grow and reside in the human consciousness and intellect, it is the breath of communication. It is the very form of life that captures the essence of our multidimensional nature and keeps alive the histories of the world. The question arises then, what influences the diverse kinds of our kind to create the art that they do, with the innumerable techniques and mediums? What evokes this inclination towards depicting stories in a realistic way or an abstract way or a minimalist way? This brings me to the inquiry of the thought process of the way that Indian traditional artists undertook their paintings, and here some of those ideas are elaborated upon.

The influences on Indian traditional art over the centuries have obviously shaped the aesthetic, ritualistic and metaphysical sense of its outer feel, but the iconography, ideologies and principles of Indian traditional art have retained their originality – which is being supremely naturalistic in nature.  

Since the yardstick for judgement has somehow always been the ‘Western’ approach and thought process, the mind naturally wanders to questions like, why hasn’t Indian traditional art showcased traits of realism, while adopting the oil painting medium?

Well, to answer this question, first we have to understand the history of each region to know what kind of socio-political-geological climate the countries were in at any given point in time. It is widely known that oil painting was introduced to the world by Europe in the 12th century, but the earliest recorded oil paintings were actually found in Afghanistan created by Buddhist artists in the 7th century AD! Some theories of comparative aesthetics suggest that intellectually the Renaissance was actually a movement that began in China as an opposition to the cultural destruction caused by the Chinese Communist Party, and shockwaved its effects to the West, first through India, near East, and then moving to Europe. It’s not to say that oil painting did excel in usage in the West, but it was in fact, discovered in Asia. 

What makes Indian traditional art Indian
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Known to be one of most ancient civilizations, India’s discoveries in science, astrology and art have surpassed many other civilizations. Indian traditional art is very intricately intertwined with its ancient texts and religious scriptures. The Vedas and Upanishad have described the way of life in their astute writings, and Indian traditional art has brought those to life, with its immensely religious, spiritual and transcendental sculptures and paintings through the beginning of time. The techniques are largely based on the Vedic rules of Sadanga i.e the six rules to be applied by a craftsman in their journey of creating a piece of art, namely Sadrishyam (similitude), Praman (proportions), Roopabheda (physical appearances), Bhava (feeling of forms), Varnakabhangam (colours) and Lavanya Yojanam (precision in organisation/representation).

Indian traditional art has always used pigments, materials and tools derived from nature, in order to depict nature in the most honest ways. And we see that the techniques used in the Indian traditional art paintings are significantly meditative in nature. The way humans, trees and animals are depicted in pieces of Gond, Pattachitra, Kalighat, Phad, among others displays an intricate interpretation of life forms in bold colours, simplistic shapes, repetitive patterns and most importantly, a major sentiment of spiritual life. 

The three main forms of Indian traditional art are sculpture, painting and cloth-work, and the subjects are most commonly deities, trees, the interaction of humans and nature with the divine and ancient folklores. It has a lot of heart, and in the process of depicting these, techniques of the west become secondary in nature, because of the strong rooted visual style and aesthetic of the variety of these forms of Indian traditional art paintings. They are each distinct, with a strong artistic vocabulary of its own and a uniqueness that is unequalled, due to its generational knowledge. 

Realism in the West came as a movement to challenge Romanticism, a style of art that prevailed through the 19th century. Realists wanted to depict how things really were, and not what pleased the eyes. The western psychology in art has been majorly influenced by their own experiences of Industrial and Commercial Revolutions, along with the religious backgrounds and of course the wars of the world. Their technique took root in more 2 dimensional depictions, by using perspectives, proportions and other academic approaches in painting. Oil as a medium grew popular in the Renaissance period, where it almost completely replaced egg tempera which was the most used medium of painting.

The marriage of the two worlds did bring about the use of oils in the Indian painting scene, with the iconic paintings of Raja Ravi Varma in the 19th century. His paintings are academic in nature, portraying his subjects in a realistic manner with technical knowledge imbibed from the Western school of art. The Calcutta School too, welcomed the oil painting mediums in their artworks, which were majorly a colonial introduction of style and technique in the modern Indian art scene. 

The west is known to be the head and the east, the heart of the world. The distinction and the idiosyncratic approaches of both the worlds of painting make it all the more varied and there are always things that are taken from one another. That’s how we evolve and techniques grow. So, of course, Indian traditional art didn’t lean naturally towards oil painting or super realistic display of subjects because the language it speaks has already been very well defined and concise in its nature. That does not, however, close any doors to experimentation and adoption of more techniques into this big family of Indian traditional art as it grows and evolves as the passing of time.

If you’re interested in learning traditional Indian art, download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store and check out our latest courses and workshops. Stay tuned to Rooftop blogs and follow us on Instagram @rooftop_app to immerse yourself in the rich cultural heritage of Indian art.

Written by Akshita Monga, a multidisciplinary artist based in Barcelona, Spain who specialises in oil painting and digital art.

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