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Women In Indian Art: An Observation

The trajectory of a woman’s image in Indian Art has been wavering and contradictory. During the prehistoric period, she was perceived as the source of life for her procreative ability and her significant support in food-gathering activities and sheltering. At the same time, feminine energy was revered as the goddess of their clan. Over time, the image of women in Indian art varied and went on to become a depiction of grace and beauty. They were illustrated with voluptuous physiques and demure features. The sensual side of a woman was further explored and exhibited in paintings and sculptures. On the other hand, due to diversity in culture and religious outlook, a section of Indian artists portrayed women with stronger facial features, colour choice and application along with certain flaws to represent real-life nuances. The characterisation of women in Indian art again showed a radical change with the occurrence of the feminist approach. They were rather portrayed with flaws, vulnerable emotions and also an archetype of self-love and admiration. Women in Indian Art: An Observation, is a study of different images of women with the shift in time and perspective.

Women In Indian Art: Prehistoric Period

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The Bhimbetka cave paintings are the earliest cave paintings found in central India. The paintings were dominantly geometrical and hence it was challenging to identify the sexes in their drawings.

The woman community was rarely depicted and the dominant theme revolved around household chores or fertility. Male superiority is evident as several paintings illustrate them in heroic or provider roles while hunting, gathering, or taking part in activities important for livelihood. 

Some paintings show a pregnant woman alongside a pregnant animal. This could also be an attempt to draw a parallel with the divine force of nature that gives us the gift of life, similar to our female counterparts. The image of women in Indian art during the prehistoric period was not of great prominence and it is believed that one of the reasons could be their contribution as artists. 

Women in Indian Art: Ancient Period

Women in Indian Art
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During the 7th century, the image of women in Indian art had undergone slight changes. The murals of Ajanta and Ellora cave and cave temples were the evidence for it. The sensuality of women was celebrated with a sculpted and voluptuous body. Semi-nude or nude paintings and sculptures of women adorn the caves of Ajanta.

The focal point of these painted women was tenderness and grace. Here the main objective of women’s image revolved around the beautification of the painting. Amongst the heroic and monarchic paintings of kings and saints, women have been painted to enhance the aesthetics of the artwork.

The sublime sculptures of Ajanta caves draw attention and are an amusement for onlookers. Another usage of women figures in the ancient period was as an ornamentation for story narration. They were depicted as supporting characters in male-centered stories.

Brahminical caves of Ellora are Lord Shiva-centric and hence shown with his consort goddess Parvati. Image credit:

Then came the Ellora caves, which were built between the 7th -11th century. Herein, the image of women was depicted in sculptures more than paintings. The sculptures mostly represented women as “goddesses” either in a nude or semi-nude manner with strong features and gestures.

On the other hand, under the patronage of Buddhism and Jainism manuscripts, the women in Indian art were illustrated with some significance to the narration if not as much as the central male character. The birth of Lord Mahavira, ladies celebrating the birth of lord Mahavira or the mother of Lord Buddha, are few of the paintings that show the women’s participation in the central narration.

Women in Indian Art: Mediaeval Period

Women in Indian Art
Miniature Painting; Image credits:

The invasion of the Mughals during the mediaeval period of India and the influence of their narration and perspective brought subtle yet significant changes in the image of women in Indian art.

The Indian Miniature school painting can be traced from the 9th – 10th century in the Buddhist Pala and Jaina period. The art form was used to paint and write manuscripts on palm leaves. However the themes and motive of Miniature painting evolved during the reign of the Mughals.

Heavily influenced by the Persian style, the Mughal’s depiction of women was more dainty and beautiful. Fuller hips and narrow waist were the ideal depictions of women. The miniature paintings were developed during this era and showed a woman’s participation in other activities apart from mundane chores. Court scenes or queens seated next to their king were one of the themes in these paintings. They were also portrayed as resting amidst their attendants or admiring nature. 

Romanticism was at its peak and women were shown embracing their sensuality rather than mere objectification. The sketches of women were more feminine, with soft colours and flared skirts. Love was also a theme, wherein the illustration of women in Indian art was explored. Sexual encounters with their lovers or the emotions like the anticipation of a lover were also shown.

At the same time, women were depicted against a religious backdrop as well. Tales of Lord Krishna and Radha illustrated “Gopis” smitten in love with the lord. Whereas Radha was shown frolicking in the garden with Lord Krishna. The image was revered as a representation of eternal love and sacrifice.

Women in Indian Art: Modern and Contemporary Period

Post-1850, under the rule of the British Empire, the portrayal of women in Indian art underwent radical changes. Due to colonisation, appreciation towards Western art increased, whereas traditional and indigenous art was facing a considerable downfall. As a result of this, several Indian artists raised their concerns and opinions about safeguarding the art and craft of India. This led to the formation of art schools.

Now the artwork was an amalgamation of Western influence while the figures and motifs were used with an Indian perspective, against the backdrop of Indian sensibilities. Owing to the shift in the political status of India, the artists had wider and unorthodox views about women in Indian art.

Women in Indian art during the modern and contemporary periods were illustrated unconventionally. Female artists showed increased participation, which helped change women’s narrative in Indian art.

Women in Indian Art
Painting by F N Souza, Lady in Black. Image credit: 

Artists like F. N Souza and K. R. Ara portrayed women with plump bodies, no longer confined to the “ideal” image of women. Although nudity prevailed in the paintings the reason wasn’t merely to attract attention. It dealt more with the self-exploration of women, their sexuality and also as a response to the questions associated with the objectification of women.

They were also slightly masked as devilish. The colours were bright and bold with strong brush strokes, unlike the soft pastel hues of the mediaeval period. It represented power and the uninhibited spirit of feminine energy.

Women in Indian Art
Artwork by Amrita Sher-Gill. Image credits:

Amrita Sher-Gill was one of the most celebrated Indian female artists who changed the perspective of women in Indian art. While she unabashedly explored nudity as one of the themes, at the same time she did not sensualise the image of females in her paintings.

Instead of choosing court scenes, goddesses, and renowned personalities, Amrita Sher-Gill depicted uncommon women in her artwork. Self-portraits, portraits of women around as family or friends were extensively illustrated. Her portrayal of women had a unique quality, they were shown as facing adversity, yet possessing the grit to change their destiny. Simple adornments and attire for her female figures enhanced the understanding of Indian identity. 

In general, this period got rid of the depiction of women in Indian art as a decorative motif, stereotypical gender roles, or as a supporting counterpart. The female figures were the protagonist and narrated their tales of identity.

In conclusion, the portrayal of women in Indian art has seen its fair share of ups and downs. The reasons could be the state of women in a community, understanding of the feminine energy, or the changes in socio-political status. The metamorphosis of an “ideal” image of women to a bold, realistic and liberal portrayal can be observed over a long period.

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