Classical painting is a term used for paintings with themes that describe the traditions of the country or continent it is being painted in. A case in point is the European Classical Paintings that comprises scenes out of the European mythologies and Biblical stories. Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso and Michelangelo are some of the best known European Classical Painters. The Classical Painting in India has its own set of traditions, history and evolution. Indian Classical Painting brings together the different kinds of paintings made by Indian painters on themes closer to home, like religion, spirituality, human figures and nature.
India has a rich heritage of art and culture since ancient times. Paintings have been part of the Indian art heritage long before 5,500 BC. The earliest evidence of paintings in India is in the rock shelters of Bhimbhetka, which dates back to the Stone Age Period. Other proofs of Indian Classical Paintings include the ones found in the frescos and murals in the Ajanta, Ellora and Kailashnath Caves, Buddhist manuscripts and thangkas, and North Indian miniature paintings. The classical paintings were usually centered on spiritual themes. Materials usually used to paint on were walls of caves, palm leaves, cloth and, later, paper. Paints were natural dyes that were either water based or oil based.
Based on the size of canvas, classical painting is generally categorized into mural classical painting and miniature classical painting:
Mural Paintings are largely seen in the walls of caves, temples, palaces and other monuments. One can enjoy these classical paintings in Ajanta, Ellora, Badami, Bagh, Chamba, Kailashnath, Tanjore and Sittannavasal. These are older than miniature paintings.
Miniature Paintings, as the name suggests, are art works on a small canvas of about 2 inches by 4 inches. These were originally made for manuscripts in view to illustrate and complement the writing. Miniature paintings are noted for their colorful, graceful and intricate designs done with finesse. There are different schools across India that has used this type of painting in their individualistic themes and contexts.
At present, classical paintings in India comprise a variety of art works characteristic of a certain part of the country or theme. Here is a brief overview of the major kinds of Indian Classical Paintings:
Rajasthani or Rajput Painting – This classical painting style belongs to the Indian medieval painting school as it was much known during the 18th century in the Rajput royal families. These paintings were not only done in the miniature style in cloth, paper and canvas, many of these can also be seen on the walls of several palaces, forts and temples in Rajasthan. Themes included stories from Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, and depiction of Lord Krishna’s life. Places such as Bikaner, Mewar, Kota, and Bundi developed their own specialized styles of Rajasthani Classical Paintings, which emerged as specific schools of Rajasthani art.
Pahari Painting – This classical painting style was born in the mountainous region of the states of Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir. These are mostly miniatures with religious and nature themes. It was famous between the 17th to 19th centuries. Pahari Paintings gave rise to several schools in the hills including Chamba School, Guler School, Garhwal School and Basohli School. There are two prominent sub categories – (1) Basohli Painting, which is intense and prevalent in the Jammu region, and (2) Kangra Painting, which is subtle in comparison to Basohli and practiced in the Kangra and Garhwal regions.
Madhubani Painting – Maithili, in Bihar, is considered to be the place of origin of these classical paintings. According to the Mithila region tradition, mud walls and floors were the first canvases for Madhubani paintings. Women would use twigs, matchsticks or simply their fingers to paint geometrical designs with natural dyes. This evolved to themes relating to the Hindu religion and nature with time. These paintings, today, can be found on cloth, paper as well as canvas. Noted Madhubani painters are Smt. Jagdamba Devi, Smt. Bharti Dayal and Smt. Mahasundari Devi.
Mughal Painting – During the Mughal era in India between the 16th to 19th centuries, the rulers patronized paintings of portraits, animals, birds, flowers, and hunting, battle and court scenes. Most of the Mughal paintings are miniatures originally made for books written by the rulers and his family members. The paintings are known for their realistic depiction of scenes and wildlife. There are influences of the Persian, Hindu and Jain painting styles in Mughal canvas art work. Notable painters in the Mughal court were Keshav Das, Basawan, Govardhan and Fazl.
Mysore Painting – This specialized form of classical painting evolved in Mysore in Karnataka and became a famous representative of the fine arts from South India. For a span of more than 200 years, under the encouragement of the Vijayanagar rulers from the 14th to 16 century Mysore School of Painting developed even more. Raja Wodeyar was another ruler who played an important role in further patronizing this classical painting style. The characteristics of Mysore paintings include its use of minerals and vegetables for extracting pigments that has helped preserve these paintings naturally from wearing off. These are also famous for its human figures that look graceful and invoke the feeling of holiness and loyalty.
Tanjore Painting – Also known as Thanjavur Painting, this is another popular South Indian Classical Painting known for its color compositions, devotional figures and compact designs. Encouraged by the Nayakas during the 2nd century, this style of painting was done on a fabric that was pasted to wooden panels. Once completed the painting was embellished with precious and semi precious stones, and gold foil. The gold foil makes the painting last for generations. It is no wonder then that a Tanjore Painting is a prized possession even after many years, due to its lasting quality.
Ragamala Painting – Literally meaning ‘Garland of Musical Notations or Ragas’ Ragamala is a unique style of classical painting that describes each Indian musical notation as a color, tone and feel of an art work. The elements of the painting are considered poetically linked and art enthusiasts can find the picture rather musical. Ragamala was introduced in the 12th century and it gained its popularity during 16th and 17th century. It has influenced other styles of paintings including the Pahari, Mughal, Rajput and Mysore styles.