Wall Paintings in India

  • Painting is one of the most delicate forms of art giving expression to human thoughts and feelings through the media of line and colour. Many thousands of years before the dawn of history, when man was only a cave dweller, he painted his rock shelters to satisfy his aesthetic sensitivity and creative urge.
  • The earliest examples of Indian painting, that we find evidence of, are on the walls of some of the caves in the Kaimur Range of Central India, Vindhya Hills and some places in Uttar Pradesh e.g .Wall painting of a dancer, Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh.
  • The paintings are primitive records of wild animals, war processions and hunting scenes. They are crudely but most realistically drawn. All these drawings bear a remarkable resemblance to the famous rock shelter paintings in Spain, which are presumed to be the work of Neolithic man.
  • Ajanta cave, Maharashtra
  • The Vinayapitaka, a Buddhist text of circa 3rd – 4th century B.C. refers in many places to the pleasure houses containing picture halls which were adorned with painted figures and decorative patterns. Painted halls are also described in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the composition of which in their original form is acknowledged to be of great antiquity. These early mural paintings may be assumed to be the prototypes of the carved and painted picture galleries of the subsequent periods of the Buddhist art, such as in the painted cave temples of Ajanta situated in Maharashtra State near Aurangabad. There are 30 caves chiseled out of the rock in a semicircular fashion. Their execution covers a period of about eight centuries. The earliest of them is probably out in the 2nd century B.C. and the latest is sometime in the 7th century A.D.
  • The subject matter of these paintings is almost exclusively Buddhist, excepting decorative patterns on the ceilings and the pillars. They are mostly associated with the Jatakas, a collection of stories, recording the previous births of the Lord Buddha. The compositions of these paintings are large in extent but the majority of the figures are smaller than life size. Principal characters in most of the designs are in heroic proportions.
  • The painters of Ajanta had realised the true glory of the Buddha, the story of whose life was employed here by them as a motif to explain the eternal pattern of human life. 
  • The earliest paintings at Ajanta are in cave No. IX and X of which the only surviving one is a group on the left wall of cave X. This portrays a king with attendants in front of a tree decked with flags. The King has come to the sacred Bodhi tree for fulfilling some vow connected with the prince who is attending close to the king. 
  • The Dying Princess
  • A beautiful example of this period is the painting which illustrates a scene of Jataka and commonly called ‘the dying princess’ in cave No.XVI painted in the early part of the 5th century A.D. The story tells how Nanda who was passionately in love with this girl was tricked away from her by the Buddha and carried up to heaven. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the Apsaras, Nanda forgot his earthly love and consented to enter the Buddhist order as a shortcut to heaven. In time, he came to see the vanity of his purely physical aim and became a Buddhist but the Princess, his beloved, was cruelly left to her fate without any such consolation.
  • Bodhisattva Padmapani
  • The painting of Bodhisatva Padmapani from cave I is one of the masterpieces of Ajanta Painting executed in the late 6th century A.D. In princely fashion he is wearing a crown adorned with sapphires, his long black hair falling gracefully. This beautifully ornamented figure is more than life size and is shown stopping slightly and holding in his right hand a lotus flower. In the words of one of the contemporary art critics: “It is in its expression of sorrow, in its feeling of profound pity, that this great art excels; and in studying it, we would realize that we are face to face with a noble being under the weight of a tragic decision, the bitterness of renouncing forever a life of bliss is blended with yearning, sense of hope in the happiness of the future”. The strong direct drawing of the shoulder and arms is masterly in its unaffected simplicity. The eyebrows upon which depends much of the facial expression are drawn by simple lines. The way of holding the lotus and the gestures of the hand, as shown here, is the greatest achievement of the Ajanta artists.
  • Along-side these Buddhist paintings there are also a few Brahmanical figures of iconographic interest.
  • Indra, a Hindu divinity, is depicted flying amid clouds together with celestial nymphs holding musical instruments. Indra is wearing a royal crown, pearl necklaces and in his girdle a sword and a dagger. The speed of his flight is suggested by the backward movement of pearl necklaces. This is from cave No.XVII and belongs to circa 6th century A.D.
  • Besides these religious paintings there are decorative designs on ceilings and pillars of these cave temples. Unlike the epics and continuous Jataka paintings there are complete designs within their squares. The whole flora and fauna in and around the artists world are faithfully portrayed but never do we find any repetition of form and colour. The artists of Ajanta, as if here suddenly emancipated from the dictum of the Jataka text, have given free reign to their perception, emotion and imagination.
  • The paintings of Ajanta, Bagh and Badami represent the classical tradition of the North and the Deccan at its best. Sittannavasal and other centres of paintings show the extent of its penetration in the South. The paintings of Sittannavasal are intimately connected with Jain themes and symbolism, but enjoy the same norm and technique as that of Ajanta. The contours of these paintings are firmly drawn dark on a light red ground. On the ceiling of the Verandah is painted a large decorative scene of great beauty, a lotus pool with birds, elephants, buffaloes and a young man plucking flowers.
 Ellora Wall PaintingsThe next series of wall-painting to survive are at Ellora, a site of great importance and sanctity. A number of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples were excavated between the 8th and 10th centuries A.D. from the living rock. The most impressive of these, the Kailashnath temple is a free standing structure which is in fact a monolith. There are several fragments of painting on the ceiling of the different parts of this temple and on the walls of some associated Jain cave temples.The composition of the paintings at Ellora is measured out in rectangular panels with thick borders. They have thus been conceived within the given limits of frames that hold the paintings. The space, in the sense of Ajanta, therefore, does not exist at Ellora. So far as the style is concerned, Ellora painting is a departure from the classical norm of Ajanta paintings. Of course the classical tradition of modelling of the mass and rounded soft outline as well as the illusion of the coming forward from the depth is not altogether ignored. But the most important characteristic features of Ellora painting are the sharp twist of the head, painted angular bents of the arms, the concave curve of the close limbs, the sharp projected nose and the long drawn open eyes, which can very well be considered as the medieval character of Indian paintings.
 Paintings in South IndiaThe most important wall paintings in South India are from Tanjore, Tamil Nadu. The dancing figures from Rajarajeswara temples of Tanjore belong to the early 11th century A.D. are beautiful examples of medieval paintings. The wide open eyes of all the figures are a clear negation of Ajanta tradition of half closed drooping eyes. But the figures are no less sensitive than the Ajanta figures, they are full of movement and throbbing with vitality.Another example of a dancing girl from Brihadeshwara temple of Tanjore belonging to the same period is a unique representation of swift movement and twisted form. The back and the hips of the figure are vividly and realistically shown with the left leg firn on the base and right thrown in space. The face is shown in profile with pointed nose and chin while the eye is wide open. The hands are outstretched like a sharp line swinging in balance. The rapturous figure of a dedicated temple dancer with vibrating contours is a true embodiment of sophistication in art and presents a charming, endearing and lovable feast to the eyes.The last series of wall paintings in India are from Lepakshi temple near Hindupur belonging to the 16th century A.D. The paintings are pressed within broad friezes and illustrate Saivaite and secular themes.A scene with three standing women in spite of their well built forms and contours has in this style become somewhat stiff. The figures are shown in profile rather in an unusual fashion, specially the treatment of the faces where the second eye is drawn projecting horizontally in space. The colour scheme and the ornamentation of these figures are very pleasing and prove the highly sophisticated taste of Indian artists.
 The Boar hunt from the same temple, is also an example of two-dimensional painting which almost becomes characteristic of late medieval paintings either on wall or on palm leaf or paper. Thereafter a decline of Indian wall paintings began. The art continued into the 18th-19th century A.D. on a very limited scale. During the period from the 11th century A.D. Onward, a new method of expression in painting known as miniature on palm leaves and paper; perhaps much easier and more economical had already begun.Some of the wall paintings of this declining period in the reign of Prince of Travancore in Kerala, in the palaces of Jaipur in Rajasthan and in the Rangmahal of the Chamba palace in Himachal Pradesh are worth mentioning. The Rangmahal paintings of Chamba deserve a special note in this connection as the National Museum is in possession of these early 19th century paintings in the original.
 TECHNIQUE-The technique and process of making Indian wall paintings has been discussed in a special chapter of the Vishnudharamotaram, a Sanskrit text of the 5th/6th century A.D. The process of these paintings appears to have been the same in all the early examples that have survived with an only exception in the Rajarajeshwara temple at Tanjore which is supposed to be done in a true fresco method over the surface of the rock.Most of the colours were locally available. Brushes were made up from the hair of animals, such as goats, camel, mongoose, etc.The ground was coated with an exceedingly thin layer of lime plaster over which paintings were drawn in water colours. In true fresco method the paintings are done when the surface wall is still wet so that the pigments go deep inside the wall surface. Whereas the other method of painting which was followed in most of the cases of Indian painting is known as tempera or fresco-­secco. It is a method of painting on the lime plastered surface which has been allowed to dry first and then drenched with fresh lime water. On the surface thus obtained the artist proceeded to sketch out his composition. This first sketch was drawn by an experienced hand and subsequently corrected in many places with a strong black or deep brown line when the final drawing was added. After the painter had drawn out his first scheme in red, he proceeded to apply on this a semi-transparent terraverde monochrome, through which his outline could be seen. Over this preliminary glaze the artist worked in his local colours. The principal colours in use were red ochre, vivid red (vermilion), yellow ochre, indigo blue, lapis lazuli, lamp black (Kajjal), chalk white, terraverde and green.