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Art of India

The Ancient Period
The Middle Ages
The Islamic Period
The colonial and modern periods


The art treasures of India are among the greatest in the world. They include 4,000-year-old statuettes of lifelike vitality, fine paintings, and many types of images of Buddha. They also include temples carved into solid rock, huge temples with elaborately sculptured towers, and graceful mosques, palaces and tombs, all ornamented with delicate decorative work. 

Archaeologists have unearthed ruined cities from a period around 2000 B.C. known as the Harappan civilization, after Harappa, the first city to be discovered. Harappa is in what is now northwest Pakistan. Objects found there and at other sites served both religious and practical purposes. The Harappan civilization had crumbled by about the 1600's B.C. After this time, there is a break in the record of artistic objects. Very few objects from the period 1600-500 B.C. have been found. But, from about 200 B.C., an unbroken sequence of art objects survives to give art historians some idea of the long, rich tradition of Indian art.

Cultural background

The Indian subcontinent, which includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan, has been split into many separate kingdoms for most of its history. But, despite this political separation, the art of the region shows remarkable unity across both space and time. One unifying factor has been the blending of immigrant populations. Various groups of people have migrated into India, mainly through the mountain passes of the north. Most have settled down in India, and their way of life and styles of art have become part of Indian culture. Another unifying factor is that Indian art from most areas and periods is largely based on religion, the single most important link between the various peoples and regions of India. Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism were especially important religions in ancient India. The beginnings of Buddhism and Jainism date from about 500 B.C. Hinduism later developed gradually over many hundreds of years. The same artists worked for all three religious groups. For example, sculptors who made carvings for a Buddhist sacred centre probably worked on images for Jain or Hindu temples also. 

In about A.D. 1200, northern India was conquered by people whose religion was Islam. When they wanted to build beautiful mosques, palaces, and tombs, they hired artists and workmen who had previously worked for Hindu rulers and who had built Hindu and Jain temples. Other artists made books with wonderful paintings for a variety of people, including Hindu and Muslim rulers and Jain merchants. From their names we can tell whether the painters were Hindu or Muslim. 

European traders and travellers brought Western paintings and illustrated books to India from the late 1500's onward. Indian artists began to experiment with some imported ideas such as the use of shadows and European-style perspective to give a sense of distance. The Europeans wanted to take home pictures of Indian plants, animals, and everyday life. They hired Indian artists to paint them. When the British began to rule India, they built mansions and government offices like those in Britain. Later, they began to add features that were more Indian in character, such as domes and carved stone screens. Indians began to adopt European features in their buildings. In the 1900's, Indian architects and painters continued to work in traditional and mixed styles. They also participated in the styles and experiments of international modernist movements.

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