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Cholan-age statue of Shiva
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The fine arts in India have included an incredible variety of styles and methods of stone and wood carving, painting, bronze-casting, goldwork, textiles and other artistic production.
Until the later second millennium CE, the majority of art in India had religious or mythological roots. Temples incorporated elaborate sculptures and other artwork and were architectural and artistic wonders intended to elevate the worshipper's encounter with the resident deity into an awesome experience. Examples of religious artworks from earlier periods existing today include sculptures from the Mauryan and Kushan age, Cholan bronzes, Gandharan Buddhist Sculpture, the art of the Gupta Empire, and the temples of Tamil Nadu with their exquisite bronzes.
Examples of secular art include the illustrations for the Kama Sutra and other erotic texts and the luxurious court scenes in Ajanta and Ellora. The richly carved and decorated temples of the Cholan Empire also depicted stories of the king's victories. But they melded the political with the religious so that royalty were often depicted in forms related to stories of the gods. In all cases, the arts were in service of a temple, a wealthy patron or royalty.
With the arrival of Islam, starting in the 10th century CE, North Indian art took on a very different look even as it continued to function in service of a patron. Because of the Islamic injunction against depicting human and animal forms (or figural representation), a greater emphasis was placed on abstract shapes and patterns in paintings and architecture. Only with the Mughals in the 16th century does the human image reappear, in a plethora of different settings and themes—paintings of court scenes, scenes of Hindu festivals such as Holi, Krishna stories, depictions of the Hindu epics, with a free borrowing of Persian and even European theological motifs—all in Mughal clothing, settings and jewelry contemporary to the era.
Gold was Rome's most important export to India, and Tamil literature celebrates the return of Roman ships laden with gold that had left India's ports stocked with pepper. Pliny famously remarked upon the drain of gold from Rome in 79 CE, and large quantities of Roman coins have been found in excavations in southern India and on its east coast. The Kushans melted gold Roman coins to make their own coinage, and other groups in southern Indian defaced the coins and used them as currency or as decoration. Gold ornaments (as well as silver, copper, stone, and ceramic) were found at the archaeological excavations of India's earliest civilizations, the Harappans, in the Indus River Valley.
Historically, gold has been widely used in the fine arts in India. Textiles incorporated gold thread into clothing, a tradition that continues to the present, seen most commonly as "zari" in saris. Architects worked gold into buildings as adornment. Classic examples are the Golden Temple, long-since looted pietra dura ("paintings" of stone) walls in the Taj Mahal and the beautiful paintings from Tanjore (Thanjavur).
As a precious metal, gold is also considered a status symbol and sign of prosperity in India. Traditionally both men and women have worn gold in India. Although men today tend to wear less jewelry, Indian women continue to wear plentiful gold jewelry. Some of this jewelry—such as toe rings, the style of earrings, or necklaces—convey information about the economic, marital, or ethnic status of the wearer. As India continues to modernize and its cities attract the rural poor, it is common to see migrant laborers (who don't use banks) wearing their entire wealth—usually more silver than gold—on their person.
For Indian women, gold—and by extension, any form of jewelry—has been a traditional source of financial security. Women may not always have had access to the family inheritance but they were nearly always gifted with jewelry at the time of marriage. The dowry, combined with the tradition of a bride's family paying for the wedding, has perpetuated gender discrimination in India. A family with many boys is lauded, while a family with many daughters is pitied and routinely expects to be impoverished after all the girls are married off. Called "stri dhan," or female wealth, dowries different from wedding trousseaus, and have a negative connotation in modern India. At present, there are laws that ban the giving or demanding of dowries, but it is still common for brides to be sent to their new husbands' homes with jewelry and gold that is meant to be theirs and theirs alone to fall back on in cases of emergency.
Cholan Bronze Sculptures
The Cholas formed south India's first major empire. Under Chola rule, between the 9th and the 13th centuries CE, the arts—poetry, dance, art, and temple building—flourished. But the Cholan artistic legacy is most evident in the bronze sculptures that were perfected during this time and continue to be made even today.
Cholan bronzes were typically of deities, royalty and the politically powerful people of the day—all in a distinctive Cholan style, classically representative of the human form, and perfectly proportioned. The sculptures are recognizable by the way the bodies are posed. They are always graceful, elegant and sensuous—particularly if a sculpture is that of a couple, such as Shiva and Parvati. The bronzes also depict the "mudras" or gestures derived from classical dance.
Cholan master sculptors created their works with the cire perdure, or lost wax process, which is still in use today.
Gandhara (the region of the North-West Frontier in Pakistan and the city of Peshawar) is where the Greek world met Buddhism. After the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, Greek-affiliated states were established in what is now Pakistan and northwest India. Gandhara's golden period started about 75 CE with the rise of the Kushan Empire, and flourished under its strongest leader, Kanishka, who ruled between 120 and 150 CE. During the Kushan period, Gandharan art flowered by combining Buddhist and Greek artistic forms. What remains today is the Gandharan style of Buddhist art and sculpture, which shows evidence of Greek, Syrian, Persian, and Indian artistic influences, mainly from the great Kushan capital of Mathura. Some of the earliest representations of the Buddha in human form came from this period, and Gandharan artists created a lasting model for the depiction of Buddha throughout Asia, wearing a Greek toga. This creative epoch under the Kushans also strongly influenced art and sculpture during the Gupta Empire.
Attributed to the sage Vatsyayana, the Kama Sutra is a treatise on erotic love thought to have been written under the Gupta Empire in the fourth or fifth century CE. Kama means love, desire, or pleasure in Sanskrit, and the Sutra is the earliest surviving example of the kama shastra, or science of erotica genre, that would become popular in later centuries. Kama is one of the four goals of human life described in the Vedas, the other three being dharma (duty and social obligation), artha (power and success), and moksa (religious liberation).
The Kama Sutra is composed of seven books with two or more chapters each, and much of the book gives advice to the urban male or nagaraka about courtship. Women were encouraged to learn 64 practices of the kama shastra, including singing, dancing, and even carpentry, and solving riddles. The Kama Sutra treats sex as both an art and a science and divides men and women into sexual types, discusses sexual positions, details appropriate conduct for married women and provides advice for courtesans. The Kama Sutra became the archetype for subsequent works on the subject of erotic love in India and influenced later Sanskrit erotic poetry. In 1883, a translation of the work into English published by English explorer and anthropologist Sir Richard F. Burton and Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot popularized the work in the West.
The Cholas, a people living in southern India, first appear in the written record in a 3rd century BCE rock inscription of Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great. A Tamil–speaking people, the Cholas held the east coast of modern Tamil Nadu and the Cauvery delta region. They eventually gained supremacy over other southern tribes in the area, the Pandyas of Madurai and the Pallavas of Kanchi. The empire's earliest king Karikala (r. about 100 CE) is celebrated in Tamil literature, but the empire reached its height under Rajaraja (r. 985–1014 CE), who conquered Kerala, northern Sri Lanka, and in 1014 CE acquired the Maldive Islands.
To commemorate his rule and the god Shiva, Rajaraja built a magnificent temple, Rajarajeshvara or Brihadeesvarar Temple at Tanjore, which was completed in 1009 CE. The temple, the tallest building in India at the time, includes inscriptions describing Rajaraja's victories and was a massive ceremonial space, with a central shrine measuring 216 feet high. Fresco murals that depict military conquests, the royal family, Rajaraja, and Shiva decorate the temple. Villages in the empire and from as far away as Sri Lanka sent tributes that would be redistributed and used in support of the vast retinue of dancers, servants, singers, carpenters, goldsmiths, and others living in the temple's court.
Rajaraja's son, Rajendra I (r. 1014–1044 CE), would continue to increase Cholan power by defeating rivals in southern India and expanding Cholan territory north. In 1023 CE, Rajendra sent his army north toward the Ganges River and defeated the Bengal kingdom of the Pala ruler. A few years later he sent overseas expeditions to the Malay Peninsula, occupying parts of Java, perhaps to protect a sea route to China. Rivalries with other southern tribes would lead to the dynasty's fall when in 1257 CE, the Pandyas defeated the Cholas. The dynasty ended in 1279 CE with the last Chola ruler, Rajendra IV (r. 1246–1279 CE).
Mughal Miniature Painting
Mughal miniatures, like Cholan bronzes, are among the most accessible and recognizable forms of Indian art, developed between the 16th and 19th centuries CE.
Although there were several schools of Mughal miniature paintings, all of the miniatures share certain characteristics—rich colors, the use of gold paint, and fine brush work. The art form incorporated themes from cultures beyond India especially Persian and Central Asia. Alongside illustrations of Hindu epics, Krishna and Rama stories, and Mughal court scenes, there are even depictions of stories from Christian theology such as the Virgin Mary, painted in Mughal style.
The most distinctive quality of Mughal miniatures is the two-dimensional portrayal of their subjects. Mughal artists did not develop the sense of perspective that revolutionized Western art during the Renaissance. While the names of a few major artists such as Govardhan, Kesu Das, Basawan, and Manohar are known, Mughal miniatures are usually categorized by the period during which they were created, or the court or Emperor who sought to be immortalized. The Emperor Humayun, (died 1556) began the fashion by bringing in artists from Persia. The emperor Akbar is considered to have been the first major patron of the arts and the Mughal style of minature painting really developed in his reign.
Miniatures first began as book illustrations but gradually became a more important form of artistic expression. The miniature form tested the artist's facility with brushes no more than a few hairs thick, and continue to test the modern viewer's ability to identify tiny details under a magnifying glass.
Holi is the joyous and colorful Hindu festival that ushers in spring and takes place each year in February or March, predominantly in North India. It originally began as a farmer's festival to mark the first wheat harvest, but is now linked to several Hindu legends, two of which provide the inspiration for key elements of the festivities—the lighting of bonfires and throwing of colored powders.
The demon king Hiranyakashipu ordered his subjects to worship him instead of God. His son Prahalad, a devotee of Lord Vishnu, refused, so the king ordered his death. After several attempts to kill Prahalad failed, the king sought his sister Holika's help. She, thought to be immune to fire, sat in a huge blaze with the boy on her lap, but through divine intervention Prahalad was saved and Holika burnt to death. To commemorate this triumph of good over evil, huge bonfires are lit during Holi, which also derives its name from Holika.
In another legend, a young Krishna, the blue or dark-skinned Hindu god, jealous of his consort Radha's fair complexion, complained to his mother Yashoda. She suggested he apply different colors to Radha's face in order to change her appearance, which he did. Holi, dubbed the "festival of colors," reenacts this playful prank as throngs of people douse and smear each other with colored powders (gulal) sold at street stalls. Sometimes the powders are mixed with water and sprayed from water pistols and plastic bottles.
Although India has many traditions of jewelry and gold work that are quite distinct, it is Mughal jewelry that is most commonly thought of as "Indian jewelry." Mughal jewelry is recognizable for its intricate craftsmanship, its use of whole gems (many cut cabochon-style), sturdy but delicate-looking settings, and distinct shapes and functions.
During the Mughal Empire, both men and women wore jewelry—Mughal miniatures depict courtiers, noblemen, emperors and kings with jewelry pieces worn or incorporated into clothing. For royal women at the Mughal court, jewelry was worn as much a statement of wealth and politics as for adornment. There was no end to what could be bejeweled. Everyday objects such as boxes, mirrors or hair brushes went from utilitarian devices to highly decorated works of art.
When the Mughal Empire began its gradual decline and eventual dissolution, many of its most famous gems, stones, and jeweled artifacts passed to a variety of victors. The most famous examples are the Peacock Throne, which Nader Shah plundered and took to modern day Iran, and the Koh-i-noor diamond, which the British claimed and took to London. The Koh-i-noor was inset in a crown and became part of the British Crown Jewels when Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877.
- What are the fundamental differences between Hindu and Muslim art in India?
- Why did so much gold flow into India during trade with the Roman Empire? How did the Indian use of gold differ from the Roman use?
- How has art of the Kushan Empire influenced some modern representations of the Buddha?
- Compare the two most recognizable forms of Indian Art, Mughal miniatures and Cholan Bronzes. How are they representative of the empires that produced them?
- How have Hindu festivals been integrated into aspects of everyday life in Indian?