Chitrasutra – The Art of Painting in Ancient India in the Light of Vishnudharmottara Purana – Part 1

Mind of an Indian Artist

Painting as an art has a rich history in India since it evolved and flourished from periods so early that it is hard to pin a time when India did not have painters. Painting is as old in India as its Shastra (scriptures).

Like other arts, Painting in India too has been Shastra-based. Shastra gave certain foundational principles, which were central to the art of Painting as a whole. Of course the cultural diversity of India did contribute in introducing regional styles and flavors and their mutual influences caused multi-faceted art to come about. However, in-spite of its diversity, Indian art has remarkable consistency and integrity ensured by the Shastric principles it was largely based upon.

Like Spirituality and Religion, Art too was never organized in India. Shastra gave principles and then left all to the free imagination of the artists. Consequently art grew not just in type but many ingenious painting techniques and home made recipes for natural, vibrant colors were created by village craftsmen and artists to meet their own style.

 Shastra gave these paintings another dimension by opening a spiritual vision of the world for the artist in which both the painter and painting was seen as the manifestation of Brahman (Supreme being). This is the main reason why old paintings have a certain appeal and profoundness that is so missing in modern paintings. These therefore serve as valuable records for modern artists to observe and compare their own world-view with that of the ancients.

Andhra style painting of Sri ChakrapurushaIndian art largely rendered Shastric themes from the Puranas and Itihasas (Ramayana and Mahabharata) and painters used a cache of symbols to depict concepts in their art. For example, Chakra – the revolving wheel represents Time, Padma (lotus) represents creation, Mriga (deer) represents desire and beauty and so on.

Similarly there was a set of gestures called Mudras which were determined by the positioning of fingers, hands, limbs which represented fearlessness, giving, wisdom etc.

Both symbols and gestures were used in paintings and other art-types to depict concepts as per their relevance. This turned out to be a powerful system to communicate concepts in Indian art. Moreover, since the subject of art was first visualized in artist’s mind and the art themes were largely Shastric, we find very less portraiture in Indian art. And not only that, imagery of rulers and powerful patrons is mostly missing in Indian art depictions because artists’ focus was mostly on the Divine and Universal.

The fact that it is rare to find any Indian painting or sculpture signed by its artist clearly endorses the mindset of that generation of artists.

Indian paintings are set much like a drama stage. There is a central figure in a particular stance and mood and the rest of the elements such as the background flora and fauna, celestials, humans and even colors play a specific role in amplifying the central figure in a related totality.

For instance consider the murals in the caves of Ajanta and that of Kailasanatha temple of Ellora or Cave-temples of Badami in Karnataka and Sittanavasal in Tamilnadu, the earliest surviving Indian painting with good details.

 Even among these; Ajanta murals, probably of the early 6th and 7th centuries stand out in popularity. These followed the golden Gupta age.

These paintings depict the life of Buddha Shakyamuni on his way to enlightenment. Buddha who has attained Bodhisattvatva is the central figure. He is tranquil, holding a lotus in divine serenity. He is also called Padmapani (the bearer of lotus). The sublime peace that pervades Padmapani in this Indian masterpiece is remarkable.

Padmapani mural painting on the walls of Ajanta caves

The serene, detached Padmapani is shown amidst contrasting paintings teeming with lively, vibrant worldly beings around and on the ceiling. The variety is innumerable: animals, mythical creatures, princesses, maids, soldiers, mendicants, merchants and so on.

These characters while being so much in contrast to the stance of the central figure of Padmapani actually amplify his detachment and play a role in complimenting the central figure.

These paintings were created with a plethora of knowledge that came to these artists through oral traditions solidified inpractice by generations of artists that painted palaces, temples and caves. The complex technical knowledge and narrative mastery possessed by artists of Ajanta indicates existence of several Schools of art, all expert in creating colors, painting techniques and procedures to prepare mural surface.

Such extensive artistry in painting, sculpturing, carving and architecture were based on many authoritative texts. Some of the main texts extant were:

The Vishnudharmottara Purana

The Samarangana Sutradhara of king Bhoja, ruler of Dhaara

The Manasollasa of the Chalukya king Bhulokamalla Someshvara

The Shilparatna

 The Aparajita Pecha of Bhuvana Deva

Among these Vishnudharmottara Purana and Samarangana Sutradhara extensively describe the technique of preparing painting surface using various natural clays.

Texts Manasollasa and Shilparatna describe surface preparation as per Southern traditions that use lime, burnt or powdered conch shells, calciferous clay abundant in South India for preparing painting surface.

The Pichwai painting art of Rajasthan

Vishnudharmottara Purana is considered most authoritative among these. Besides it attempts to preserve ancient art techniques systematically in that it empowers artists with a grammar to articulate their expression.

After describing the basic tenets of painting, it provides detail on art and painting techniques that literally run into hundreds, collectively called Chitrasutras.

It was Chitrasutra that gave a framework of instructions and guides to prepare walls and other surfaces to hold murals, preparation of colors and paints; their choices, ways of shading, proportions and ratios to be maintained while painting male and female figures as per their status and occupation in the society, not to mention the ingenious art of using flora and fauna and other objects symbolically within a painting.

Some principles repeatedly endorsed by Chitrasutra are depicted in Ajanta paintings; such as use of free flowing lines to delineate delicate figures along with shading sections of a figure to achieve three-dimensional effect or use of matching and contrasting colors to create spectacular effects.

Artists obtained their colors simply and naturally. For instance they used Ochre for Yellow and Red, lamp soot for Black and limestone for White. Blue was obtained from Lapis Lazuli imported from Afghanistan. These basic colors were blended to create numerous colors, bright and subtle, as seen in Ajanta paintings.

Chitrasutra regards expression of eyes as paramount and considers the essence of the subject to pour out of the eyes. It goes on to describe five basic types of eyes and tells the artist that eyes are the windows to the soul and it is through these that the figures in the paintings speak to the viewer. These were therefore the final and most important part of the painting, many a time painted in the presence of a master or directly by himself. This was called ‘Opening of the Eyes’.

No wonder then that the expressive eyes of the subjects in Ajanta paintings have and still influence generation of Indian artists.

Chitrasutra texts are very clear on the fact that a painting isn’t created with methods but is expressed by artists’ soulful visions. The text, humble and solemn at the same time says thus:

“ This treatise can only suggest Oh King, for this subject couldn’t be described in detail in hundred years. What isn’t said here should be inferred by other means. Painting is the best of all arts.”


Part 2 Coming Soon