Sushma Bahl, International Cultural Advisor, Writes ‘5000 Years of Indian Art’

Illustrated Volume Looks at Rich Legacy, Color of an Ancient Culture

from Artes Magazine
Posted on 3 July 2012 | By Archana B. Sapra

A comprehensive rendition of the living arts of India, from pre-historic to contemporary times, is featured in 5000 Years of Indian Art, by Sushma K Bahl. The 240 page richly-illustrated volume, published by Roli Books, traces an ancient civilization, entwined in the history, religion and philosophy of the un-fragmented subcontinent of yore. The narrative weaves together the gamut of Indian creativity, a continuum spread over the millennia, its varied genres including frescos of the earliest primitive cave markings to stones of ancient art in the Vedic and Buddhist traditions and temples. Mughal miniatures, colonial and modern Indian art, sculpture, photography, and finally, crafted artifacts, media-inspired work, and popular installations traverse all of the eras, regions, religions, dynasties, mediums and genres, rather than, as the author puts it, ‘formally demarcating historical periods.’

The book, unravels India’s mystical civilization, its manifold cultures and sub-cultures, numerous faiths and religions, hundreds of languages spoken and written, and scripts- some yet to be deciphered. Enormous regional variations occur across a vastly varied geographic terrain with equally differing climatic conditions, costumes, food habits, all with long histories of invasions and dynastic epochs. The size and complexity of this multilayered repository of varied artistic genres, ages, domains and dynasties, are covered mainly through India’s sculpture and painting. Rich folk and tribal art forms, though integral, significant parts of the Indian art narrative, the author explains, have been skipped in the interest of their suitable representation in another volume. Working within the constraints of limited documentary material— illustrative, oral, and written— Sushma Bahl has sketched the simultaneity and multiplicity of Indian art, with its “seemingly contradictory but significantly assimilative layers”, open to diverse interpretation, conjecture and debate, with the help of material and recorded research findings of several other academics and art historians. In an attempt to assimilate this body of research and historical findings, Sushma Bahl’s comprehensive volume documents the evolution of Indian art in a cohesive, accessible, visual narrative.

To efficiently negotiated this maze of information, the book is divided into six chapters, featuring some 200 significant art works spanning the centuries andrepresenting many artistic domains of the sub-continent. The tale navigates the gamut, each chapter opening with an introductory essay followed by illustrations, accompanied by descriptive annotations to contextualize the work within the socio-religious-political-cultural dynamics of the given age and facet they represent.

The saga began eons ago with the pre-historic roots of Indian art between 30,000 and 1500 BC, including Stone Age tools and sketches in natural pigments of that age.. Listed as a UNESCO heritage site, the caves at Bhimbetka date to around 25000 BC, followed by a long period of darkness yielding no archaeological evidence to fill the gap. Bahl portrays the highly evolved era of the Indus Valley civilization, along that river basin about 3,000 BC, as a period when Harappa and Mohanjodaro cities emerged with well laid-out plans and houses equipped with baths, drainage systems and exquisite artifacts. These included the famous dancing girl in metal, terracotta sculptures of Mother Goddess and carved steatite seals used in ritual and trade.

A chapter on the ancient Indian art of the Vedic and Buddhist traditions beginning in 1500 BC, explores the assimilation of Indo Aryan elements with mainstream indigenous Dravidian culture. The author describes the era’s creativity with intricately carved Yakshis in stone as in that from Didarganj, Buddha relics and stupas found in Sanchi and Sarnath besides murals of Ajanta and Ellora, characterized by the decorative elements and refined sculptures of the Mathura and Gandhara schools. In addition to Buddha as a subject, the golden era of the Mauryan and Gupta periods featured Hindu and Jain iconography. During this phase Buddha and his teachings began to appear frequently in figures and portraits instead of abstract forms and emblems, leading to an upsurge in artistic activity. These included monumental structures and sculptures, carved ivories, moulded terracotta compositions, and palm leaf manuscripts. Vatsyayan’s Kamasutra is among other canonical texts of this period delving into the concept of beauty, and is regarded as a standard work on human sexual behaviour influencing the visual Indian arts for centuries. The Vedic and Buddhist period were represented by frescos, rock-cut sculptures and the temples at Ajanta and Elephanta, featuring imaginative and ornate scenes from the life of Buddha and other religious idols.

The third and the fourth chapters of ‘5000 Years’ comprise the early and later medieval Indian art– the 7th-to-13th and 14th to mid- 18th centuries, respectively. The rock-cut art and sculpture surrounding temple architecture predominated during the early medieval period, when artists worked in family groups and in guilds, in service to the God or king according to the canons laid out in the Shilpashastra (manual for the artisans). They rarely signed their work. More intricately carved creations and free-standing sculptural figuration and elaborate paintings, rooted in Hindu mythology and culture, such as the iconic Chola Nataraja and fine frescos at Virabhadra temple in Andhra, were also created then, gradually overtaking the Stupa culture. The famous Khajuraho group of Hindu and Jain temples later produced explicit, erotic sculptures in central India. The illustrated manuscripts and highly ornate, illuminated Mughal miniature paintings, portraits, and calligraphic work seen in Akbarnama and Padshahnama, as well as Rajput and Pahari paintings based on Mahabharata, Ramayana, Gita Govinda and other classical epics and literary texts, appear, in this section. Exquisite architectural marvels were produced, including forts, epitaphs and palaces. The Red Fort and Taj Mahal at Agra were among these, incorporating the Persian concept of bag-e-bahisht or char-bagh, ( i.e., the image of the garden of paradise with inlay work, carvings and adornments). Other decorative artefacts from the palaces of Rajasthan and Tanjore style glass painting from South India, also figured into the medieval period.

In a dramatic departure in chapter 5, Bahl then redirects the narrative, focusing on Colonial and Modern Indian Art between the mid-18th and mid-20th centuries. She notes the arrival of the British, initially as the East India Company for trading, thenI for imperial ambitions, when attracted by the country’s riches. The subcontinent became a part of the British Empire in 1877 when Queen Victoria was formally declared as the Empress of India in a spectacular durbar (assembly of acceded nobles and princes). The manner and grandeur of the durbar represented the first amalgam of British formalities and tastes with indigenous decorative arts and culture, to lay the foundation for the colonial or ‘company’ genre of Indian art. The author analyzes the work of those British artist-visitors, such as the Daniell brothers and their local contemporaries who captured the picturesque ‘Oriental Scenery’ to document the country’s social, political landscape for British official records as well as personal collections.

The hybrid Company School style that evolved among native artists incorporated free-hand drawing, realism, perspective, water colors and oil painting techniques. These replaced working from stencils and the more laborious gouache, but retained something of the Indian warmth and stylization of original, illuminated Indian miniature painting. Bahl also remarks on the impact of the printing press and photography, both allowing easier access to a wider world and the political turmoil that followed the World War and Bengal famine of 1943. The nationalist movement inspired artists to break free of colonial domination and consequently mirror the prevalent angst in their work. Native artists, led by the Tagores, struggled to reconnect with their roots distinct from the Western influence of colonial style and academics. It is here that the author brands this as what laid the foundation for the modern Indian art movement. Artists such as Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy, Amrita Sher-Gil, Raja Ravi Varma and others, unapolagetically portrayed contemporary socio-political realities in their work, no longer confining themselves to religious or romantic themes.

Sushma Bahl concludes her comprehensive volume with a chapter on contemporary Indian art—post-1947 independence– characterizing it as a vast vista of an independent entity with a flourishing art market. Liberation from the constraints of a rigid nationalist agenda and derivative formulaic patterns was triggered by the Progressive Artists Group including M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, and F.N. Souza, who were collectively open to Western abstract expressionistic genre. The establishment of art faculties at the University in Vadodara, Bharat Bhavan at Bhopal, and the Colleges of Art in Delhi, among other cities, as well as the support of government, private museums, art academies and galleries, helped the contemporary Indian art scene evolve even further. Results are reflected in the work of today’s artists- appearing in a range of new media, modes, and scale or, as collaborations with other creative people, beyond the two-dimensional or national confines, sometimes incorporating technology and bordering on art activism. This group includes widely exhibited-artists Subodh Gupta, Atul Bhalla, Thukral, Tagra and Raqs Media Collective, and others, who seem equally at home and in today’s ‘global’ world.

’5000 Years’ captures myriad influences that have enriched Indian art by contextualizing and analyzing the work within the ideology and culture from which it stems. Bahl’s narrative thoughtfully meanders through the expansive repository of art and artifacts featuring gods and goddesses, mythological stories and their philosophical under-layers, temples and palaces, courts and forts, battles and hunts, the zenana (enclosed quarters for females) and heroes, music, drama, dance and festivals, as well as everyday life in the street. This work is clearly aimed at a wide audience.Its essays, illustrations, descriptive captions are supplemented not only with a map locating ancient artistic sites within a contemporary geographical diagram, but also a time-line chart and inset notes on basic Indian art historical concepts– rasa, shilpashastra and Kamasutra–making 5000 Years of Indian Art a definitive reference book on Indian art and culture over the ages.

A review by Archana B Sapra, Contributing Writer
Archana Sapra, one of the two Founding Trustees of Arts 4 All, is an independent Delhi based arts consultant and qualified architect. She can be reached at:

5000 Years of Indian Art
Text by Sushma Bahl
Boxed volume with over 250 illustrations in color
Price: $75

In the U.S.-
Sudha d’Unienville
ACC Distribution
6 West 18th Street, 4B
New York NY 10011
Tel: 212 645 1111
Fax: 212 989 3205



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