India owes the strength and influence of its art to its rich history of over twenty-five centuries, as well as its multitude of omnipresent religions and philosophical belief system that has always been supported by royal patronage. India occupies an exceptional place in the curriculum of universal history, both through the originality of its creations, as well as the variety of its techniques and sophistication of its representations. Indian art, which does not formally differentiate between fine and decorative arts, shows a remarkable unity that is linked to very rich and abundant iconography. There is real coherence and a remarkable homogeneity beyond the overload of motifs and the plethora of characters represented. In painting, sculpture, architecture, but also in music, there are strict aesthetic prescriptions on behalf of religions, which serve the metaphysical and whose duty it is to make possible an approach to the divine. It is a universal call that is obtained through the use of shastras, a set of scientific instructions, rules of proportions and religious prescriptions that are often versified.
The Neolithic cultures of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, situated in the Indus Valley, represent one of the earliest urban civilizations. These cities were equipped with hot water and sewage systems in orderly streets that were built with raw bricks that were then fired and bound to the clay. Their art already demonstrated a strong awareness of animalistic and human forms, depicted with lovely statuettes of mother goddesses and small animals in lightly fired clay.
With the arrival of Jainism during the 11th century BC, already adorned temples and monuments will be taken over by Buddhism.
This was the reign of painted caves, as seen in Ellora or Elephanta and formidable excavated temples as in Ajanta, Aurangabad or Mamallapuram. First developed in the north of India under the reign of Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya Dynasty (322-180 BC), Buddhism is accompanied by an authentic type of sculpture that readily uses the technique of carving in the round.
Stupas appeared in order to contain the relics of the Buddha and on which there was relentless sculpting of frescoes with narrative votives and symbolic episodes of his life. The capitals decorated with Buddhist symbolism, originally used to avoid the idolatry of Gautama Sakyamuni, are seven in number: the footprint of the Buddha representing the impact of his teachings on the world, the columns and the wheel symbolising his teaching, the empty throne, the lotus representing purity (as water and dirt never adhere to it, even though it grows in the mud), and finally the lions as a symbol of royalty.
Mahayana Buddhism, a separate school born in the 4th century, emphasised the role of the Bodhisattvas, compassionate beings who renounced their own ascent to Nirvana. This was taken up in Tibet and one part of the Himalayan regions. One also finds angry gods, carrying crowns made of flames or skulls. Shamanic religion gradually became integrated into the cults, allowing the insertion of local tutelary divinities.
It was in India that the first anthropomorphic representations of Buddha appeared, before developing in the region of Gandhâra, which was influenced by the Europe of the Greeks and to which one must refer for a perfect understanding of the history of Indian art. The art of Mathura and Gandhâra were undoubtedly influenced. The Gupta Empire followed towards the end of the period during the 4th- 6th century, with its pink sandstone sculptures of great finesse of execution.
The advent of Islam during the 7th century provoked a sharp decline in Buddhism and lead to the emergence of Hinduism. This was accompanied by a change in style and iconography, being as human representations were forbidden.
The art of India underwent strong Western-Mesopotamian influence: Iranian with the Persians, Hellenistic, Roman, and Islamic. Each provenance was assimilated to the point of creating a new and authentic style. The Silk Road to the north allowed India to spread all the way to China and Japan through Buddhism. It also expanded by sea to South-East Asia, including Cambodia and Indonesia. It is therefore quite surprising that despite both the great rigidity that was demanded in the execution of pieces and the total absence of personalisation, we have witnessed a parallel emergence of local schools with very autonomous styles. These schools were less concerned with valuing individual creation than they were with achieving perfect representations of nature.
Architecture during the Vedic period prescribed to this ritualism, the temples having to respond to the symbolic calls of the cosmos. The multiplication of walls and superstructures in the sanctuaries served to reproduce the heavenly abodes of the gods. The use of mortar-free stone in blocks or large slabs often assembled with sharp joints allowed for the construction of great temples. Sculpture represents the great establishment of themes, the whole evolving rather slowly due to regulations. Since the appearance of the divinity, its kindness or ferocity, its attributes, it’s armour and adornment, and the specific tetralogy that covers several heads, arms or legs, or animal incarnations.
The Medieval period witnessed the abundance that accompanied an eroticism that combined intellectual refinement with surprising bestiality. It could be said that every house that exhibits a piece of this very Oriental yet very Western art, cannot help but be engulfed and transcended by this bounteous speech made to the gods.