Ancient History & Civilisation

Indian Art


The great age of Indian art—Its uniqueness—Its association with industry—Pottery—Metal—Wood—Ivory—Jewelry—Textiles

BEFORE Indian art, as before every phase of Indian civilization, we stand in humble wonder at its age and its continuity. The ruins of Mohenjo-daro are not all utilitarian; among them are limestone bearded men (significantly like Sumerians), terra-cotta figures of women and animals, beads and other ornaments of carnelian, and jewelry of finely polished gold.1 One seal2 shows in bas-relief a bull so vigorously and incisively drawn that the observer almost leaps to the conclusion that art does not progress, but only changes its form.

From that time to this, through the vicissitudes of five thousand years, India has been creating its peculiar type of beauty in a hundred arts. The record is broken and incomplete, not because India ever rested, but because war and the idol-smashing ecstasies of Moslems destroyed uncounted masterpieces of building and statuary, and poverty neglected the preservation of others. We shall find it difficult to enjoy this art at first sight; its music will seem weird, its painting obscure, its architecture confused, its sculpture grotesque. We shall have to remind ourselves at every step that our tastes are the fallible product of our local and limited traditions and environments; and that we do ourselves and foreign nations injustice when we judge them, or their arts, by standards and purposes natural to our life and alien to their own.

In India the artist had not yet been separated from the artisan, making art artificial and work a drudgery; as in our Middle Ages, so, in the India that died at Plassey, every mature workman was a craftsman, giving form and personality to the product of his skill and taste. Even today, whenfactories replace handicrafts, and craftsmen degenerate into “hands,” the stalls and shops of every Hindu town show squatting artisans beating metal, moulding jewelry, drawing designs, weaving delicate shawls and embroideries, or carving ivory and wood. Probably no other nation known to us has ever had so exuberant a variety of arts.3

Strange to say, pottery failed to rise from an industry to an art in India; caste rules put so many limitations upon the repeated use of the same dish* that there was small incentive to adorn with beauty the frail and transient earthenware that came so rapidly from the potter’s hand.4 If the vessel was to be made of some precious metal, then artistry could spend itself upon it without stint; witness the Tanjore silver vase in the Victoria Institute at Madras, or the gold Betel Dish of Kandy.5 Brass was hammered into an endless variety of lamps, bowls and containers; a black alloy (bidri) of zinc was often used for boxes, basins and trays; and one metal was inlaid or overlaid upon another, or encrusted with silver or gold.6 Wood was carved with a profusion of plant and animal forms. Ivory was cut into everything from deities to dice; doors and other objects of wood were inlaid with it; and dainty receptacles were made of it for cosmetics and perfumes. Jewelry abounded, and was worn by rich and poor as ornament or hoard; Jaipur excelled in firing enamel colors upon a gold background; clasps, beads, pendants, knives and combs were moulded into tasteful shapes, with floral, animal, or theological, designs; one Brahman pendant harbors in its tiny space half a hundred gods.7 Textiles were woven with an artistry never since excelled; from the days of Cæsar to our own the fabrics of India have been prized by all the world, Sometimes, by the subtlest and most painstaking of precalculated measurements, every thread of warp and woof was dyed before being placed upon the loom; the design appeared as the weaving progressed, and was identical on either side.9 From homespun khaddar to complex brocades flaming with gold, from picturesque pyjamas to the invisibly-seamed shawls of Kashmir,§ every garment woven in India has a beauty that comes only of a very ancient, and now almost instinctive, art.

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