Classical ancient Indian art derives its defining character from the religious and philosophical outlook of India and from certain ideals that governed the Indian mind. There is in art, as in poetry and drama and music, a gulf which separates the Indian from the Western.
There is in the former always a religious urge, a looking beyond, such as inspired the medieval builders of Europe’s great cathedrals.
Beauty here is subjective, a thing of the spirit that may take shape in form or matter. Whereas the Greeks loved beauty for its own sake and found joy and truth in it, the Indians loved beauty by investing a deeper significance in their work, a vision of the inner truth as they saw it.
Identifying with nature
In the best examples of Indian art, the artists identify themselves with nature in all her moods and express the essential harmony of man with nature and the universe. This particular quality is the keynote of all Asiatic art, such as in the beautiful cavepaintings and sculptures of Ajanta, Bagh, Badami, Ellora and Elephanta near Mumbai, and Amravati in Andhra Pradesh, which point to a distant dream-like but real world.
Most splendid are the wonders of Ajanta. Here the caves, halls and chapels were dug out during the Gupta period, and lovely frescoes painted. They have exercised much influence on modern Indian artists, who turned away from the cares and concerns of modern life and sought to model their style on that of Ajanta.
The Ajanta frescoes, most having already perished, are full of tenderness and love of beauty and life, yet always with a foreshadowing of something deeper and beyond. They have their historical worth; for they depict the conquest of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and show ships carrying elephants. The frescoes were painted by the Buddhist monks.
Long ago their Master had said keep away from women, do not even look at them, for they are dangerous. And yet there are on the walls and murals of Ajanta beautiful women in plenty: they form a procession. It is amazing how well those painter-monks must have known the world and the moving drama of life, how lovingly they have painted it.
The same monks have also painted the Bodhisattva in his calm and otherworldly majesty. Referring to the Bodhisattva motif of Ajanta art and to the head of the Bodhisattva from Borobudur, which was taken to the Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Havell has said: “It is beautiful, in the sense of formal beauty, but there is something deeper in it revealing, as in a mirror, the pure soul of the Bodhisattva. It is a face which incarnates the stillness and the depth of ocean; the serenity of an azure, cloudless sky; a beatitude beyond mortal ken.”
In other examples of Indian art, there are the sculptural erotica of Konarka and Khajuraho. According to Indian tantric traditions, the erotic murals were actually intended to aid the yogis who sat in their front during their sadhana and meditated upon the statuettes in order control their carnal senses. It was indeed a quirk of aberration that prompted Gandhi to command their followers to destroy the erotic carvings of Khajuraho. It was Rabindranath Tagore who succeeded in halting this morbid iconoclasm of Gandhi.
The Buddha legends and the rich Hindu mythology provided inexhaustible material for Indian artists. These old myths and tales in stone and paint tell their own story of India’s multiform past in myriad ways, containing in itself some portion of eternity, betraying a rare aesthetic wisdom, and revealing a keen understanding and recognition of the creative spirit and endeavour.