Hotels in India » Art and Crafts in India » Women in Art Down the Ages

Women in Art Down the Ages

Indian art is the mirror of Indian femininity". These words tell the story of Indian art.

Indian art is coupled with Indian philosophy in which man and nature (purush-prakriti) are entwined. Nature symbolizes the woman.

The main theme in Indian art is woman. Perhaps that is why Indian art is sometimes called "female art". Woman is not just divine beauty or a fantasy, a spirit, an idea but also creator of new life. Motherhood, the ultimate desire of any woman was most effectively used by ancient artists. A full breasted, broad hipped woman symbolized fertility and was depicted thus in Mauryan art, Sunga art and Buddhist art. In whatever way she is represented the fertility aspect is always integrated with the Indian ideal female beauty. As art historian E.B. Havell wrote, " Indian art knows no Aphrodite or Diana but the majesty and mystery of divine motherhood, expressed with wonderful sincerity of feeling and splendid craftsmanship."

Indian art based primarily on the lines of Indian thinking gives equal importance to woman as to man. The Trimurti (Trinity --Brahma the Creator, Shiva the Destroyer, Vishnu the Preserver) cannot perform their duties without their Shaktis (goddesses). The wife of Brahma is Saraswati, the goddess of learning and wisdom; Parvati, the goddess of purity is Shiva's consort; Lakshmi, the counterpart of Vishnu is the goddess of prosperity and good fortune. All these mother goddesses have an equally important place in Indian art.

Besides these divine goddesses there are yakshis (semi divine beings) who are equally important. They represent the ideal beauty comprising sensuousness and fertility. The perfect example is the famous yakshi of Didarganj (now in Patna museum) of Mauryan art. This massive, shapely figure is a perfect example of a classic beauty.

The sensuous woman is fully exploited in the temples of Khajuraho (10-12th century). Here woman is shown in various moods and her consciousness of her beauty and power are in abundance.

But the best presentation and attribute to woman is by Ajanta artists in the caves of Ajanta. The paintings capture the attention of every art lover. According to art scholars the Ajanta woman is not just a woman but a phenomenon, "nowhere perhaps have women received such perfect understanding and homage". The mystical, symbolic, sensual, idealistic are all aspects of the Ajanta woman. Even in other Buddhist centres of art like Mathura, Sanchi and Bharhut women are portrayed elegantly draped in sheer fabrics. Artists felt no inhibitions in their portrayal.

Women in Mughal, Rajasthani and Pahari miniature paintings are more decorative. The medieval period was the court era. Art was under the patronage of rulers. The "Bharat Natyam Shastra classified women in 3 categories: goddess, heroine and courtesan (devi, nayika, ganika). The Nayak-nayika theme was popular with artists of the 16th-17th century. Heroes and heroines were usually taken from popular Sanskrit poems mainly of Krishna and Radha. These paintings depict the woman waiting for her lover or going to meet him. The whole scene, her eyes, attention -- everything -- is focussed on her lover.

In Mughal art women were presented simply as beauties -- bathing women with their attendants were repeatedly painted by this era of artists. In these paintings the status of women is shown in different ways like the royal ladies were normally shown hidden behind a veil (pardha) or within four walls surrounded by attendants. On the whole Mughal paintings portrayed women trying to please the lover and ignored the true sentiments of women which are an integral part of Hindu philosophy.

With changing times presentation of ideas changed and is reflected in the portrayal of women. In modern times the new, realistic and individualistic woman knows her mind, her actual place in society. Amrita Shergil, in her realistic portrayal of women became an inspiration for young future artists. She may have been inspired by the Ajanta paintings but she knew the plight of Indian women so she applied her own interpretations. Her "A Group of Three Girls" with their deeply thoughtful sad faces seem to carry fear of the unknown future. In another painting "Women on Charpoy" is the common woman, not the heroine of Mughal or Rajasthani miniatures. She is in rustic surroundings, not waiting for anybody, but deeply in her own thoughts.

It is not that modern artists do not paint the ideal woman. Raja Ravi Varma is famous for his paintings of aristocratic bejewelled women. The perfect woman in the parameters of Indian society is a loving mother, dutiful wife and obedient daughter. Raja Ravi Varma has perfectly blended tradition with modernity. On one hand he takes his theme from India's famous epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana or from Sanskrit literature in which he reflects the perfect Indian woman and on the other he takes his inspiration from French neo-classical paintings with sensuously rounded women draped in traditional finery. Who can forget his "Malabar Lady" or the portrait of Shakuntala, Sita and other legendary heroines of Indian epics?

Other modern painters are Nandlal Bose and N.S. Bendre. During their time Raja Ram Mohan Roy's crusade against social evils, especially the practice of sati (burning of a widow on the funeral pyre) made an impression on 19th century artists. Nandlal Bose's famous painting `Sati' is the product of that movement. The artist shows the plight of an Indian widow forced towards self-immolation.

Some modern artists have sketched women being exploited. Sensitive artists like Krishna Hebbar, Saroj Gogi Pal, Arpana Caur, Anjolie Ela Menon express their sentiments on

on canvas.

Anjolie Ela Menon's paintings portray women "trapped in their own world". For M.F. Hussain a woman is "... primarily principle of her life... most powerful and can change the world". His portraits of women celebrities are well known and in that series, in his portrait of Mother Teresa, he has captured the inner strength of the nun. His paintings of various Indian goddesses are in the form of Shakti -- strong and powerful.

Through art the different layers of a woman's personality have been revealed -- the divine mother goddess, the sensuous yakshi, the beautiful nayika, the courtesan, the exploited, the thoughtful...

 Email this page