History of Painting - Swati Trivedi

Art is essentially an expression of human creativity – a medium to communicate emotions and feelings. It takes the form of paintings, sculpture, music, dance, literature etc. Prehistoric man painted on the walls of caves, played wind instruments, carved sculptures out of bones and danced around fire, etched figures and symbols on rock to give expression to his creativity and his daily life.

The living traditions of any country are its cultural heritage, which constantly evolves, adapts and reinvents itself. India has the largest number of art forms anywhere in the world, mainly because its cultural heritage is rich, diverse and vibrant.

Origin of paintings-

Origin of paintings in Indian mythology is related to Brahma when he taught a king to make portrait of his dead son to bring back his senses. Vishvakarma is the divine architecture and presiding genius of art and culture.In India, paintings started with “Bhimbetka caves” near Bhopal, M.P. There oldest collections of rock painting are available. It depicts neolithic age’s everyday lives. Dated frescoes (paintings done on wall) are found in Jogimara Caves of Ramgarh hills in Sirguja, Nagpur, Maharashtra. It is presumed of first centurybefore Christian era.Numerous references to paintings are found in Brahmanical and Buddhist literature dating back to pre Christian period.

Traditionally art and knowledge is divided in 64 (chausath) Kalas which a human can master. Among these 64 Kalas, “Alekhya vidya” is art of painting. Six principles form the essence of any painting, namely:

  1. Rupabheda – knowledge of appearance
  2. Pramanam – Correct perception, measure and structure
  3. Bhava – action of feelings on forms
  4. Lavanya yoganam – infusion of grace, artistic representation
  5. Sadrisyam – similitude
  6. Varnikabhanga – artistic manner of using the brush and colour

Tribal & Folk Art- 

Tribal art is restricted to a single tribe whereas folk art may be practised by various people belonging to a large cross-section of society. The folk art of India does not belong to a particular period. It is a collective expression of rural Indian people driven by a desire to fulfil their social and emotional needs. The famous artist Henry Moore decleared that “folk art is something made by people with a direct and immediate response to life and for that matter rural art was not a matter of arithmetical calculation and academism, but a channel for expressing powerful beliefs, hopes and fears”.

Some Tribal & Folk Paintings of India –

Pithora Paintings-

Pithora paintings are made on walls by the Bhil and Bhilala of Dhar, Jhabua of Madhya Pradesh, the Rathwas of Panchmahal and Baroda, districts of Gujarat to honour their God, Baba Pithora (God of village) during the spring season. 

There is a noticeable difference between the style of painting and colour scheme between Bhils and Rathwas but the subject-matter and rituals are almost similar. Pithora paintings are actually an integral part of the rituals performed to thank Baba Pithora for their wish fulfilment. It is considered auspicious to paint the house walls with the images of a deity during occasions of birth of a child, good harvest, marriage etc. as they bring peace, prosperity and happiness. 

Anybody who owns a Pithora painting is highly respected. The person who is expert in Pithora painting is called Lakhindra. Only male members are allowed to learn the art. Women are not allowed to practice this art form. 

Gond Paintings- 

The Gonds, the largest adivasi community in India are of Dravidian origin and can be traced to the pre-Aryan era. The word ‘Gond’ comes from Kond, which means green mountains in the Dravidian idiom. Dravidian languages have received their name from the Sanskrit word ‘dravida’, which was used by medieval Indian authors as a denomination of the South Indian peoples and their tongues. The Gond called themselves Koi or Koiture, but others called them Gond since they lived in the green mountains. 

The Gond tribe is spread across Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. In Madhya Pradesh, for centuries they inhabited the dense forests of the Vindhyas, Satpura and Mandla in the Narmada region of the Amarkantak range. 

The Gonds narrate stories about their dogmas, gods, festivals, demons and everything else related to their way of life through paintings. It is an art form in which the painting in itself conveys folklore or a story. This art is practised chiefly by the Gond and Pardhan tribes of Mandla. On the occasion of festivals the walls and floors of houses are covered with beautiful colourful paintings. The forms take shape spontaneously in space. Interestingly, Gond paintings bear very strong resemblance to the art of the aborigines of Australia. 

Warli Paintings- 

The word ‘Warli’ is derived from Warla, meaning “piece of land” or “field”. Warli paintings are primarily done on the walls of homes with rice paste during marriage rituals or after the harvest season. Warli is the main tribe to be found on the northern outskirts of Mumbai, in Western India and extends up to the Gujarat border.

The Warlis inhabit small villages of thatched mud-huts, which are constructed in such a way that they all surround a central cell. The origin of the Warlis is yet unknown and no records of this art are found, but many scholars and folklorists believe that it can be traced to as early as the tenth century C.E.

Traditionally, it was women who painted these wonderful paintings and were joined by men later. Warli art became popular in the early seventies. It was the only means of transmitting folklore to a general populace not well versed in the written word. 

Saura Paintings- 

Hailing from the tribal culture of Odisha’s Rayagada, Gajapati and Koraput districts, Saura paintings are practised by the local tribe called Saura (also called Sora, Sabara and Sour). The Sauras are one of the oldest tribes of India. These tribes have been mentioned in texts like Ramayana and Mahabharata. In the Puranas they are called the Vindhya Maulikas, the wanderers in the Vindhyas. In the 7th and 8th centuries they made their presence felt in Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, in Ganjam, Keonjhar and Puri in Odisha, and in Andhra.

They practised medicine and had a vast knowledge of herbs and of mantras to induce healing. The Sabaras worship their ancestral god, Sonum, in the form of sacred pots smeared with turmeric and filled with rice, chillies, garlic and salt. These pots are hung from the roof. 

Santhal Paintings- 

One of the largest tribal communities of India is that of the Santhals. The Santhal tribe is spread across Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha and beyond. Particularly in West Bengal, they dwell in the districts of Birbhum, Bankura, Bardhaman and Medinipur districts. 

These paintings are in the form of narrative scrolls as well as ritual images on the walls. The clay wall is worked by hand to produce an image in low relief which is then painted with bright locally made dyes. In wall paintings, most of the motifs drawn by Santhal women are geometric figures such as triangles, squares, parallelograms, and creepers.

Animals and birds predominate in the imagery decorating the exterior walls of the homes.The rolled patas or scrolls are painted by professional painters who call themselves chitrakars. There are three kinds of paintings: the first category is a longish rolled paper with the theme of divine figure or description of any memorable event, the second category is laterally rolled paper and third category is square shaped painting which is generally termedas ‘Jadupatua’ or magical painting of enlightenment.

Cherial Scroll Paintings-

Cherial scroll paintings belong to Andhra Pradesh. Cherial in Warangal district is the traditional centre of this art. The traditional caste based groups from Jingor, Muchi and Mera known as nakkash, paint these paintings. Such scrolls were used by the story tellers accompanied by the musicians, alongwith dolls and masks made of coconut shell while the larger ones are made out of sawdust and wood called tella puniki smeared with tamarind seed paste.

Story tellers sing the narrative depicted in these paintings. The storyteller’s are accompanied with other performers who sit with their musical instruments on a large wooden bench to the left of the image. The scroll is ritually consecrated in a series of small ceremonies before displaying it to the public.

The performance with the painted scroll is a momentous event in the lives of the community of people who commission the performance. The houses of these people are whitewashed, cleaned and painted. Married daughters and their extended families are invited from nearby villages. Each household incurs expenses equivalent to hosting a daughter’s wedding for this event. 



The artists of Bishnupur in Bankura district of West Bengal produced a special set of cards known as Ganjifa cards in the 14th century C.E., a substitute of present day playing cards. They depicted ten avatars or incarnations of Lord Vishnu-Pisces, Tortoise, Boar, the Man-Lion, the Dwarf, Ram, Parshuram, Balaram, Krishna and Kalki.

Together these 120 specimens of dashavatar cards form a spectacular piece of art. It had various suits like Kalki avatar suit, Parshurama avatar suit, Ram avatar suit, Vaman avatar suit etc. Each category contained 12 cards.

The word ‘Ganjifa’ literally means wealth of money and grains. The Ganjifa cards are referred to by Abul Fazal in the Mughal period under the reign of Akbar in the 16th century C.E. Ain-i-Akbari written by Abul Fazl, mentions two sets of cards, one for commoners and one for ascetics. The method of playing Ganjifa cards is described in Humayun Nama, written by Begum Gulbadan.

The Arabic word for playing cards is waraq, which literally means a leaf or a page. A waraq contained 240 cards. Ganjifa had eight suits instead of four in present day cards, two black and two red. 

Ganjifa cards made in Bishnupur, Bankura district of West Bengal are similar to Ganjappa cards of Odisha. Ganjifa cards made in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra are of two kinds: Darbari cards have decorative borders and Bazaar cards are without a border. The king of MysoreTipu Sultan also patronized the making of Ganjifa Cards.


Madhubani is a village in the district of Mithilanchal in Bihar. The Madhubani painting originated in the area named ‘Mithilanchal’ where King Janak ruled or in other words the birthplace of Sita. The origin of this art form can be traced to the epic of Ramayana as Tulsidas gives a vivid account of Mithilanchal being decorated with Mithila painting at the wedding of Sita with Ram.

There are ample references to Mithila painting in Banabhatta’s Harshacharita. Its roots can be traced to Harappa and Mohenjodaro period which is remarkable for any living tradition.

At present, half of the area of ancient Mithilanchal is in Nepal and rest in Bihar. During the period from 1960 to 1970, Mithila painting became mobile and commercialised. The shift from the traditional, ritual-bound wall painting to individual artistic creations on paper ledto the emergence of several highly renowned women painters such as Sita Devi, Ganga Devi, Mahasundari Devi and Baua Devi. The main commercial centre became Madhubani, hence the name “Madhubani” painting.

Mata-ni-pachedi – 

In Ahmedabad, Mata-ni-pachedi paintings on cloth pertaining to the mother goddess cult are made as votive offerings. The painting comprises 4-5 parts which together combine to form a shrine of Mother Goddess. The literal meaning of the term ‘Mata-ni-pachedi’ is “behind the idol of Mother Goddess”. It is an aesthetic expression of the deeply set religious aspirations of the common folks in quest of bestowal of protection, well-being, prosperity and abundance. 

The painting is done during the time of navaratra, the nine nights festival celebrated after the rains when the earth and the mothers awaken. It recounts the myths associated with the seven mother goddesses. Each part is a narrative-a stand alone story of the deity. Another form of 

Mata-ni-pachedi painting is Matano candarvo (canopy for the goddess). Pachedi is used as a canopy that forms a shrine, or is spread over altars or worn by the shaman while worshipping or in a trance.

The Vaghari community is specially known to paint these pachedis. Only the men paint; the women are not allowed to conduct the sacred ritual. Mata-ni-pachedi paintings are traditionally in maroon, black, white, but developments have brought back an exquisite variety of muted colours in vegetable dyes, reviving a 4000 year old tradition.


The unmarried young girls in the villages of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh prepare the image of the goddess, Sanjhi or Jhanjhi deity, worshipped during Navratri, the nine day festival following the moonless-Amavas day of Asauj in September/October. As these paintings are made in the evening, they are coined with the name ‘Sanjhi’ or ‘Sangya’ or ‘Chandra Tarayya’.

It’s a group activity, the tradition of singing songs while making the image dates back to many centuries. The Sanjhi deity represents the nine main goddesses of Hindu tradition. They are Lakshmi, Kali, Parvati, Ambika, Vaishnavi, Gauri, Saraswati, Ramba and Jagdamba. 

The image is painted on the wall of the house in the village. The Great Mother Goddess Sanjhi is invoked to dwell in her image; her shape is a composition of triangles entirely covered with star-shaped clay discs. They are applied to a coating of mud and cowdung, which is applied to the outer wall of the house.

The small clay elements painted white and speckled with orange, blue and yellow cover the triangular shape of the Goddess. Her image is decorated with colourful flower petals and leaves. She is accompanied by the small figure of her brother who brings offerings to her on the eighth of the Navratri rites of nine nights, when his image is added to that of the great Goddess.

Chitrakathi Paintings- 

Chitrakathi patas are from Paithan or Savantvadi or Pinguli and do not go beyond a period of 250 years. Paithan was a hub of literature and art, both in ancient and medieval time. In medieval Maharashtra and some parts of Andhra and Karnataka, there was a section of people known as Chitrakathis. They travelled from village to village and narrated mythological stories to people. 


The Patachitra is the traditional painting of Odisha. The word is derived from Sanskrit word “pata” which means canvas and “chitra” means picture. This art style is dedicated to Lord Jagannath of Puri. 

The traditional offering in a temple is called a pat. These icon paintings are painted on wall as well as cotton and tussar cloth. The paintings on cloth are very delicate drawings drawn by the Mahapatras and Moharanacaste groups. The painter is called the patachitrakar for whom the painting of a Patachitra is a religious experience as well as a means of satisfying his aesthetic and creative urges.

The artists’ colony, known as chitrakarsatisurrounds the main temple.Unlike the scroll paintings of Bengal, Rajasthan or South India, the Patachitras of Puri, Kalighat paintings of Bengal and Chitrakathi paintings of Maharashtra are separate pieces of paintings complete in themselves.


The word ‘Pichhvai’ literally means ‘at the back’. Pichhvai paintings are done on cloth and serve as painted backdrops for installed icons of Shrinathji at Nathadwara in Rajasthan. Nathadwara is a small pilgrim town in Udaipur. The word ‘Nathadwara’ means Gateway to the Lord. His image, a black stone figure, appeared in the centre of the painting.

The face is featureless except for massive silver lotus eyes that draws the attention of the worshippers. In the background is a brilliant orange hue filled with energy of exploding sunlight. The deity in the painted cloths is adorned with colours, flowers and ornaments of the seasons–changing with the cyclic movement of nature. They are usually done in deep shades of blue and green since these represent the hues of Lord Krishna. Then they are touched with gold.

These paintings are considered a religious service offered to the temple, thus imparting a special quality and value to original Pichhvais. Wall paintings in old havelis, homes of the nobility in the Shekhawati region, are a source of inspiration for this craft to be reproduced on public monuments and the walls of the art-conscious. The art of Pichhvais is 250 years old. They are created by members of the Adi Gaud caste.


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