DR S Radhakrishnan said that “it is by its art and architecture that a country is judged at the bar of history. They reflect the vitality of the race.”
If this is true, there would be only few countries to pass the test. Greece was great for its sculpture and architecture, China for its paintings and Rome? For its philistinism. And India? India was known for its 64 kalas (arts). It all began in India even before the Vedas.
Sir John Marshall, Excavator of Mohenjodaro, writes: “There is nothing that we know in pre-historic Egypt or Mesapotamia or anywhere in West Asia to compare with the well-built baths and commodius houses of the citizens of Mohenjodaro”.
And because the Hindus offered all their artistic talents to their gods, they had only one objective to please their gods: excellence in what they did. If India had a reputation for excellence it was because the purpose of Indian art was sacramental. Hindus considered all forms of art as different languages for the worship of the divine. And the great displays of art took place in temples and were made in honour of the gods. Result? – a tradition of excellence which was a wonder to the world.
The artist was a priest. His primary objective was to redeem the world.
The representation of nature was not the aim of Hindu art. The Hindus never copied from nature, as the Chinese did. Hindus were not concerned with appearances of the actual, but with the imaginative reconstruction of the idea. And yet Hindu paintings have been hailed for their beauty.
Lawrence Binyon, an authority on art, writes that “there is possibly nothing much better (before Raphael) to be found anywhere.” And art historian John Griffiths writes: “For pathos and sentiments, the pictures on the life of the Buddha (at Ajanta) have not been surpassed in the history of art.”
The Ramayana says that every royal palace had a Chitrasala (art gallery) of paintings. What happened to them? They were all destroyed on the orders of the invading Muslims. Music and dance did not meet a similar fate. They were associated with mystic powers. Music, says Aristotle, could purge the soul of its passions and dance is most attuned to the infinite. In both the Hindus reached remarkable excellence.
The growth of art and architecture was rather slow. This was because wood was the common material in use for art and architecture. Demosthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of the Mauryas, says that there was a wall made of wood around Pataliputra with loopholes for the discharge of arrows.
But Ashoka introduced stones and rocks to carve his message to his people. He wanted them to last. He also built rock pillars, stupas, viharas and temples using stones.
Use of stones gave an unprecedented boost to temple construction. Orissa was the center of Hindu temples. They consisted of central vimanas (chariots) and minor vimanas. The orissa style of temple construction was the perfect specimen of North Indian architecture. Mention may be made here of the influence of Gandhara school on the arts and architecture of India, Punjab in particular. The Hindus gave great attention to minute details to render their temples worthy of their deities.
It is said that the Dravidian style of temple construction was influenced by the Buddhist style of rock templs. It is also claimed that Dravidian temples were influenced by the Zigguarats of the Sumerians. In fact, the Brihadeswara temple in Tanjore resembles the Zigguaarat. (It is also believed that the Sumerians were from Mohenjodaro.)
Jain architecture is somewhat different. They group their temples. Each temple was a donation of some rich merchants. In Kerala (where the Jain influence was substantial) the Jain round shaped temple were converted to Hindu temples on the decline of Jain influence.
I cannot conclude this article without paying thanks to Lord Curzon for preserving the Hindu heritage. On this Dr. Vincent Smith, the Oxford historian, writes: “Indian paintings drawn during the nine centuries have perished almost without exception. But for Abul Fazl’s express testimony the continued existence of the Hindu school of painting throughout the ages would have been a matter of faith and inference than of positive certainty.”