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Literature, Arts and Handicrafts



The Indian literary tradition is the oldest in the world. It is primarily one of verse and essentially oral. The earliest works were composed to be sung or recited, and were so transmitted for many generations before being written down.

Sanskrit Literature India has 22 officially recognised languages, and a huge variety of literature has been produced in these languages over the years. Hindu literary traditions dominate a large part of Indian culture. Apart from the Vedas, which are a sacred form of knowledge, there are other works such as the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, treatises such as Vaastu Shastra in architecture and town planning, and Arthashastra in political science. The most famous works in Sanskrit are the Hindu holy texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, and Manusmriti. Another popular literature, Tamil literature has a rich literary tradition spanning over 2000 years, and is particularly known for its poetic nature in the form of epics, and philosophical and secular works.

Other great literary works, which marked the golden era of Indian literature, include ‘Abhijanam Shakuntalam’ and ‘Meghdoot’ by Kalidasa, ‘Mricchakatika’ by Shudraka, ‘Svapna Vasavadattam’ by Bhaasa, and ‘Ratnavali’ by Sri Harsha. Some other famous works are Chanakya's ‘Arthashastra’ and Vatsyayana's ‘Kamasutra’.

The most famous works of the Indian literature can be traced in the vernacular languages of the northern Indian cults of Krishna and of Rama. Also included are the 12th-century poems by Jaydev, called the 'Gitagovinda' and religious love poems written in Maithili (eastern Hindi of Bihar). Literature was also produced in the form of Bhakti (a personal devotion to a god) addressed to Rama (an avatar of Vishnu), most notably in the Avadhi (eastern Hindi) works of Tulsi Das; his ‘Ramcharitmanas’. The early gurus or founders of the Sikh religion, especially Guru Nanak Dev and Guru Arjun Dev, also composed bhakti hymns to their concepts of deity. In the 16th century, the Rajasthani princess and poet Mira Bai addressed her bhakti lyric verse to Krishna, as did the Gujarati poet Narsimh Mehta.

Hindi Literature

Hindi literature started as religious and philosophical poetry in medieval periods in dialects like Avadhi and Brij. The most famous figures from this period are Kabir and Tulsidas. In modern times, the Khadi dialect became more prominent and a variety of literature was produced in Sanskrit.

Chandrakanta, written by Devaki Nandan Khatri, is considered to be the first work of prose in Hindi. Munshi Premchand was the most famous Hindi novelist. The other famous poets include Maithili Sharan Gupt, Jaishankar Prasad, Sumitranandan Pant, Mahadevi Varma, and Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar'.

In the British era, a literary revolution occurred with the influence of Western thought and the introduction of printing press. Purposeful works were being written to support the cause of freedom struggle and to remove the existing social evils. Ram Mohan Roy's campaign for introduction of scientific education in India and Swami Vivekananda's works are considered to be great examples of the English literature in India.

During the last 150 years, many writers have contributed to the development of modern Indian literature, written in a number of regional languages as well as in English. One of the greatest Bengali writers, Rabindranath Tagore became the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize for literature (Gitanjali) in 1913.

English Literature

Several other writers also became famous in the modern period of India, such as Mulk Raj Anand, who wrote famous novels like ‘Untouchable’ (1935) and ‘Coolie’ (1936), R. K. Narayan, who wrote novels and tales of village in southern India like ‘Swami and Friends’. Among the younger authors is Anita Desai, who wrote famous novels like ‘Clear Light of Day’ (1980) and ‘In Custody’.

The other well-known novelist/ writers are Dom Moraes, Nlissim E Zekiel, P. Lal, A.K. Ramanujan, Kamala Das, Arun Kolatkar and R. Parthasarathy, Toru Dutt, Sarojini Naidu, Aurobindo, Raja Rao, G.V. Desani, M. Ananthanarayanan, Bhadani Bhattacharya, Monohar Malgonkar, Arun Joshi, Kamala Markandaya, Khushwant Singh, Nayantara Sahgal, O.V. Vijayan, Salman Rushdie, K.R. Sreenivasan Iyengar, C.D. Narasimhaiah and M.K. Naik.

Among the latest are Vikram Seth (‘A Suitable Boy’), Allan Sealy (‘The Trotter-Nama’), Sashi Tharoor (‘Show Business’), Amitav Ghosh (‘Circle of Reason’, ‘Shadow Lines’), Upamanyu Chatterjee (‘English August’) and Vikram Chandra (‘Red Earth and Pouring Rain’).

In the recent past, a whole new genre has started with the popular writings of women authors like Arundhati Roy, Booker Prize Winner for ‘God of Small Things’, Jhumpa Lahiri, 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner in Fiction, Shobha De, etc.

Folk and Tribal Art

India had always been known as the land that portrayed cultural and traditional vibrancy through its conventional arts and crafts. The 35 states and union territories sprawled across the country have their own distinct cultural and traditional identities, and are displayed through various forms of art prevalent there. Every region in India has its own style and pattern of art, which is known as folk art. Other than folk art, there is yet another form of traditional art practiced by several tribes or rural population, which is classified as tribal art. The folk and tribal arts of India are very ethnic and simple, and yet colorful and vibrant enough to speak volumes about the country's rich heritage.

Folk art in India apparently has a great potential in the international market because of its traditional aesthetic sensibility and authenticity. The rural folk paintings of India bear distinctive colorful designs, which are treated with religious and mystical motifs. Some of the most famous folk paintings of India are the Madhubani paintings of Bihar, Patachitra paintings from the state of Orissa, the Nirmal paintings of Andhra Pradesh, and other such folk art forms. Folk art is however not restricted only to paintings, but also stretches to other art forms such as pottery, home decorations, ornaments, cloths-making, and so on. In fact, the potteries of some of the regions of India are quite popular among foreign tourists because of their ethnic and traditional beauty. Moreover, the regional dances of India, such as the Bhangra dance of punjab, the Dandiya of Gujarat, the Bihu dance of Assam, etc, which project the cultural heritage of those regions, are prominent contenders in the field of Indian folk art. These folk dances are performed by people to express their exhilaration on every possible event or occasion, such as the arrival of seasons, the birth of a child, weddings, festivals, etc. The government of India, as well as other societies and associations, have therefore made all efforts to promote such art forms, which have become an intrinsic part of India's cultural identity.

Tribal art, like folk art, has also progressed considerably due to the constant developmental efforts of the Indian government and other organizations. Tribal art generally reflects the creative energy found in rural areas that acts as an undercurrent to the craftsmanship of the tribal people. Tribal art ranges through a wide range of art forms, such as wall paintings, tribal dances, tribal music, and so on.

Click on the following links to know more about some of the famous Folk and Tribal Art of India:


Handicrafts are the creative products made by the skill of the hand without the help of modern machinery and equipments. Nowadays, hand-made products are considered to be a fashion statement and an item of luxury.

India's rich cultural heritage and centuries of evolutionary tradition is manifested by the huge variety of handicrafts made all over the country. Handicrafts are a mirror of the cultural identity of the ethnic people who make it. Through the ages, handicrafts made in India like the Kashmiri woolen carpets, Zari embroidered fabrics, terracotta and ceramic products, silk fabrics etc. have maintained their exclusiveness. In the ancient times, these handicrafts were exported to far off countries of Europe, Africa, West Asia and Far East via the ‘silk route'. The entire wealth of timeless Indian handicrafts has survived through the ages. These crafts carry the magnetic appeal of the Indian culture that promises exclusivity, beauty, dignity and style.

Indian handicrafts could be broadly divided into three categories: folk crafts, religious crafts and commercial crafts. Popular folk crafts that are modified according to the demands of the market become commercial crafts. Myriads of handicrafts are made for the diverse rites and rituals associated with the religious faiths of the varied ethnic groups of India. Some of the handicrafts basically meant for the religious purposes are also liked by the people for their aesthetic value.

Visual Arts - Paintings & Sculptures

Paintings India’s heritage of painting dates back to the primitive era when man used to live in caves and rock shelters. Painting was initially started so that they could converse with each other by drawing graphics or images. Gradually it took the shape of art, which is evident from the caves in Hoshangabad, Mirazapur and Bimbekta.

Murals The traditional Mural paintings are found in the Ajanta caves in modern Maharashtra. The inspiration behind this style of painting is the compassionate Buddha. Jataka tales pertaining to Buddhist mythology forms the theme of these paintings. Anonymous artists painted them collectively in gracefully and with sensitive colours.

The paintings found in the Indus Valley may have had extensive mural painting, for the painting on the pottery found here projects vigorous realism.


With the coming of the 11th century, one saw the degeneration of the murals to the size of a palm leaf strip. One saw the birth of Manuscript paintings here. Bengal and Bihar introduced the manuscript telling Buddhist stories. Manuscript paintings diversified their theme by using symbolism. Symbolism was the spirit of the Indian miniaturists' visual expressions and affiliation with nature. Symbolism beyond the primary function of lines and pigments caught their interest.

The advent of Mughals in India uprooted the stable pictorial style of Indian paintings, which was also influenced by the traditional Persian miniature art. The Mughals were more interested in building empires and thus architecture. Only the great Mughal emperor Akbar patronized art, and he gave re-birth to miniature paintings merging the Persian and Islamic styles. Generally, the artists in Akbar’s court painted portraits, courtly life, battle scenes and the nature. But the art received a boost, when emperor Akbar commissioned the rendition and illustration of Indian texts like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Jahangir, Akbar’s son also patronized art and his reign also saw art thriving in India. By this time, the artists used other products for painting like malachite, lapis lazuli, gold, silver and ‘Peori’, a yellow dye extracted from the urine of cows on mango leaves!!

The artists of the Mughal court later constituted the artisans of the Rajput princes. The Rajput paintings presented, in line and colour, the great myths and legends of the land, the story of Rama, of Krishna, of the Bhagavata and the Gita Govinda. The various styles of paintings that reigned the Rajput period are Kotah and Kishangarh painting (Radha-Krishna story). Among the painting that thrived in the hill states set up by the gallant Rajput warriors, Basohli is unique for its intensity of expression, Kulu for its closeness to the folk style and Kangra for both its romanticism and large output. However, the mythical sources of music are depicted in the Tanjore paintings of the South.

Contemporary Art

With the strengthening of the British control in India, creative Indian art suffered a setback. The English engaged Indian artists to paint landscapes in water and oil colour, resulting in loss of originality. Soon the political wave hit the country and what came about was the famous Bengal (revivalist) School. The pioneers of this school were ace painters like Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore and Nandlal Bose. They contributed a lot in re-shaping the Indian art and motivating others for the same. Abanindranath specialised in portraiture, Gaganendranath in cartoonist-critic of social and political (mis) happenings of that time and Nandlal was an expert in painting epic themes and later graduated to explore Asian art. However, nationalism witnessed some of the painters move towards folklore. Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel Prize winner) gave a charter for free variations on naturalism, abstraction and expressionism. Today, India has a host of world famous painters like Jamini Roy (discovered the virility of the folk tradition and modulated it in many ways), Amrita Sher-Gill (integrated the pictorial idiom of the west and an Indian vision), Binod Mukherjee and Ram Kinkar. New genres of painters who have invaded the old space are M.F Hussain, Krishnan Khanna and Satish Gujral.


Architecture, sculpture, arts and crafts of India have their origin in the deepest channels in the history of civilization. Indian sculpture is primarily realistic and the human forms often have slim waists, supple limbs and a youthful or sensuous poise. Indian sculpture has grounded flora and fauna along with the innumerable deities.

The Great Baths of Mohenjodaro of Indus Valley civilization is the finest example of the ancient sculpture. The engravings in the temples of the Deccan like Kanchipuram, Madurai, Srirangam and Rameswaram and Varanasi in the North are standing examples of the excellent sculpture that thrived in India.

Not only this, the Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh and Sun temple of Konark in Orissa also speak volumes of the excellent work. Even Sanchi Stupa has fabulous sculpture embellishing the surrounding balustrades and the gateways dating from the 3rd century BC. The temple at Mammallapuram, Mauryan stone sculpture in the Lion Capital in the Sarnath Museum (from where the state seal of India has been derived), architectural sculptures of Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda depict the life of Buddha are other examples.

The Hindu cave architecture reached its zenith in Elephanta Caves near Mumbai and so did the Hindu and Jain rock temples of Ellora, especially the Kailasa Temple of 8th century.

The rich evidences of the art pieces of the past suggest that Indian sculpture once ranked one of the highest in the entire world.

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