Hindu art is rich and diverse, it represents each region, aspect and culture that permeates in the Indian sub-continent. Western art, from Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman art, that is, the art of classical antiquity, through the renaissance and to the modern era shares a direct motif with Hindu art. Both schools of art feature religious and mythological figures and stories at the forefront of their works. Painting mythical and religious figures were very important and many wealthy citizens commissioned such works. Leonardo Da Vinci painted allegorical myths such as Leda and the Swan and Bacchus as well as drawings of Neptune. Other artists also drew inspiration from myths and religion such as Botticelli, Raphael (The Triumph of Galleta) and many more. The birth of the impressionists and post-impressionists moved western art away from allegorical themes and contents to a new way of perpetrating and spectating art. This movement was continued and exaggerated by the Dadaists and the Avant-Garde. In Hindu art, the allegorical themes have weathered any storm which may have come. The spirituality which Hinduism promotes transcends into totemism and art is often used in ritual. At the same time as classical antiquity, the Indian sub-continent produced mainly architecture and statues but of these works similar motifs prevail.
The Back Story
Like Hindu art, classical art from Greece is heavily architecture and statues. Though, it is documented that the ancient Greeks believed painting to be above sculpture. However, little remains of ancient Greek painting apart from numerous literature about the paintings. Temples in ancient Greece were built to appease the Gods and it is the same in Hinduism. Building temples and totems of the Gods brought peace and prosperity to those who participated. Busts and stone carvings of Gods such as Ganesh, Shiva, and Vishnu date back hundreds and even thousands of years. There is a statue of Indra in the Ellora caves in western India which dates back to 800 A.D.
If both schools of art have similar beginnings, they must also follow a similar path. Hindu art and the art of the Renaissance diverges on these paths, but I believe we can trace some similarities between works and between the representations they chronicle. The Gods of Grecian and Roman myth stood tall against art which showcased much more biblical ideas. Nevertheless, in Hindu art, deities marched on - the many arms of Ganesh and the six faces of Shiva among others, endured. A return, after the dark ages into the Renaissance period, saw Renaissance learning and ideology drift back towards the classical template. Many Renaissance painters took their inspiration from the description of classical Greek paintings, statues and relics of antiquity or the stories taught in classical studies. The most famous example of this is the Calumny of Apelles by Sandro Botticelli who painted it from the description of an ancient lost painting by Apelles. In the Indian sub-continent, the tradition of the Gods has been passed down generations through art and continues to have an important place within society.
Hindu art can be sensual and in most cases much more sensual than western art. Much conversation has erupted around the lateral influences of the representations of Shiva, in particular the ecstatic ritual aspects of Lord Shiva, by the Dionysiac cults. Both Dionysius and Shiva are characteristically represented by an erect phallus. Crossovers between Greek/Roman and Hindu Gods may be viewed as a cultural annexation during Alexanders campaign in India. Their representations in art are strikingly similar because views of religion and myth are common in their structures around the world. Many ancient Indian works of art that depict Shiva, depict him laying with Parvati similar to Venus laying with Mars. The latter two characters appear in works by Botticelli, Tintoretto and Caliari. Venus represents love and so does Parvati. Mars is the God of war and his and Venus’s offspring in their union is Cupid, the God of desire and erotic love.
In the more classical western tradition and throughout the Renaissance, eroticism is less frequent, but the female body as a thing of beauty and power is represented. Botticelli’s famous paintings of Venus; La Primavera and The Birth of Venus, which hang in the Uffizi in Florence and, Venus and Mars which is in the National Gallery London, exemplify this ideal beauty represented by the Gods which can be portrayed through allegorical paintings. Venus, covers herself, as not to be scandalous, looks placid and serene as she is born in to the world on the shell of a clam. In La Primavera Venus is central as other characters dance around her and her femininity represents birth, new beginnings, and growth. It would be crass not to recognise the idea of fertility within these representations of femininity and birth. Similarly, in Hindu art, Parvati, who is considered the Hindu God of fertility, is usually represented as fair, beautiful and benevolent. Both Parvati and Venus represent similar themes in their respected mythology and are represented in art through their similar qualities and what they stand for within religion and mythology. Fertility and sensuality are common themes in Hindu art because art carries a far more totemic burden. The sacred and the sensuous combine in a way that western art does not. The 2nd century BC caves of Ajanta depict beautiful and voluptuous women. The art is even more startingly when you discover that the cave was a monastery for ascetics.
Hindu art and classical art (classical painting and sculpture) not only use the mythological stories for the contents of their works but also poetry about these stories to inspire them. For example, Titans’ Rape of Europa is based on a popular myth where Zeus/Jupiter disguises as a bull to abduct Europa and then take her to Crete. This myth of antiquity was spread by writers such as Homer, Hesiod, and Aeschylus. Thus, in turn, Titan drew on these sources of poetry and prose as the inspiration for the painting. Radha and Krishna in the Grove painted around 1780 by an unknown artist, from the V&A permanent collection, is taken from Hindi and Sanskrit poetry. It, like others, serves as a symbolic background to the poetry itself. The painting is a Kangra miniature, these paintings often depict Krishna because the cult of Krishna was a passion of Sansar Chad, then ruler and dedicated leader of this school of painting. The painting depicts nature coming to life as the lovers embrace, the vines hug the trees in correlation with the lovers who are also entwined while blossom and leaves float in the stream. The two paintings discussed are very different in subject-matter. Radha and Krishna are a celebration of love and its power, its future and beauty. Whereas Titan depicts the abuses of love and power and deception. Though different both were born from the same ideas and methods. An interest and devotion to myth and allegory through the vehicle of poetry.
This brief essay has endeavoured to put forth ideas of a communal art between two very different schools. The similarities in representations of Gods and humans and how they are presented to achieve their representations is proof that Hindu art is as good and as meaningful of classical Greek, Roman and Renaissance paintings, architecture, and sculpture. In most cases, it has richer stories detailed into the allegorical and mythical scenes, more vibrant colours and an intensity that comes from wonder and devotion.
Article By: William Rotherforth
William Rotherforth is from West Yorkshire in the north of England. After studying Literature in Sheffield he made his way to London to do arts charity work before moving to Paris to study Art. He is a budding cook and filmmaker and spends most of his time reading or writing.