This blog is currently being updated.

Encyclopedic work of three khandas
The Vishnudharmottara Purana is an encyclopedic work of three khandas and dealing not only with various stories, myths and legends but also with varied subjects, viz. cosmology and cosmogony, division of time, pacification of unfavourable planets and stars, omens and portents, genealogies, manners and customs, penances, results of actions, rules about vrata and Shraddha, description and praise of various kinds of donations law and politics, science of war, anatomy, medicine etc.

This work is divided in three khandas according to their subjects. First khanda is related with the pauranika legends and rebirths. The second khanda deals in pauranika ritualism. This is avowedly a Vaisnava work claiming to deal with various duties on the Vaishnavas. It recommends the Pancaratra method of Visnu worship, adds great importance to the due observance of 'Panca-kala'; holds the scriptures of the Pancaratra in high esteem and extols one who honours or makes gifts to those who are versed in these scriptures.The third Khanda deals with architecture, sculpture, painting, dancing and music, the basic topics of Fine Arts in a very comprehensive and systematic way that one can call it a complete treatise on the Fine Arts of ancient India.

Chitrasutra is that part of the Vishnudharmottara which deals with the art of painting.  Its compiler described it as “the legacy of the collective wisdom of the finest minds. Explaining why he took up the compilation, he said he was prompted by his concern for the future generations ; for their enlightenment , delight and quality of life . He said it was his firm belief that paintings are the greatest treasures of mankind as they have the aura and power to beneficially influence the minds and lives of the viewers.

In that context Chitrasutra makes some amazing statements:

Great paintings are a balm on the troubled brow of mankind.
Of all arts, the best is chitra. It is conducive to dharma and has the virtue to liberate (emancipate) an individual from his limited confines
Wherever it is established- in home or elsewhere- a painting is harbinger of auspiciousness.
Art is the greatest treasure of mankind, far more valuable than gold or jewels.
The purpose of art is to show one the grace that underlies all of creation, to help one on the path towards reintegration with that which pervades the universe.
A painting cleanses and curbs anxiety, augments future good, causes unequalled and pure delight; banishes the evils of bad dreams and pleases the household -deity. The place decorated by a picture never looks dull or empty.

Vishnudharmottara is dated around sixth century AD, following the age of the Guptas, often described as the Golden Age of Indian Arts. It is perhaps the world’s oldest known treatise on art. However, not much is known of its author, as is the case with most  Indian texts . Vishnudharmottara follows the traditional pattern of exploring the various dimensions of a subject through conversations that take place between a learned Master and an ardent seeker eager to learn and understand. Chitrasutra too employs the pretext of a conversation between the sage Markandeya and king Vajra who seeks knowledge about image making (shilpa).

King Vajra questions “How could one make a representation , in painting or image , of   a Supreme being who is devoid of form , smell and emotion ; and destitute of sound and touch?”. Markandeya explains " The entire universe should be understood as the modification (vikriti) of the formless (prakriti) .The worship and meditation of the supreme is possible for an ordinary being only  when the formless is endowed with a form; and that form is full of significance. The best worship of the supreme is, of course, contemplation of the formless with eyes closed in meditation.”

With that, the life in its entirety becomes a source of inspiration for artistic expressions. In another passage, Chitrasutra cites the nature that envelops the artist as the source of his inspiration. And,as regards the skill  required to express those emotions in a visible form, the text suggests that painter should take the aid of Natya, because an understanding of natya is essential for a good painter .

The Chitrasutra commences with a request by king Vajra to sage Markandeya seeking knowledge about image-making.

The sage then instructs that  without the knowledge of music one cannot understand natya. And, without the knowledge of natya one can scarcely understand the technique of painting. “He who does not know properly the rules of chitra (painting) ” declares the sage “can scarcely discern the essentials of the images (shilpa)”.

Chitra and Natya

The Chitrasutra says “it (natya) guides the hand of the artist, who knows how to paint figures, as if breathing, as if  the wind was blowing,as if the fire was blazing, and as if the streamers as fluttering. The moving force, the vital breath, the life-movement (chetana)  are to be explicit in order to make the painting come alive with rhythm and force of expression . The imagination, observation and the expressive force of rhythm are the essential features of painting”.

The Chitrasutra recognized the value and the significance of the spatial perspective.

He who paints waves, flames, smoke and streamers fluttering in the air, according to the movement of the wind, should be considered a great painter”

He who knows how to show the difference between a sleeping and a dead man ; or who can portray the visual gradations of a highland and a low land is a great artist “

The Shilpa (sculpture) and Chitra (painting) are closely related to Natya (dance) in other ways  too. The rules of the iconography (prathima lakshana appear to have been derived from the Natya-shastra. The Indian sculptures are often the frozen versions or representations of the gestures and poses of dance (capris and karanas) described in Natya-sastra. The Shilpa and chitra (just as the Natya) are based on a system of medians (sutras), measures (maanas), postures of symmetry (bhangas)   and asymmetry (abhang, vibhanga and tribhanga); and on the sthanas (positions of standing, sitting, and reclining). The concept of perfect symmetry is present in Shilpa and chitra as in Nrittya; and that is indicated by the term Sama.

The Natya and Shilpa shastras developed a remarkable approach to the structure of the human body; and delineated the relation between its central point (navel), the verticals and horizontals. It then coordinated them, first with the positions and movements of the principal joints of neck, pelvis, knees and ankles; and then with the emotive states, the expressions. Based on these principles, Natya-sastra enumerated many standing and sitting positions. These, demonstrated the principles of stasis, balance, repose and perfect symmetry; And, they are of fundamental importance in Indian arts, say, dance, drama, painting or sculpture.

Another aspect of the issue is that painting as a two-dimensional form, can communicate and articulate space, distance, time and the more complex ideas in way that is easier than in sculpture. That is because , the inconvenient realities of the three dimensional existence restrict the fluidity and eloquence of the sculpture.

Painting in ancient society

According to Chitrasutra, all works of art including paintings played an important role in the life of its society. The text mentions about the presence of paintings as permanent or temporary decorations on walls of private houses, palaces and of public places. Apart from wall paintings, the floors of the rich homes and palaces were decorated with attractive patterns and designs inlaid with precious stones.

The courtesans too were proficient in fine arts such as music, dance, painting poetry as also in body-care techniques.  Even a calculating courtesan would madly love a talented painter though impoverished. Somadeva Katha-sarit-sagara narrates number of delightful stories of such young and impetuous courtesans.

Kautilya deems it a responsibility of the state to support art-masters that spread knowledge among youngsters.

It is said; Nagarakas, connoisseurs of art, accomplished courtesans, painters, and sculptors among others studied standard texts on painting. Such widespread studies naturally brought forth principles of art criticisms as in alankara-sastra.

Education in fine arts like music, dance and painting was considered essential for unmarried maidens of affluent families. The ancient stories are replete with instances of young lovers exchanging paintings as loving gifts.

Painting – chitra kala- was recognized as an essential part of the curriculum in the upbringing of children of “good families”.

While on the subject I may mention that Chitrasutra observes:  the pictures which decorate the homes (including the residential quarters of the king) should display sringara, hasya and shantha rasa. They should exude joy, peace and happiness; and brighten up the homes and lives of its residents. Pictures depicting horror, sorrow and cruelty should never be displayed at homes where children dwell. For instance the text mentions the pictures which show a bull with its horns immersed in the sea; men with ugly features or those fighting or afflicted with sorrow due to death or injury; as also the pictures of war, burning grounds as being inauspicious and not suitable for display at homes.But, the text says, the pictures of all types of depictions and rasas could be displayed at court-halls, public galleries and temples.

Icons were generally classified into four categories: painted on the wall, canvas, paper, wall or pot (chitraja) ; molded in clay or any other material like sandal paste or rice flour (lepeja, mrinmayi, or paishti); cast in metal (pakaja, lohaja, dhatuja); and carved in stone, wood or precious stones (sastrotkirana, sailaja, daaravi or rathnaja).Early icons were made in clay or carved wood; and such images were painted over.

Hallow figures (sushira) of gods, demons, yakshas, horses, elephants, etc, were placed on the verandas of houses , on stages and in public squares etc. as pieces of decoration . Such hallow images were usually made of clay, cloth, wood or leather .

Paintings were classified  as those drawn on the ground- like rangoli, floor decorations etc (bhumika); those on the wall- like murals and frescos (bhitthi); and portrait (bhava chitra).The first two were fixed (achala) and the third was portable

The patas (poster like paintings) were commonly displayed in public squares. It is mentioned, such paintings were employed as a means and method of communicating with the towns people. The messages displayed picturesquely on the patas could be understood by all- lettered and unlettered alike.The art, thus, entertained educated and enlivened common people.

Appreciation of art

As regards the deities depicted in art, it is explained; in the Indian tradition a deity is a Bimba the reflection or Prathima the image of god, but not the god itself. Bimba is reflection, like the reflection of the distant moon in a tranquil pool. That reflection is not the moon but is a suggestion (prathima) of the moon. In other words, a deity is an idea, a conception or his/her mental image of god, translated to a form in lines, color, stone, metal , wood or whatever ; but, it is not the god itself.

Chitrasutra says, those qualities that we admire in a divine being are within us. And,  when we respond to those images brought to us in art, we awaken those finer aspects that are latent in us. When we are filled by that grace, there is no space left for base desires and pain; we have become that deity.

When we view  sunrise or a great work of art, Chitrasutra says, we experience beauty (ananda) as we let dissolve our identities and attachments; and become one with the object of beauty. It is a moment that bestows on us the grace that underlies the whole creation. Art, it said, is a liberating experience.

Incidentally, one of the criticisms leveled against the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma is that he resorted to photographic reproductions and with that his pictures were stiff and static, bereft of the dynamism and fluidity of the traditional Indian art. More importantly, by reducing the deities to the level of ordinary humans and by rejecting the concepts of abstractions, Ravi Varma denied the viewer the sense of suggestion, imagination and association with the ideal.

Elements of painting

While discussing the elements of a painting, the Chitrasutra says “ The masters praise the rekha's –lines (delineation and articulation of form); the connoisseurs praise the display of light and shade; women like the display of ornaments; and , the richness of colors appeals  to common folks. The artists, therefore, should take great care to ensure that the painting is appreciated by every one".

Talking about lines, Chitrasutra favors graceful, steady, smooth and freeflowing lines; but not the crooked and uneven lines. Its masters valued the effects best captured by least number of lines. Simplicity of expression symbolized the maturity of the artist.

The text appears to hold the view, while delianation, shading, ornamentation and coloring are the decorative aspects (visual) of a painting, the rekha, the lines that articulate the forms are its real substance.

Incidentally, the main characteristics of the Ajanta paintings are the use of free flowing lines for delineating beautiful figures and their delicate inner feelings; together with use of shading different parts of the body to produce three dimensional effects in the images. The other was use of proper colors at times contrasting and at times matching to create magical effects. These were precisely the principles that Chitrasutra emphasized .

The text says  in another context, when a learned and skilled artist paints with golden color, with articulate and yet very soft lines with distinct and well arranged garments; and graced with beauty, proportion , rhythm and inspiration, then the painting would truly be beautiful.

The text at various places airs its clear opinions on what it considers auspicious (good) and “bad “ pictures. For instance:

*.Sweetness, variety, spaciousness of the background (bhulamba) that is proportionate to the position (sthana) of the figure, resemblance to what is seen in nature and minute and delicate execution are the good aspects of a chitra.

*.A painting drawn with care pleasing to the eye, thought out with great intelligence and ingenuity and remarkable by its execution, beauty and charm and refined taste and such other qualities yield great joy and delight.
*.Chitrasutra mentions: proper position, proportion and spacing; gracefulness and articulation; resemblances; increasing or decreasing (foreshortening) as the eight good qualities of a painting.

*.A picture in which all aspects are drawn in acceptable forms in their proper positions, in proper time is excellent.

*.A painting without proper positon, devoid of appropriate rasa, blank look, hazy with darkness and devoid of life movements or energy (chetana) is inauspicious.

*.Weakness or thickness of delineation, want of articulation, improper juxtaposition of colors are said to be defects of painting.
*. In a picture one should carefully avoid placing one figure in front of another.

*.A painter who does not know how to show the difference between a sleeping and a dead man or who cannot portray the visual gradations of a highland and a low land is no artist at all.

*. A picture shaded only in some parts and other parts remaining un-shaded is bad (adhama)

*. Representation of human figures with too thick lips, too big eyes and testicles and unrestrained movement are defects.

Chitrasutra cautions that an inconvenient painting stance or a bad seat , thirst, restlessness, sloppiness and bad temper would spoil the picture.

Chitrasutra also mentions six limbs (anga) of painting as: rupa-bheda (variety of form); pramana (proportion); Bhava (infusion of emotions); lavanya-yojanam (creation of luster and having rainbow colors that appear to move and change as the angle at which they are seen change); sadreya (portrayal of likeness); and varnika-bhanga (color mixing and brushwork to produce the desired effect)

Rupa-bheda consists in the knowledge of special characteristics of things – natural or manmade. Say, the differences in appearances among many types of men , women or natural objects or other subject matter of the painting.

Pramana: correct spatial perception of the objects painted and maintaining a sense of harmony, balance and a sense of proportion within the figure and also in its relation to other figures; and to the painting as a whole. The sense of proportion also extended to the way major figures are depicted by placing at the centre and surrounding them with lesser figures in smaller size symbolizing their status Vis a Vis the main figure. The Indian artists were guided more by the proportions than by absolute measurements. The proportions were often symbolic and suggestive.

Bhava: consists in drawing out the inner world of the subject; to help it express its inner feelings. It takes a combination of many factors to articulate the Bhava of a painting; say , through eyes, facial expression, stance , gestures by hands and limbs, surrounding nature, animals , birds and other human figures. Even the rocks, water places and plants (dead or dying or blooming or laden) are employed to bring out the Bhava. In narrative paintings, the depiction of dramatic effects and reactions of the characters from frame to frame demands special skill.

Since color is a major medium in painting, the emotions and moods are expressed through manipulating colors, their density, tones, lines, light, shades etc. The ingenuity, imagination and skill of the artist discover their limitations here..

Lavanya –yojanam: Creation of grace, beauty, charm, tenderness and illuminating the painting and the hearts of the viewer. It aims to uplift and brighten the mood of the figures, the viewers and the surroundings.

Sadrushya: Achieving credible resemblance to objects of the world around and to the persons. The resemblances are not mere general but extend to details too. And ,

Varnika-bhanga: Artistic manner of improvising color combinations, tones and shades. It also involves delicate and skillful use of brushes and other aids. It represents the maturity of the artist’s techniques and fruitfulness of his experience.

Types of presentations

The paintings were executed on various surfaces: wall paintings (bitthi), pictures on board (phalaka), on canvas (pata), on scrolls (dussa-pata) and on palm leaf- mascripts (patra). The last mentioned, i.e. the scrolls were often in the shape of lengthy rolls facilitating continuous representations. The Chitrasutra instructed that the surface chosen should suit the purpose of the proposed painting; and, in any case, it should be smooth and well coated (anointed). That would help achieve a better presentation of the painting.

As regards the shapes of the boards and scrolls, Chitrasutra mentions four types: sathya- realistic pictures in oblong frames; vainika-lyrical or imaginative pictures in square frames; naagara-pictures of citizens in round frames; and misra – mixed types.

It is explained in the text , a painting which bears resemblance (Sadrishya) to the to things on earth with their proper proportions in terms of their  height, their volume (gatra), appearance etc. is the “true to life”(satya) category of painting. The resemblance should not be mere general; but, it should extend to details, such as all parts of the tree, creeper, mountains or the animals.While a painting that is rich in details, in display of postures and maintaining strict proportions; and when placed in a well finished square format is called vainika. It obviously is the delight of the connoisseurs. The nagara depicts common folks with well developed limbs with scanty garlands and ornaments. And, misra is the compound of the other three.

The text again cautions that an artist should not aim to copy.  He may depict the resemblance but, more importantly, he should aim to bring out the essence or the soul of the object.

The concern of the artist should not be to just faithfully reproduce the forms around him. The Chitrasutra was referring to what is now termed as the “photographic reproduction”. It suggested , the artist should try to look beyond the tangible world, the beauty of form that meets the eye. He should lift that veil and look within. The Chitrasutra suggested to him to look beyond “The phenomenal world of separated beings and objects that blind the reality beyond”.

Back to Top