The Art of Painting in Ancient India – Chitrasutra (5)

18 Sep

[This is the fourth in the series of articles I would be posting on the art of painting in ancient India with particular reference to the Chitrasutra of Vhishnudharmottara purana

The previous (third) article dealt with the physical features of various classes and types of images, proportions, projections, foreshortening etc. covered certain concepts and general aspects discussed in Chitrasutra.

The current article is about colours; the concepts, classifications and application of colours. It also briefly mentions about shading and how to go about drawing.]


13. Colours

13.1. Chitrasutra in one of its passages observes that delineation, shading, ornamentation and colouring are the decorative aspects of a painting; suggesting that rekha the lines that articulate the forms are the real substance of a painting.

At another place, the text remarks, “The masters praise the rekhas –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 colours appeals  to common folks.”

13.2. Yet, the colours are very important and significant aspects of a painting; they enliven a depiction. The text says , ”  when a learned and skilled artist paints with golden( radiant)  colour, 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.”

13.3. The six limbs (anga) of painting enumerated in the text include Varnika-bhanga, which represents the artistic manner of improvising colour combinations, tones and shades. It provides for infusion of emotion, creation of lustre and irradiance. That involves, among other things, delicate and skilful use of brushes and other aids. It represents the maturity of the artist’s techniques and fruitfulness of his experience

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

14. Colour – symbolism and suggestions

14.1. The colours in a painting have a descriptive and also a suggestive significance. Colours bestow a personality to a figure and speak eloquently of its character and mood. Colours also carry rich symbolisms; they might depict the gunas such as the satva, rajas or tamas; and make explicit the essential character and attributes of an image.

In certain  Vasishnava traditions  , Radha   the personification of love and beauty, is adorned in the colour dearest to her,  the enchanting blue of Krishna, while he  is clad in pitambara  the lustrous golden hue of his beloved Radha, signifying sanidhya ,  the sense of being ever together.

There was, in addition, a class of pictures called rasa-chitra, the pictures of emotions, also called varna-lekhya meaning interpretations through colour. These were different from realistic paintings and sought deliberately to represent various emotions through distinct colours. In this school, idioms of colour visualized a range of emotions; and, each rasa had to be portrayed in its uniquely expressive colour. For instance, Srinagar (erotic) was of shyama hue(light sky blue) ; hasya (that which evokes laughter) in white; karuna (pathos) in gray; raudra , (the furious) in red; vira (the heroic) in yellowish-white; bhayanaka ( the fearsome) in black; adbhuta (supernatural and amazing) in yellow ; and bhibathsa (the repulsive ) in blue colour.

14.2. The colours of our mythological figures represent, symbolize and convey their attributes. For instance, the highest divinities with supreme attributes (gunas) are sky blue signifying their true infinite nature; Shiva, the ascetic the supreme yogi is Gauranga; he is colourless and almost transparent, he is without any attributes; Hanuman and Ganesh are red like the blood;   full of energy, vitality and life; and Kali’s black does not signify absence of colour but is the sum and culmination of all colours and energies in the universe. Her black is endowed with limitless powers of attraction that draws into her the entire existence.

14.3. During the later periods, the Ragamala School of painting attempted translating the emotional appeal of a Raga into visual representations. Each raga was personified by a colour, mood, the nature surrounding the hero and heroine (nayaka and nayika).  It also elucidated the season and the time of day and night in which a particular raga is to be sung. The colours, substance and the mood of the Ragamala personified the overall bhava and context of the Raga. It is a delightful amalgam of art, colour, poetry and music.

II. Colour in Chitrasutra

15. Primary colours and their derivatives

15.1. Chitrasutra, in chapter 27, mentions five primary colours: white (svetha), yellow (pitha)  , black (krshna), green (harita) and red (raktha).  At another place (ch.40) it mentions white, yellow, black, blue (shyama) and the colour of myrobalan (the dried fruit of a bush that resembles a plum) as the five principal colors.

15.2. The text says , it would be impossible to enumerate the mixed colours in the world created by the dexterous mixing of various colours and their derivatives;  the combinations are limited only by ones imagination and logic. The mixing of the colours, in various shades and tones, is a mark of artist’s ingenuity. There is no limit to the numerous finer varieties of tints that can be produced. Colouring should be natural.

It appears, the range of colours employed by the ancient artists was wide enough to render with subtlety the local colours of the objects.

15.3. Chitrasutra classifies the application of colours into four categories: as those that are employed to depict (i) the faithful representations of nature; (ii) the true proportions but largely exaggerated size of the object; (iii) artificial qualities and perspectives of objects; and, (iv) an admixture of the three.

15.4. The text mentions five kinds of whites of light shade (gaura); and twelve kinds of whites of dark shades (shyama).

The light- whites are the : gold like white (rukma) ; ivory like white (danta-gauri); white like the split sandal( sphuta -candana- gauri); autumn cloud like white( sharada- ghana) ; and autumn moon like white (sharad –candraka-  gauri).

Some other texts, which followed Chitrasutra give a slightly varied versions of the light -whites as: milk, pearl, silver, star or a conch-shell (Kasyapasilpa); Foam-white, champaka and karnikara flowers (Bana); and lime (Manasollasa).

15.5. The twelve types of dark (shyama) shades of white which are derived by the mixtures and manipulations of white with other colours and shades, as mentioned in the text are:  the mixtures with dark red (raktha-shyama); with brownish red like the mudga pulse (mudga-shyama); with dark green like durva grass (durvankura-shyama); with pale green (pandu-shyama);with greenish like topaz (harita -shyama);with yellow (pitha-shyama);with brown like priyangu creeper (priyangu- shyama);with reddish brown like monkey’s face (kapi -shyama); with blue like blue lotus (nilothpala -shyama); with slight blue like casa bird (casa- shyama); with purple- lotus – red (raktotpala-shyama) ; and , with grey- dark like a dark cloud (ghana-shyama).

The objects gain a character (vishesha) and a dimension with judicious intermixture of colours.

15.6. The text then goes to describe the forms of a few other colours.

colour is said to be of three kinds: with white predominating, with very little white; or with both in equal parts.

When blue is transformed a great deal it becomes green; and, it could be pure green or an admixture of white; and green with blue predominating. Blue with black and red becomes metallic blue (nila-lohitha) .Blue is transformed variously while   in association with anything applied as an astringent.

Blue tinged with yellow and white gives rise to a variety of colours and shades; and to Blue- lotus colour when shaded dark.

Thus beautiful paintings should be made greenish like durva sprout; Yellowish like wood-apple; and dark like mudga.”

The kinds of red mentioned in Manasollasa and Kasyapasilpa are   : red lead (darada), crimson (sona), juice of lac (alaktarasa), blood red (raktha), soft red (mridu-raktha), and red ochre (lohita).

 “A painting in red and dark like the red-lotus (rakthothpala)
becomes beautiful when combined with white lac, covered by a coating of lac and resin

Four kinds of yellow are mentioned in Kasyapasilpa: golden (svarna), yellow (pita), turmeric (haridra) and like pollen of lotus (pisanga ).

As regards black,  Kasyapasilpa mentions four shades: of clouds (nila), of forest crow (shyam), of a peacock (kala) , and of wing of a black-bee (krshna).To that list Bana adds : light black like that of a buffalo; darker black like the face of a golangula monkey; black of the pitch dark night.

By proper selection and distribution of colours a painting becomes beautiful.”

A painting should be then very beautiful, when a learned artist paints it with golden colours, with articulate and yet very soft lines, with distinct and well arranged garments ; and blessed with beauty of proportions and rhythm.”

16. Colour pigments

The colour pigments were made from mineral and vegetable colouring substances (Rangadravyas) or dyes.

16.1. The text mentions some colouring articles : gold (kanakam ) , silver (rajata), copper (tamra),mica (abrakam ),lapis lazuli’s (rajavarta), red lead (sindhura), lead (tavara),yellow orpiment (haritala- a bright yellow arsenic sulphide mineral), lime (suddhe), lac (lakshya), vermillion (hingulakam) and indigo (nila).

It is said; in case of all colours the liquid of sindhura tree is desirable.

16.2. The text further says “In every country, there are many such substances. They should be manufactured with an astringent (stambhanayutah). The irons or metals should be either thinned into leaves (patravinyasa) or they should be made liquid (rasakriya) – by chemical treatment. A mica defile placed in iron should serve as a distiller. In this way, iron becomes suitable for painting”

[There is also a reference to dying the cloth with varied figures. Not only were paintings made of cloth but the cloth itself was dyed so as to be decorated with figures. It is a technique for which, later ,  was made famous by the weavers of coastal Andhra Pradesh.]

16.3. There is an interesting description of the process of turning gold into gold-paint. The text says:

“Pure gold, which is costly, should be slowly ground on a stone slab with an instrument (tunda) having at its tip the virana grass.

The gold-powder thus prepared should be placed in a bronze vessel and melted over again. Thereafter water should be poured into it and then be stirred up time and again. Now water of the vessel should be so carefully shifted that the stone-dusts remain for their solidarity. In this manner, pure golden pigments, showing the hue of the lustre of a newly risen sun, would be prepared. Thereafter, this gold-pulp should be mixed with a small quantity of vajralepa, should be placed at the tip of the brush and all ornaments, imagined as of gold, should be gilded therewith. When the gold applied in painting becomes dry, it should be slowly rubbed with a boar-tusk as long as necessary to attain a brightness of lightning.”

Sri rama durbar


A painting should be then very beautiful, when a learned artist paints it with golden colours, with articulate and yet very soft lines, with distinct and well arranged garments; and blessed with beauty of proportions and rhythm.”

17. Shading.

17.1. Methods of producing effects of light and shade were considered very important for projecting three dimensional presentation of the image.* Weakness or thickness of delineation, want of articulation, improper juxtaposition of colours are said to be defects of painting.”

One of the endearing features of Ajanta art is shading the 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.

17.2. The text mentions three methods in this regard: by crossing lines (patraja);   by stumping (airika); and, by dots (vinduja).  The first method of shading is called (patraja) on account of lines being in the shape of leaves. The airika   method is said to be very fine. The vinduja method is restrained (i.e., not flowing) handling of the brush while planting dots patiently.

17.3. While stressing the importance of proper shading of an image the text mentions that a painting in which an object is devoid of shading (varttana) is of average class (madhyama). A picture which in some parts are shaded and the rest is un-shaded is below average or is bad (adhama). And, a picture shaded skilfully all over is best (uttama).

A painting in which everything is drawn in an acceptable form in its proper position , in its proper time and age becomes excellent, while in the opposite case it becomes quite different.” 

“A painting drawn with care, pleasing to the eye, thought out with supreme intelligence and remarkable by its execution, beauty, charm, taste and such other qualities, yields desired pleasure.”

18. Brushes and crayons

The text mentions the tools required for drawing and sketching. Vartika was a general term used to denote both a brush and a crayon or a pastel for drawing. It appears Tindu was a crayon too, of carefully burnt ebony twig; while kitta was black carbon prepared as a roll for sketching.  Tulika was brush prepared, perhaps, out of animal hair like sable, squirrel and hog; and , of bird feathers. It is said; a painter used at least nine brushes for every colour.

The text says, “A painting firmly drawn with a tulika , a magnificent hairy brush , on a canvas dipped in juice of the best Durva grass cannot be destroyed ; and it remains intact for many years , thogh washed by water.”

19. How to go about the task?

The text briefly mentions how a painter should go about his task. The outlines ought to be drawn in yellow and red as a rule.”The painter should think of the proportionate size of the thing to be painted, and think of it as having been put on a wall. Then calculating its size in his mind , he should draw the outline marking the limbs. It should be bright in prominent places and dark in depressed places . It may be drawn in a single color , where comparative distinction is required. If depressed places are required to be bright , jet black should be used . “

At another place, the text mentions that outlines should be drawn with un-oozing black and white brushes in due order fix them on the duly measured ground.

Outline has to be filled with the first colour-wash which could either white or green. And, it can later be filled with colour in appropriate places.

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



 Chitrasutra continued

Sources and References:

I gratefully acknowledge Shri S Rajam’s sublime paintings

And other paintings from internet

Chitrasutra of the Visnudharmottara Purana by Parul Dave Mukherji

Stella Kramrisch: The Vishnudharmottara Part III: A Treatise on Indian Painting and Image-Making;

Second Revised and Enlarged Edition; (Calcutta University Press: 1928)

Technique of painting prescribed in ancient Indian Texts

The “Sarvatobhadra” temple of the Vishnu-dharmottara-purana


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17 responses to “The Art of Painting in Ancient India – Chitrasutra (5)

  1. sreenivasaraos

    September 19, 2012 at 2:32 am

    Thank you Dear Derek Kortepeter. You are welcome. Please check the other posts too.Regards

  2. sreenivasaraos

    September 19, 2012 at 2:34 am

    Thank you Dear Rohit Arya for the appreciation. Regards

  3. sreenivasaraos

    September 19, 2012 at 2:36 am

    Dear artlesspoems , Thank you.Regards

  4. sreenivasaraos

    September 19, 2012 at 2:37 am

    Dear Patrick Latter , Thank you for the continued support.Regards

  5. sreenivasaraos

    September 19, 2012 at 2:39 am

    Dear cherylmoore ,Thank you very much.Regards

  6. sreenivasaraos

    November 8, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    boldindiangirl , Thank you.

    You are welcome. Please check the other posts too.


  7. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:25 am

    dear sreenivasrao,

    i liked the way sketching

    shades and also colurs are clasified. i liked the way

    teh delniation of what masters like (form ) women like

    and comman man likes.

    excelent how shades of black and white jave been talked about..

    i was surprised tio note the

    colour myrobalan as a primary colur.. quite strnge ..


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 3:28 am

      ear shri sampath,

      i am glad you read it.

      regarding myrobalan, it referred to a few types of plums that were known to indians from a very long time. they were known as haritaki, amla (indian gooseberry), bulu and such other.

      they were either red or green in color .but, all those varieties are said to have wonderful medicinal properties; and are celebrated in ayurveda, siddha and tibetan system of medicines. they are regarded effective remedies for a string of ailments.

      the red ones with the color of cherry, i believe, are of a himalayan bush. myrobalan, in tibetan medicine (which is derived from ayurveda), is a verily rated medicine.

      the tibetan buddhism believes that the buddha ate a myrobalan plum after seven weeks of fasting: and that cleansed his system and enabled him to resume regular food- intake.

      in tibetan images, the buddha as beshaja_guru, the master of medicine, is always depicted holding in his left hand a myrobalan (arura, in tibetan) plum or a blooming myrobalan plant. that myrobalan is always depicted in red.

      image of the medicine buddha

      the chitra sutra (ch.40) mentions white yellow black blue and the colour of myrobalan, as the five basic colours. since red was not mentioned explicitly, i believe the last mentioned referred to red colour as of a plum.

      cherry plums

      the other day you asked me about the source of the green. i admit my reply was not quite ok chitrasutra mentions “when blue is transformed a great deal it becomes green; and, it could be pure green or an admixture of white; and green with blue predominating.”. does it make sense?

      do tell me.


      • sreenivasaraos

        March 20, 2015 at 3:28 am

        dear sreenivasarao,
        this information on myrablan is fantastic…
        blue and green are in the near by wave lengths.
        blue with yellow is green.. so this makes a lot of sense..

  8. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:26 am

    quite an interesting blog. i have an ancient text about the fundamentals of chinese painting but i had never heard of the chitrasutra before.

    incidentally, the name my guru gave me in 1975(and i still use within certain contexts) is chitrakar. my art, however, comes from inner inspiration and an awareness of modern art as well as the art of numerous cultures.

    best regards,

    harry chitrakar

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 3:26 am

      dear harryandhelen,

      delighted to see you here.

      thank you both for reading it through and for the recommendation.

      the one that you commented and the one earlier to that , dealt with some technical aspects of ancient indian painting..

      i wish you read the second article which dealt with certain concepts, principles and theories related to images and painting. you might have found it a little more interesting.

      and, by way of introduction to indian painting you might like to go through the first article.

      chitrasutra is an ancient text, at least of sixth century ad. it is a compilation of theories and practices that were in existence in the oral traditions.

      since you are a proper chitrakar, i am sure you are better equipped to appreciate the ancient text than that most of us.

      please keep talking.


  9. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:29 am

    .and these rich hues have withstood millennia…wow!

    you are revealing the secrets the master artists used ages ago, thank you!

    warm regards…

  10. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:31 am

    sreenivas: i was fascinated by the different colors representing different moods varna -lekhya

    . for instance, srinagar (erotic) was of shyama hue(light sky blue) ; hasya (that which evokes laughter) in white; karuna (pathos) in gray; raudra , (the furious) in red;vira (the heroic) in yellowish-white; bhayanaka ( the fearsome) in black; adbhuta (supernatural and amazing) in yellow ; and bhibathsa (the repulsive ) in blue color.

    and also the colors associated with the various ragas associated with the ragmala school. thank you for educating people like me.

    rgds, girdhar

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 3:32 am

      dear shri gopal,thank for reading and the appreciation.regards

  11. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 3:31 am

    very interesting article. just shows how much knowledge our forbears had when it came to to painting. the painting of siva is awesome.

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 3:31 am

      dear neera sanotra, thank you for the appreciation. i am glad you found it interesting. yes, the picture of shiva consuming all the venoms and toxins churned out of the ocean and protecting all existence , is truly beautiful. it is one of my favorites. i was waiting for someone to say “i like it much”. thanks for the appreciation. pardon me for the delay in responding. i was not keeping well for some time. regards


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