The Legacy of Chitrasutra – One- Introduction

22 Sep

[This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on the Art of Painting in Ancient India. In the present set of articles, I propose to talk, briefly, about the influence of Chitrasutra – its outlook, its theories and its recommended practices – on the Indian mural paintings.

In this process I propose to cover some , not all , of the main mural paints of India that succeeded Ajanta , such as :  Pitalkhora (c.6th century) , Badami (c, 6th century), Sittannavaasal (c.7th century), Pannamalai (7th century), Kailasanatha-Kanchipuram (8th century), Brihadeshwara -Tanjore (11th century) , Lepakshi (16th century), Mattancheri (c.17th century) and Padmanabhapuram palace (18th century). I propose to round it up the discussion with a note on the sublime creations of Shri S Rajam, the classical painter who kept alive the tradition of Chitrasutra in the modern times.

The present post is a brief introduction to the subject outlining the characteristics of the Chitrasutra tradition. This will be followed by an account of the murals at Pitalkhora and Badami in the next section.]


From  the caves of Newari region on the borders of Nepal and China(8-9th  cent)

1. Indian murals

1.1. Murals in India date back to times beyond the pages of history. India has a rich tradition of mural wealth. The treatises such as Vishnudharmottara, Silpashastra, Manasollasa, Shilparatna, Narada-shilpa-shastra and Kashyapa-shilpa, discuss at length all aspects of painting, including murals. The murals are perhaps the only surviving examples of ancient Indian painting.

1.2. The Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara describes itself as a “legacy of the collective wisdom of the finest minds”. That legacy inherited by the Chitrasutra was, in turn, carried forward by the scores of artists, spread across the centuries, who produced priceless works of art. Those were acts of intense devotion and dedication. The earliest surviving of those works of art are the murals at Ajanta, which we have already discussed. The decorative motifs, richly populated compositions, well defined figures, appropriate costumes and adorations are some of the notable features of the Ajanta mural paintings. The tradition of Chitrasutra and Ajanta was nurtured, practiced and kept alive in other parts of the country, during the next fifteen centuries. The widespread acceptance and a sustained propagation of the principles of Chitrasutra in a country of diverse cultures and religions, is one of the marvels of ancient India. Some residuals of those ancient murals have somehow survived to this day.

sigriyasri lanka

Sigiriya-Sri Lanka

1.3. The Chitrasutra tradition, in a way of speaking, was the unobtrusive soft silken bond that tied the country together in a common cultural web, by providing idioms of art expressions that all could share and regard it as their own. It put into the hands of the artists a well structured grammar of painting. Chitrasutra was an inclusive and a unified tradition of painting. One of the main characteristic of this tradition was its remarkable unity and consistency. Though there were regional variations and individual styles, the works produced in diverse geographical and cultural regions shared certain common values, concepts and techniques. And, all those varied   manifestations were inspired by the general principles of Chitrasutra. The regional idioms, nevertheless, contributed to the richness of Indian art, and their mutual influences gave birth to multi-faceted development of Indian art.

2. Outlook

2.1. Chitrasutra tradition was at once Hindu, Buddhist and Jain; for its style was a function of time and region; and, not of the religion. It is not, therefore, strictly correct to speak of Hindu or Buddhist art; but, rather of Indian art that happened to render Hindu or Buddhist themes. For example, an image of Vishnu and an image of Buddha of the same period are stylistically the same; the religion having little to do with the mode of artistic expression. Apart from that, the Indian art that rendered the religious themes shared a common pool of symbols, gestures (mudras) and a common set of values that avoided imitation of the physical and ephemeral world of the senses.

Let me try to illustrate this aspect. In all  the Hindu , Jain and Buddhist themes , alike, the Chakra – the revolving wheel of time symbolizes the cyclical rhythms of all existence;  the Padma – or the lotus embodies creation – that springs from the bosom of the earth; the Ananta (represented as a snake) symbolizes  water – the most important life-giving force from which all life emerges, evolves  and then resolves; the Swastika – represents  the four-fold aspects of creation ,motion and a sense of stability ; the Purnakalasha the over -flowing pot symbolized creativity and prosperity; the Kalpalata and Kalpavriksha –  the wish-fulfilling creeper symbolize  imagination and creativity; and Mriga or deer – symbolizes  desire and  fleeting beauty.


Similarly, the gestures (mudra) by positioning of fingers, hands, limbs etc. , making explicit the virtues such as wisdom, strength, generosity, kindness and caring etc. are employed and interpreted commonly by all the persuasions.

3. Concepts

3.1. There is a marked absence of portraitures in the ancient murals. One rarely comes across the physical representations of the monarchs or the patrons who caused the paintings to be done. This could be viewed as one of the strength of Indian art. It strived to move away from the ephemeral towards the long lasting; and from particular to universal. It also meant that the ancient Indian kings were not vain enough to assume their portraits would override the art.

3.2. Even in cases where the figures of kings and queens were depicted, the emphasis was on the ideal person behind the human lineaments rather than on their physical likeness. Most of those kings and queens were celebrated in their idealized forms. Their representations were therefore visualized or abstract rather than “photo-like”.

3.3. That approach seems to have sprung from the concern of the artist not to just reproduce the forms but to look beyond the tangible world of appearances. The Chitrasutra suggested, the artist should try to look beyond the beauty of the form that meets the eye; to lift the veil and look within. It asked him to look beyond “The phenomenal world of separated beings and objects that blind the reality beyond”.


3.4. The art expression was, therefore, not about how the world appears to one and all, but how the artist would experience and visualize it. In other words, the Chitrasutra tradition emphasized that art was more than photographic reproduction of visible objects. It was about the experience of a person and his expression of it through art; and about his unique creative genius, imagination, enterprise and individuality as an artist. Its purpose was to present that which is within us; and to evoke an emotional response (the rasa) in the viewer’s heart.


3.5. The Indian murals are rich in expressive realism. For instance, the Paintings at Ajanta, Bagh and Sittanvasal testify to a love of naturalism – both in the depiction of the human form and in the depiction of nature.  Yet, they always seem to suggest to something beyond the obvious.  They not merely stimulate the senses but also ignite the imagination of the viewer. That experience, according to Chitrasutra, sets the individual free from the confines of place, time and ego (self).

3.6. That aspect brought into the fore the concept of the abstract; and with it a whole set of symbols and symbolisms.  Further, the objects in nature were visualized or personified endowing each with a distinct personality. That enabled rendering the absolute and the undefined, into tangible visual forms. It, in turn, gave rise to a tendency to draw abstractions from nature in a manner that was both aesthetically pleasing and very effective as decorative embellishment.  Painting also developed into a medium for expressing visual fantasies. The elements of natures like rivers, sun, moon etc   were personified bringing out their virtues and powers through eloquent symbolisms.  Birds and flowers, trees and creepers too were depicted with a loving grace and tenderness. In certain cases, idyllic nature scenes were created just to convey a sense of joy and wonder.

joy and wonder

3.7. The virtues and powers of the gods and demons too were made explicit by employing varieties of forms, symbols and abstract visualizations. The ancient Indian artist thus enjoyed far greater artistic liberty, freedom and felicity of expression as compared to his peers in the western world. That was made possible mainly because the Chitrasutra encouraged innovation and display of imagination. The text said, “Rules do not make the painting; it is the artist with a soul and vision who creates the art expressions”.

sarpa shiva

The Indian murals indicate that its artists took full benefit of the license granted by Chitrasutra. Its artists did not strictly adhere to the prescriptions of the texts, but improved upon them and instilled a life, rhythm and vigour of their own in the murals.


3.8. Chitrasutra while discussing the depiction of deities says, those qualities that we admire in a divine being are within us. 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.

The murals of India have that magical quality, which brings out the essence of life and the grace that permeate the whole of existence

4. Techniques


4.1. Traditional Indian texts have a three-fold classification: bhumikabhitti and prastara — floor, wall and ceiling respectively. Murals in South India, for that matter in India, are not the fresco type of paintings. In the present-day context the wall paintings are usually called murals (derived from the Latin root murus, meaning wall).The other term used to describe wall paintings is fresco , which generally refers to buon fresco, or ‘true fresco’ where colours mixed with water is painted directly on wet plaster. There is also fresco secco, or ‘dry fresco’ where the painting is made on dry surface. Most of the Indian murals, including the Ajanta murals, are painted on dry plaster.

4.2. One of the noticeable features of the Chitrasutra tradition is the deployment of its lines; delineating beautiful figures and their delicate inner feelings through graceful, steady, smooth and free flowing lines that capture the essence of a picture, in least number of lines. Its line-drawings are full of grace and vitality. The delicate touches and intimate details added   enliven the paintings.   The Simplicity of expressions symbolized the maturity of the artists.  Chitrasutra did not favour straight or harsh or angular or uneven lines.

4.3 . There is a natural quality and grace in the ancient murals; they almost seem effortless. The vigour, the strength and the power of a heroic figure are brought to life by the vitality of its lines; not by his fat muscles or his sheer size. Even the demons in the murals are never depicted as muscular or excessively fat. . The outlines are strong and very sure and there is an easy and natural depiction of volume, evidencing a good understanding of the rhythm and the structure of the human body.

Ajanta.2 jpg

4.4. The figures were never rigid and static. Their stances were always suggestive of flowing movements of languid grace and charming rhythm. Their display of the sense of balance is lovely. The painted figures of the “heroes” present a profound sense of peace and joy even while placed amidst activities and contradictions of life.


4.5. The Chitrasutra tradition regarded the eyes as the windows to the soul. And, it said, it is through their expressive eyes the figures in the painting open up their heart and speak eloquently to the viewer. It therefore accorded enormous importance to the delicate painting of the soulful and expressive eyes that pour out the essence of the subject. The lively sets of lustrous pools of eyes continue to influence generations of Indian artists; those eyes are, in fact, a hall mark of Indian art works.


Benoy K Behl  the scholar and art-historian remarks, ”This stylization, increasing linearity and the protrusion of the farther eye, which extends beyond the line of the face, are significant changes that take place in the paintings of Ellora. In later years, these are reflected in paintings over the whole of India”.

4.6. The other was use of proper colours:  soft and subdued, the lines firm and sinuous and the expressions true to life. The colours, at times contrasting and at times matching were artistically employed to create magical effects. That effect was enhanced by the skilful shading of the body-parts,  giving them a three dimensional appearance; and providing depth to the picture.


5.  After this brief introduction let us now turn to some of the celebrated murals of ancient India, which display the characteristics and influences of the Chitrasutra tradition that we so far discussed . To begin with let’s look at the ancient murals at Pitalkhora (Maharashtra –c. 6th century) and Badami (Karnataka –c.6th century) in the next section.


Legacy of Ajanta: by Benoy. K. Behl

Developments in Indian Art and Architecture:

All pictures are from Internet


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13 responses to “The Legacy of Chitrasutra – One- Introduction

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  5. sreenivasaraos

    March 19, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    dear sreenivasa rao
    after along time am seeing your blog.. the murals weere a great pleasure to the eye..
    and very informative blog..

  6. sreenivasaraos

    March 19, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    Dear sreenivasarao

    I just finished your first post in the series. This is a great introduction to Chitrasutra tradition of painting. I will go through the entire series slowly but surely. I admire your dedication here.
    regards S_R

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 19, 2015 at 8:42 pm

      Dear Shri Suresh Rao, I am glad you started on the Chitra-Sutra Series .Please read the rest of the articles too.Regards

  7. sreenivasaraos

    March 19, 2015 at 8:43 pm

    sreenivasa rao:

    delightful reading and a feast for the eyes!

    thanks for posting abeautiful blog!


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 19, 2015 at 8:43 pm

      dear shri an, thank you. this post was by way of introduction in an attempt to trace the influence of chitrasutra down the centuries. please also follow further posts in the series. regards


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