India has its own aesthetic.
Mughal miniatures to lurid truck art, there’s a distinct signature that makes itself apparent everywhere you go.
Art and architecture in India is more than just a legacy — it's a saga, replete with eccentric characters, thick plots, and dramatic themes.
From Akbar’s majestic capital at Fatehpur Sikri, to ShahJehan’s immortal Taj Mahal, let Encounters Asia’s expert guides share their insights on the intricate motifs, and narrate the incredible stories of how these magnificent monuments came into being.
Beyond architecture, the Mughal empire left behind a treasure-trove of art as well.
Mughal miniature paintings are not only exquisite works of art but demonstrate a fine level of detail about life in that era. In general, India has a rich legacy of painting. Thanjavur (also known as Tanjore), which is world-famous for the Tanjore School of Art, is an excellent example. Tanjore works are usually based on mythology and are richly embellished in 22 karat gold foil and vivid colours.
Thanjavur is also known for its bronze sculpture and is one of the most stunning temples in all of India. Brijadeshwara Temple is an ancient Hindu shrine, with enormous turrets, intricately carved out of stone. In neighboring Madurai, the Meenakshi temple is a living legend. It has twelve soaring turrets which rise up into the sky, that are brightly painted and decorated with thousands of scenes and characters.
Raja Ravi Varma to Raza, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were dynamic periods for both art and politics.
The Bengal School of Art, founded by Rabindranath Tagore, rose as an artistic and political statement to combat the European influences that were seeping into Indian art. Then there was a spate of talent like M.F. Hussain, Raza, and Souza, also known as the Bombay Progressives.
Encounters Asia can set up an expert-lead art walk that begins with the collection at the Taj Mahal Palace — an architectural landmark in the city, as well — and then takes you to some of the best art galleries, such as Chatterjee & Lal, Chemould, and the NGMA which are located in the same area.
Mumbai has always been a hot spot for artists. The Bombay Progressive movement came up in opposition to the Bengal School of Art, which dominated the art scene at that time. In fact, Hussain, who was inspired by Picasso, started his career by painting film posters on billboards in Mumbai.
Not everyone is a Hussain, but cinematic poster painting is one of the most quirky and underrated facets of art in India. It’s well worth a stroll through the by lanes of Mumbai to see these collector’s items tucked away in tiny shops in flea markets like Chor Bazaar, or exhibited at the National Film Museum. The cinematic angle also lends itself to Mumbai’s architecture, as several of the cities movie theatres were built in the Art Deco era. Mumbai’s ‘Deco is only second to Miami’s, and it has one of the largest collections of gorgeous Art Deco architecture in the world.
For Art Deco lovers, a stay at Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur is a must.
While the imposing exterior of Umaid Bhawan is a bizarre blend of European, Rajput, and Indo-Saracenic elements that magically fall into place, the interiors were decorated by a Polish artist named Norbilsk, entirely in Art Deco style.
Jodhpur is also a great place to not only get a sense of the Rajput forts and palaces but also learn more about how they have been restored to their former glory. Meherangarh fort, in particular, is probably one of the most dramatic fortresses in existence, but just a short drive away, the Ahhichatragarh Fort has recently been restored, and both these magnificent fortresses host the magical World Sacred Spirit Festival every January.
But beyond the palaces and fortresses, Jodhpur has a quirky, artsy secret.
It’s a hub for truck art, where the artists paint entire scenes, characters, and gods, on the bodies of cargo trucks, tankers, and trailers. From fierce portraits of Kali to natural landscapes, iconic slogans, and floral motifs, truck art is a wild subculture unto itself.
Like truck art, tribal art is yet another niche genre that we find fascinating. Encounters Asia has long-standing relationships with tribes like the Gonds in Madhya Pradesh, the Saura in Orissa, and the Warli in Maharashtra, where you can meet some of these artists and learn more about what inspires them to create these esoteric works of art. In far-flung Kohima, the Hornbill Festival is a great place to get acquainted with Naga tribal art. The motifs are usually inspired by nature, in a surrealistic avatar.
In the northernmost reaches of India, the Kashmiris and Ladakhis have a style of their own.
In these mountains, the architecture is primarily made of wood or stone. Ladakh’s monasteries are full of ancient murals, depicting mystical scenes and stories from a bygone era.
Gigantic painted scrolls called Thangkas depict the stories of mythical kings and saints, which are proudly paraded to the public during the Tsechu festivals.
Legacy and heritage notwithstanding, India has a thriving contemporary art scene today. Indian art has taken the world by storm and several artists like Anish Kapoor, Anjolie Ela Menon, and Paresh Maity, are regularly featured at shows across the world such as Art Basel and Frieze.
In India, the Kochi Muziris Biennale which takes place in Cochin between December and March every alternate year is an event worth adding to your calendar. The Delhi Art Show is also a buzzing event on India’s art scene.
From Delhi’s Chandni Chowk to Fort Cochin, both cities are spectacular for architectural aficionados and photographers. Explore the Indian aesthetic in various cities and regions, as Encounters Asia’s experts open the doors to India’s art and architecture for you.