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I am an Research Consultant at IDC, IIT Bombay, my passion is to explore how people make sense of the world around them. My areas of interest include experience design, communication design, interaction design, storytelling and visual language. I received my Ph.D. in 2011 from IIT Bombay. My doctoral thesis entitled ‘Moment and Moments: Discourse in Static Visual Narratives’, explores how stories (written or oral) are communicated through static images using the structuralist perspective. I like to make complicated things simple & transform boring things to fun!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Technique of painting prescribed in ancient Indian Texts

- introduction
- origin of painting
- instructions regarding time and ritual of painting
- preparation of bhumi
- carriers and grounds
- crayons and brushes
- source of colours
- mixing of colours
- binding medium
- technical process
- drawing
- human figures
- other aspects of painting
- unmilana
- topics described in ‘Chitrasutra’
- bibliography

Painting has a rich history in ancient India. It was considered a mode of worship and one of the noblest offerings to the Almighty. The painter in India was almost like a yogi lost in his art. According to the vishudharmottara an artist must be restrained, wear immaculate apparel, salute the holy ones, pronounce auspicious utterances, bow down to the deity, sit facing the east and start painting contemplating on the deity:
Hitrayoge viseshena svetavasa yatatmavan, brahmanan pujayitva tu svasti vachya pranamaya cha, pranmukho devatadhyayi citrakarma samacharet:
Vishnudharmottara 3, 40, 11-13.
Thus painting in ancient India was mainly handmade of religion. Therefore there were certain norms and methods to be followed to make a painting as it had to be the best and fit to be presented to the almighty.
Technique of painting thus was an important aspect.
In an early verse of the third part, the Visnudharmottara states that canons of painting would be better understood after the successive study of the disciplines of vocal music, instrumental music and dancing.
The Chitrasutra comes, therefore, after the Nrtyasutra, i.e. the cannons of
The myth of the first painting is interesting as it sheds light on the first

origin of painting:
The myth about the origin of the Chitrasutra is as follows:
It was the sage Narayana who made it for the good of the people. The great sage in order to confuse the heavenly damsels (who had come to tempt him) drew a beautiful woman on the ground with the juice of mango. Out of the picture was created the beautiful apsaras. She was Urvasi. [Urvasi is referred to as drawn on ground – urvyam and not on uru (on thigh)]. Looking at her the heavenly damsels were ashamed and went away.
Thus was created the perfect Chitra by the great sage.

instructions regarding time and ritual of painting:
The instructions of how a painter should work have been given. he has to start work in the Chitra Naksatra. He should practise abstinence before starting his work. He should wear a white dress, pay respect to the Brahmins and get their blessings. Then he should get the blessings of the teachers who are masters in the art according to precedence, then facing the east and meditating on the deity, he should start his painting.

carriers and grounds:
From early times Indian painter worked on
Wall-----------------------------kudya or bhitti
Panel---------------------------oatta or phalaka
Strips of cloth--------------dussa-pata (Samyutta-Nikaya)
Well polished panel-------suparimattha phalaka
Other surfaces-------------bhittadau (Shilparatna)
Preparation of the ground------Bhumibandhana (Samarangana-sutradhara)

crayons and brushes:
The gathering of tools and materials by the painter is referred to in the line chitrasadhanambula goni.
Surprisingly the tools required for drawing the sketch, the vartika as it is know, tulikas or brushes for painting, the colour pans mallakas , the colour box varnikasamudgaka and several other requisites essential for painting are not mentioned.
The line hitakarma samacharet svetakadravakrishnabhir vartikabhir yathakramam (3, 40, 13) names the brushes as vartikas.
The word vartika has itself been n a rather general sense of both a pencil and brush. The shilpa texts like abhilashitarthachintamani, the sivatattvaratnakara and the shilparatna use the word exclusively for connoting a crayon or pastel for drawing. It is named tindukavarti in the former text, while both the latter call it kittavarti :
Purvam tindukalehyam syad yad va vartikaya budhaih, akaramatrikam rekham tinuvartvirmitam, abhiashitarthahintamani; akaramatrikam rekham kittavartivinrmitam, sivattvaratnakar; alikhet kittaartinya, silparatna.
Here a distinction is made between a carefully burnt twig as a crayon and a rolled carbonaceous stump of pastille.
Tindu is a special variety of ebony
Kitta is a secretion coloured black with carbon and prepared as a roll or pastille or varti for sketching.
The process of the preparation is given in the Abhilashitarthachintamani:
Khachhuram bhaktasiktena mriditva kantakakritim, vartim kritva tatha lekhyam vartika nama sa bhavet.

The line samstambhitam chitram udarapuchchhaih (3, 40, 30) indicates the use of brushes prepared with selective animal hair like sable, squirrel, hog and so forth.

The painters in India used as main colours, white, black, blue, yellow and
red by an admixture of which hundreds of colours were made. The
‘Chitrasutra” classifies
four types of colours:
1) those which are faithful representations of nature
2) those which observe the true proportion but largely exaggerated the size
3) those which are particularly expressive of the plastic qualities and perspectives
4) those which are an admixture of the three
the rangadravyas or substances from which colour pigments are made are mineral and vegetable dyes.
Rangadravyani kanakam rajatam tamram eva cha abhrakam rajavartam cha sinduram trapur eva cha, haritalam sudha laksha tatha hingulakam nripa, nilam cha manujasreshtha tathanye santyanekasah, dese dese mahaaja karyas te stambhanayutah, lohanam patravinyasam bhaved vapi rasakriya,
Vishnudharmottara, 3, 40, 25-27
Kanakam – gold
Rajata – silver
Tamra – copper
Abgrakam – mica
Rajavarta - ultramarine or lapis lazuli
Sindhuram – red lead
Trapu – lead
Haritala – yellow orpiment
Sudha – lime
Laksa – lac
Hingulakam – vermillion
Nila – indigo
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) (chemical treatment).

Primary colours:
sveta – white
rakta – red
pita – yellow
krsna – black
harita - green

suddhavarna 4 in number
llasa – white (from lime)
sona- red lead
rakta- blood red
lohita- red ochra
haritala – yellow orpiment

sita- white
pita- yellow
rakta- red
kajjala- black
syama- dark shade

sources of colours:
white – sveta / sita:
Manasollasa and Silparatna
Both text have noted white-clay or kaolin and lime i.e. sudha, prepared from burnt conch, oyster or other shells, as the main source of white pigments.
Refers to one that can be obtained from the Nilgiri mountain of the south.
This particular white was renowned as naga, i.e. born of mountain, and its whiteness rivaled that of the moon.
4 types of white
sveta – like the colour of pearl
sukla – like that of a conch-shell
dhavala – like silver or milk
avadata – like that of a star
Connoisseurs of painting were capable to discern various shades of a colour in ancient India.
For e.g. Bana gives various names for the distinctive shades of different colours.
For white:
White of conch-shell and milk
Shades of ivory-white

darada – red lead
sona – crimson
alaktarasa- juice of lac
rakta – blood red
lohita – red ochre
sindura – red lead
mrdurakta – soft red
madhyarakta – red orchre for middle red
laksarasa – juice of lac
atirakta – deep red

4 distinct shades
svarna – golden
pisanga – that of shore
pita – yellow
harita = haridra – turmeric

4 distinct shades
nila – hue of clouds
syama – that of forest crow
kala – that of a peacock
krsna – colour of the wing of a balck-bee
Bana gives various names for the distinctive shades of black.
light black – that of a buffalo
darker black – like the face of a golangula monkey
black of the pitch dark night – resembles the wing of the bird casa

Metalic colours perparation:
It is stated that the application in painting metals should be either thinned into leaves (patravinyasa) or made liquid by chemical treatment (rasakriya).
As for the preparation of the metallic colours, it is advised that the metals should be turned into liquid by putting them into a narrow vessel.
- fragmented gold-leaves should be put into the pit of a mortar and then be levigated with the help of a grindstone. (Silparatna)
- mica should be transformed into liquid bitumen and bellium. (Visnudharmottara)

Application of metallic colours: (Manasollasa):
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 luster 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.

mixing of colours:
The primary colours mularanga are
sveta - white
rakta - red
pita - yellow
krsna - black
harita - green
sveto raktas tatha pitah krishno harita eva cha, mulavarnas samakhyatah panha parthivasattama, ekadvitrisamayagat bhavakalpanaya tatha, sankhyaivantaravarnanam loke kartum na sakyate.
Nrittasutra in Vishnudharmottara, 3, 27, 8-9
By mixing one, two or three of the colours and by a manipulation of the imagination of the artist, there is no limit to the numerous finer varieties of tints that can be produced.

- Chavis or colours of skin based upon primary colours:
The word chavi is to be taken to mean the colour of the skin or of a surface in the case of paintings.
The 2 principal colours for painting the skin are
Dark syama or White gaura

The dark of the skin is of 12 kinds while the white is of 5 kinds:
Dark syama
Reddish dark raktasyama
Dark like the mudga pulse mudgasyama
Dark like druva grass durvankurasyama
Pale dark pandusyama
Greenish dark haritasyama
Yellowish dark pitasyama
Dark like priyangu creeper priyangusyama
Dark like monkey’s face kapisyama
Dark like a blue lotus nilotpalasyama
Dark like the casa bird casasyama
Dark like red lotus raktotpalasyama
Dark like cloud ghanasyama

White gaura
Gold like white rukma
Ivory like white dantagauri
White like the split sandal sphutacandanagauri
Autum cloud like white saradghana
Autum moon like white candraka gauri

binding media:
In the process of preparing the ground and then in fastening colours on that
ground, the binding medium plays a very significant role in painting.
In fact in the characterization of technique of a painting the nature of the medium is always taken into consideration; and accordingly, the universally accepted classification, such as, oil, water, tempera, fresco, etc. is generally formulated on the basis of the medium.
Shilpa text – medium from animal source
medium from vegetable source

preparation of bhumi:
- preparation of wall : bhittisamakara
The preparation of loam to be applied to the plaster on the wall to make a proper base for painting is as follows: a mixture of powdered brick, gum resin, bees wax, molasses, oil, burnt lime plaster, in definite proportions, pulp of bilva, bark or pinhchhila, sand and lime all to be soaked for a month in water. The surface of the wall to painted on has to be prepared by the application of this loam, the coat neither too thick nor too thin, making it meticulously even in its surface and glossy, smoothned with clayey liquid, juice of sarja and oil and rubbed by repeated sprinkling of milk, so that when it is dry it could last a century.

- preparation of board phalaka or canvas pata : ghattana
in the case of canvas on a board, vidyaranya describes that process in
his Panchadasi, yatha dhauto ghattitascha lanchhito ranjitah patah’
‘like the canvas whitened, prepared, marked i.e. sketched out and
- phalaka ghattinchi : is the preparation of the board with canvas applied to it.
- Merungidi: which literally means ‘giving brilliance’

technical process:
A couple of verses of the Samarangana-sutradhara, though corrupt, throw a flood of light on the method to be followed while painting.
These verses refer to ‘eight-limbs’ (asta-angani) of painting to which an artist should adhere for achieving success as a painter.
Coomaraswamy made a careful study of these verses. Thus according to him the eight stages covered by the verses are:

- Composition
The Indian artist when represent the character of the Buddha or the
Budhisattva, of the gods and goddesses, did not lay emphasis on any
passing feeling of delight, anger, hatred or the like, but they tried to
discover the true personality as the object of creation.
This personality was perceived by them as dominating over individual
moments of varying emotions and could be regarded as characterizing
the soul or essence of the artist’s object of creation.
This personality was a passing phase and could not, therefore, have
been visually perceived, but it was constructed by the artist’s mind
and intuited in contemplation.
In composition the central figure is given importance and the other
figures lead to the heightening of the fundamental emotions or fuller
expression of the central figure for which alone the others existed.

- varnaka or praticchanda
The artist should first draw a rough sketch and then produce their
pictures. This rough sketch seems to be called as varnaka or

- the commentator
the painter should draw the picture with white, dark yellow or reddish
brown kadrava and with black brushes in due order. He should then
apply colour in accordance with the sthana.

- line quality
the picture must be graceful, free of crooked lines. The painter is adept in
His lines are steady and even. It is said in the Vishnudharmottara that the
great masters, aharyas, valued most the line drawing composing the picture.
There were others among the masters who also paid great attention to the
creation of an illusion of depth by shading. Women generally preferred
ornamentation in a picture and the general spectator reveled in colour,
rekham prasamsantyacharya vartanam apare jaguh, striyo bhushanam ichichanti varnadhyam itare janah,
Vishnudharmottara 3, 41, 11.
The lines composing a picture, were laid in as laconic a manner as probably the sutrakaras like Panini, who enjoyed.
The artist and the art critics appreciated the best effect in a picture captured by the minimum of lines composing the figure. In the Viddhasalabhanjika occours the remark of the vidushaka that the painting looks complete with even a minimum of drawing,
api laghu likhiteyam drisyate purnamurtih.
The chitrasutra gives the highest tribute to the painter who can paint with ease rolling waves, darting flames, smoky streaks, fluttering banners and apasarases floating in the sky indicating the direction and movement of the wind.
Tarangagnisikhadhumam vaijayantyapsaradikam, vayugatya likhed yas tu vijneyas sa tu chitravit.
Vishnudharmottara 3, 43, 28.
It also reckons as a great master one who can draw accurately a chosen subject clearly indicating it as asleep or unconscious or dead as the case may be.
suptam cha chetanayuktam mritam chitanyavarjitam, nimnonnatavibhagam cha yah karoti sa chitravit,
Vishnudharmottara 3, 43, 29.
The Vishnudharmottara lays down that, as in dance so in painting, there is to be a close observation and reproduction of the world around us in as charming a style as possible
yatha nritte tatha hitre trailokyanukritis smrita.

- Vartana
The author of Vishnudharmottara has used the word ‘vartana’ the meaning of which is controversial. Vishnudharmottara enumerates 3 types of vartana
Raikhika- fine lineation, binduja – stippling and patraja - cross-hatching.
In the paper titled ‘a peep into the world chitra’ the author madam
Vijayanti has shed a new light.
“ previous scholars envisaged the meaning of Vartana as ‘shade and
light’ on a closer look at the word vartana……..

- kshayavridhi or foreshortning
The concept of foreshortning i.e. the lengthening or the shrinking of the
limbs is called
Kshaya-vriddhi. It is explained with the nine postures when viewed from
different angles.
In describing the various kinds of postures the “Chitrasutra” advises the
display of various kinds of light and shade in and through which the exact
position of the postures could be expressed. According to diversity in
posture there is a diversity of relation of the different parts of the body
which disturbs the normal relation that the head bears to the different limbs.
Twelve such postures are described in the “Chitrasutra”.

human figures:
In the canons of Indian art there is a definite and prescribed
proportion of the limbs and their ratio to one another. The Indian artist paid
more attention to ratio than to the actual standard of measurement of the
different limbs.
The ratio being the same, the figures may be pigmy or colossal. A standard
measurement, however, was in vogue.
Angula: the measurements of the 5 types are given in terms of angula.
The measurement of each of the types would be relative to their respective

Tala: in the context of mana or proportion, the division of the limbs in terms of tala measurement is elaborately discussed in the Vishnudharmottara. Tala is made up of 12 inches dvadasangulavistaras tala ityabhidhiyate 3,35,11.
Tala is said to be of 12 angulas in extant.

5 kinds of male bodies and their characteristics
Hamsa - 108 angulas
Beautiful face, nice waist, a gait like that of a swan and is strong, has arms like the kind of serpents i.e. sesa, moon-white complexion and eyes having the colour of honey.

Bhadra - 106 angulas
Lotus complexioned, strong round arms, great intelligence, a gait like that of an elephant and hairy cheeks.

Malavya - 104 angulas
Dark complexion like that of kidney-bean, a slender waist, slim figure, arms reaching up to knees thick shoulders, nose like that of an elephant i.e. prominent and large jaws.

Ruchaka - 100 angulas
Autumn-white complexion, a conch like neck, great intelligence is truthful, of good taste and strong.

Sasaka - 90 angulas
Is reddish dark, somewhat spotted, clever, has full cheeks and eyes having the colour of honey.

The foot up to the ankle is 3 inches (3 angulas) , whence up to the knee is 2 talas (24 angulas).
The knee 3 inches the thigh 2 talas, a tala each from the navel to the penis, from the navel to the heart and from the heart to the throat, the neck a third of a tala, the face a tala, the head beyond one sixth of a tala, the hand a tala, the forearm and arm 17 inches each and so forth.

Measurement of Hamsa is the standard measurement given on relation to
which the measurements of the other types are to be worked out keeping in
mind the characteristics of that particular type.

There is a discussion about the body types of women but it has not been specified. But the discussion does state that as there are 5 body types of male, according to the measurements of the limbs and parts, so are there 5 kinds of female bodies. It has also been stated that a woman be placed near her man so as to reach the shoulder of the man. The waist of the woman has to be made thinner by 2 angulas than that of a man and the hip should be made bigger by 4 angulas.

- characteristics of great men
king should posses the physical characteristics of great men. Hands and feet of a cakravartin should be shown with jala or web.
Urna or tuft of hair should be shown as an auspicious mark between their eyebrows.
3 lines should be shown in the hands of kings. They should be charming red like the blood of hare and slenderly curved. The hair should be made thin, wary, shiny, with natural glossiness and like the dark blue sapphire.

- forms of eye
chapakara – bow : used in case of meditation, is of 3 yavas;
matsyodara - for depicting feminine and lovelorn eyes, is in 4 yavas;
utpalapatrabha - for depicting a placid look, is in 6 yavas;
padmaoatranibha - to show the frightned and the weeping, is in 9 yavas;
sankhakriti – for suggesting the angered and the one experiencing deep pain, is in 10 yavas.

- hair styles
kuntala: long flowing hair
dakshinavarta: curling to the right
taranga: wavy
simhakesara: mane-like
vardhara: sticking out disheveled
jutatasara: matted

- image of deity
eye of god, should be red at the corners, have black pupil and long eye-lashes. It should be serene and pleasing. Such an eye is for the welfare of the people. But if one wants wealth and happiness, one should make the padmapatra eye. It should have the colour of cow’s milk, placid, even, wide, serene and pleasant to look at. It should have eye-lash sloping at the end and black pupil.

- posture sthanas
9 sthanas

the 9 postures can be better styled views, as they are the same straight riju,
viewed from different angles, to show the same figure, with different
proportions hidden from view in different positions causing foreshortening.
The ratio of the head with the other limbs of the body differed in accordance
with the difference in postures.
In describing the various kinds of postures the ‘Chitrasutra’ advises the
display of various kinds of light and shade I and through which the exact
position of the postures could be expressed.

other aspects in a painting:
madhuratva: is making the picture appealing by the infusion of bhava.

Rasas: flavours and moods that distinguish paintings are discussed at length.

Vibhakthata: this is ahieved by vartana or the 3 fold method of shading possible in both monochrome and polychrome.

Sadrishya: is the element of veracity to nature and the element of portraiture. In the Chitrasutra and in the 46th chapter of ‘Shilparatna’ that the artist should pay special attention to faithfulness to nature.
A potrait is thus defined as an art of imitating the exact likeness of the inanimate and the immovable object of nature as well as the animals.
It has further been laid down that this likeness is not limited merely to a general likeness, but it should mean exact likeness of all the limbs or parts of the tree, creeper, mountains or the animals.

Perspective: from the paintings of Ajanta and various description of paintings, as well as from the “Chitrasutra”, it can be proved that ancient Indians recognized the value or the significance of the perspective. It is said in the “Chitrasutra” that a man 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. The above saying shows that the Indians had a sound knowledge of the spatial perspective.

After all the stages of work, the unmilana ‘opening of the eyes’ of the figure is described as the final act.
The importance of unmilana is given in the lines:
Sajiva iva drisyate, sasvasa iva yachchitram tachchitram subhalakshanam,
Vishnudharmottara, 3, 43, 21-22
‘that is an auspicious painting in which the figures appear to be alive and almost breathe and move’
this is what is achieved by performing the final act in a painting and infusing life into a painting.

topics discussed in chitrasutra:
adhyaya 35: origin of painting : ayamocchrayamana
5 types of men
standard of measurement (hamsa type)
adhyaya 36: measurements of parts of body: pramanadhyaya
adhyaya 37: proportion of women: samanyamana
5 types of eyes
6 types of hairstyle
adhyaya 38: instruction to make image of god: pratimalaksana
adhyaya 39: postures : ksaya-vrddhi
adhyaya 40: various paints and how to mix them: rangavyatikara
adhyaya 41: 4 types of paintings :rangavartana
3 kinds of brushes
faults to be avoided
adhyaya 42: deals with various objects which become subject of painting:
adhyaya 43: nine sentiments of painting are described:


- Vishnudharmottarapuran : Dr. Priyabala Shah

- Technique of Indian Painting: Asok K. Bhattacharya

- Fundamentls of Indian Art: S. N. Dasgupta

Sherline Pimenta

M.V.A. Part I

April 2006

M. S. U. Baroda


Blogger Anand said...

his entry of yours is too good and i am surprised no one has had anything to say about it.Infact all the topics that you have presented here have interested me for many years.

I was searching for info on chitrasutra and similar texts and here was a good repository of it.Painting is my hobby and this blog of yours was enlightening about our Indian knowledge.Do carry on your work (anything about ancient india is simply inriguing).

5:46 AM  
Blogger illustrator said...

thank you for this wonderful compilation.I was having difficulty finding anything about silparatna. I'm wondering why? i'm a 3rd year student and my textbook does not have enough material either. but thanks for this though i won't be able to read all of it now since only two days left for my final exams. but will read for my next year.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Jeevan said...

Really informative...

9:53 PM  
Blogger Praveen Dubey said...

Nice details

8:31 PM  

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