A popular genre of late medieval and early modern figurative art in India, Puranic paintings depicted themes and subjects from Hindu religious literature. The genre predominantly illustrates episodes from the Vaishnavite Bhagavata Purana, which celebrates the god Vishnu in his avatar as Krishna, but also represents episodes and scenes from other works such as the Markandeya Purana, Devi-Mahatmya Purana and Shiva Purana, as well as epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. With the growing popularity of Western Academic modes of art from the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, Puranic themes in paintings emerged as an indigenous, and later nationalistic, counterpart to the subjects and themes prevalent in Neoclassical styles.
One of the earliest illustrated manuscripts of the Bhagavata Purana, produced by a workshop in the Delhi-Agra region, dates to 1510–20 in the Pre-Mughal period. The Isarda Bhagavata Purana, produced between 1560–70 in the Mughal miniature style promoted in the workshops of Akbar, is known for its formal refinement, complexity of composition and detailed landscapes. Mughal pictorial conventions were adopted and melded with regional pictorial traditions to give rise to Rajput and Pahadi miniatures in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with a thematic focus on Hindu iconography and epics, particularly episodes from the life of Krishna. Illustrated manuscripts of Puranic texts were created in royal ateliers across north and central India in centres such as Jodhpur, Mewar and Bikaner, Rajasthan; Malwa, Madhya Pradesh; Guler, Himachal Pradesh; Nagaon, Assam; and Basohli, Jammu and Kashmir. These paintings, particularly of the Pahadi School, stylistically influenced emerging early modern forms of art in India, notably the Kalighat pats. This eighteenth century school of painting originated among the Patuas of West Bengal and developed near the Kali temple in Calcutta (now Kolkata), incorporating elements from seventeenth-century miniatures such as flat colours and plain backgrounds.
The continued relevance of Puranic themes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is exemplified by the work of Raja Ravi Varma. Varma was considered a pioneer for developing a new narrative language in his recreations of Hindu mythological and religious treatises. He synthesised the conventions of Academic Realism, the ideals and aesthetics of Neoclassicism, the technique of oil painting and the iconography of Hindu religious art. His works covered scenes and narratives as diverse as Harishchandra and Taramati from the Markandeya Purana; Damyanti Vanavasa and Humiliation of Draupadi from the Mahabharata; Release of Vasudeo and Devaki from the Krishna Purana; and several others. Varma’s primary patron, Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar, commissioned numerous painted manuscripts and works based on Puranic themes for the Durbar Hall at Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore (now Mysuru), of which nine were among Varma’s most notable works from the Ramayana.
These classical themes also became vessels to visualise a proto-nationalist narrative for India through art that popularised the idea of cultural and historical continuity. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, existing pictorial and performative traditions which supported this theme were promoted to counter the dominance of Western artistic traditions. Conversely, British firms capitalised on the growing popularity of Puranic themes in commercial print manufactures, such as calendars, labels, advertisements, to increase their traction in Indian markets.
Today, Puranic subjects and themes remain an important part of the Indian visual vocabulary in contemporary rural as well as urban vernacular traditions.
Archer, W. G. The Loves of Krishna in Indian Painting and Poetry. Massachusetts: Courier Corporation, 2004.
Beach, Milo Cleveland. Mughal and Rajput painting (The New Cambridge History of India) 1.3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Beach, Milo Cleveland. “The Context of Rajput Painting.” Ars Orientalis 10 (1975): 11–17. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4629279.
Gupta, Ravi, and Kenneth Valpey. Eds. The Bhagavata Purana: Sacred Text and Living Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
Jain, Kajri. Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
Kossak, Steven. Indian Court Painting, 16th–19th Century. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999.
Losty, Jeremiah P. Indian Paintings From the Ludwig Habighorst Collection. New York: Francesca Galloway, 2018.
Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation. “The Puranic Themes in Raja Ravi Varma’s Art.” Accessed May 7, 2021. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/the-puranic-themes-in-raja-ravi-varma-39-s-art-the-raja-ravi-varma-heritage-foundation/pAXBOXNW1BhyNw?hl=en.
Ray, Sugata. “Hydroaesthetics in the Little Ice Age: Theology, Artistic Cultures and Environmental Transformation in Early Modern Braj, c. 1560–70.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 40(1): 1–23.
Slaughter, Lauren M. “Reclaiming the Indigenous Style of Kalighat Paintings.” Chrestomathy 11 (2012): 242–58.
The Met. “The Gopis Plead with Krishna to Return Their Clothing: Folio from ‘Isarda’ Bhagavata Purana. (Masters of the Dispersed Bhagavata Purana)” Art Collection. Accessed May 7, 2021. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/37962.
The Met. “Rukmini at the Parvati Temple: Folio from a Bhagavata Purana manuscript (Masters of the Dispersed Bhagavata Purana).” Art Collection. Accessed May 7, 2021. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/76188.