What is Classical Indian Art? Types of Indian Classical Paintings

Classical Indian Art has an almost magical quality. It transports you to a bygone era and makes every scene come alive. Each canvas is more than just colourful brush strokesit’s a lesson in history. These paintings teach us a lot about ancient customs, traditions, food, fashion, and so much more. This category is extremely diverse and can be categorized into four main schools of art: Rajasthani painting, Mughal paintings, Deccani paintings and Pahari/Kangra paintings. 

Each of these schools of art have their own unique style. At a glance, they may seem quite “Indian” but they are actually an amalgamation of different cultures. Nowadays, Mughal miniature paintings and Rajasthani miniature paintings have emerged as the most popular forms in this category, but the other two schools are equally flawless and gorgeous. 

These paintings are not just a part of India’s artistic legacy. These are beautiful and legitimate records of history and literature. If historical texts are to  be believed, this vintage Indian art form has its humble origins in Jain and Buddhist palm leaf manuscripts dating back to 7th century A.C.E. Gradually, Classical Indian art became a favourite of emperors who made these paintings a part of their royal households and even commissioned many of them. Thanks to their patronage, many artists flourished in this form, spread across various styles

Types of Indian Classical Paintings & Classical Indian Art

Today, the vivacity of Classical Indian art is divided into 4 main categories. Each of these forms depicts the milieu they were painted in. Here’s The Bimba’s guide on all these schools of art!

1. Mughal Indian Classical Paintings

The mughal style of painting is one of the most sought after Indian art forms today. Historical reports indicate that it began during Humayun’s reign when he invited two Persian artists to IndiaMir Sayyid Ali and Khwaja Abd al-Samad. One of the earliest Mughal art paintings was a series of miniatures named Dastan-e Amir Hamzeh. Mughal paintings were heavily influenced by Persian art but when Akbar came into power, the themes began to change. 

During Akbar’s reign, the Mughal style of painting portrayed naturalism and brought forth a detailed observation of the world around these artists. This era also brought on a series of illustrated animal fables like Kalīlah wa Dimnah and the Anwār-e Suhaylī. Though heavily influenced by Indo-Islamic cultural trends, these artworks also portrayed several Hindu and Persian epics. Akbar also commissioned the Akbarnama paintings which went on to become some of the most coveted Mughal paintings.

The process of making Mughal miniature paintings wasn’t easy. It took a team of artists to get the job done. Some would work on the composition, some on preliminary drawings, some took care of colouring them while a portrait specialist would solely work on individual faces and their expressions. 

2. Rajasthani Indian Art Painting

This school of art flourished in the 17th and 18th century royal courts of Rajputana, hence they are also referred to as the Rajput style of painting. Many artists trained in the art of Mughal miniature paintings were dismissed by Rajput courts in favour of more local artists. This developed a distinct style that depicted the grandeur of religious Hindu epics, royal activities, political scenarios and social values. These paintings had relatively fuller canvases with little or no empty spaces. 

Due to the lack of empty spaces, characters and landscapes became inseparable, giving equal emphasis to both. You can also see a diversity of themes as the paintings depicted festivals, seasons, social occasions, courtly scenes and hunting scenes. These paintings are mostly created with bright colours like yellow, red, blue, brown, white. Sometimes gold and silver colours are also used. Night scenes are brought to life with black and smoky grey colour to lend a magical quality to the painting. All these colours were extracted naturally from conch shells, plants and certain minerals. Obtaining the colours could take anywhere up to two weeks. 

Rajasthani Bani Thani paintings emerged as one of the famous products of this school of art. A poet and singer in Raja Samant Singh’s court, Bani Thani was the epitome of beauty. It’s believed that her face was the inspiration behind Radha’s depiction in the Radha Krishna Rajasthani paintings that are in great demand today. Some even refer to her as India’s Mona Lisa!

3. Deccani Classical Indian Art Painting


Often confused with Mughal miniature paintings, this is a separate school of art born in the Deccan region. It included areas like Golkonda, Ahmadnagar, Bidar, Bijapur and Berar. Since the early miniatures in this tradition were of great equality, one may surmise that this was already a well established tradition, at least when it came to murals. Steven Kossak noted that in comparison to Mughal paintings, Deccani paintings outshine them in “the brilliance of their colour, the sophistication and artistry of their composition, and a general air of decadent luxury.”

This art form can be classified into six branches that stem from different Deccani regionsHyderabad, Mysore, Ahmednagar, Bijapur, Golconda and Thanjavur school of painting. Among these, the Golconda school of painting birthed two masterpieces named “Lady with the Myna bird” and “Lady smoking Hookah”. “Princess in the company of maids” gained recognition from the Hyderabad school of painting while the Thanjavur school had several beautiful renditions of Krishna as an infant.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Deccani art is its use of the “composite animal”, where one large animal is created using images of several small animals. Like Mughal art, rulers were adorned with haloes. Scenes depicting servants fanning the ruler or their masters incorporated cloth fans instead of chowris or peacock feathers. Akin to Mughal paintings, Deccani paintings were also shaped by Persian influences. However, it has been observed that this genre also borrowed stylistically from European art. 


4. Kangra or Pahari Classical Indian Art Paintings

The story of Kangra paintings originates in Guler, a small, pre-colonial hilly state in lower Himalayas. In the 18th century, a family of Kashmiri painters trained in Mughal paintings relocated to Guler and were taken in by Raja Dalip Singh. As they made Guler their home, they mingled with local artists and took inspiration from their natural surroundings. Thus, their work was no more a reflection of courtly traditions and instead ventured towards being one with nature. 

Instead of producing ornate portraits of their royal patrons or those depicting romantic scenes, the artists made a major departure from mughal art and instead depicted the divine love between Radha and Krishna. This vintage Indian art had wise expanses of greenery and was driven by the sentiment of love. Perhaps, that’s why a major chunk of work created by Pahari artists showcase scenes from Radha and Krishna’s life set against natural landscapes. 

As you can see, one can never get enough of Classical Indian paintings owing to the myriad themes and fantastical stories attached with this school of art. Which painting are you going to start your journey with?

Explore our Classical Indian Art collection here.