A Living Portrait of India
The Silpa and Agama texts provide valuable insight into the scientific nature of paints and the norms governing their use. These ancient works make it very clear that different terms were current for different arts -- citra referred to sculpture, citrardha meant relief sculpture while citrabhasa denoted painting.
The Silpa texts are a rich source of information, and the most important of these are : Visnudharmottara, Samarangana-Sutradhara, Aparajitaprccha, Abhilasitartha-Cintamani (or Manasollasa), Silparatna, Naradasilpasastra, Kasyapasilpa.
Other works that discuss the matter are Bharatmuni's Natyashastra, the Agni Purana, the Arya-manjusi- mulakalpa (a Buddhist text), Pancadasi, and the Atthasalini (a Buddhist Pali text).
We do know that cloth, paper, wood and walls formed the canvas for ancient paintings. What comes as a surprise is the high level of knowledge and discipline behind this great art.
For instance, technical studies at the Baroda Museum revealed that three kinds of pigments were used by the ancient painters --
(a) Mineral - including red lead, vermilion, yellow ochre, gold powder,
Lapis lazuli, Azurite (blue), Malachite (green), calcium sulphate,
white lead, silver powder, and zinc (white).
Colours & Their Preparation
White was the most important colour for ancient Indian artists - the ideal medium for practically every colour as also an excellent primer for canvas, wood and panel bases. The white pigment derived from conch shells, oyster shells, or from white clays such as kaolin or gypsum was popular for walls post-plastering. The first two sources were preferred by painters.
The Silparatna gives a recipe for lime white : grind the mineral in a stone pestle, mix the lime powder with keravala (probably cocoanut) juice, regrind, and then levigate the mixture with warm water, stirring constantly.
Red was popular in many hues. The Manasollasa recommends darada (red lead) as a source for sona (crimson); alaktarasa (juice of the resin known as lac) for the shade, rakta (blood red); gairika (red ochre) as a source for the lohita (pure red) shade. The Silparatna speaks of sindura (red lead) as the source for a soft red, red ochre for medium red, and the juice of lac resin for a deep red colour. Red ochre was a frequently-used pigment for both murals and miniatures. The Kasyapasilpa mentions the jatiphala or Jasminium grandiflora as another source of the red pigment.
The Silparatna on the preparation of red ochre (gairika or geru) -- red clay (also known as gairika) was to be pulverized on stone for twenty four hours and then washed in pure water to get the colour.
On the preparation of darada or sindura (red lead) -- after roasting white lead in open air so that it turned red, the red lead thus obtained should be ground with water for twelve hours. After a gap of five days, it should be ground again for twenty four hours. Thereafter, nim gum was added as a binding agent.
Hingula or crude cinnabar is mentioned by the Visnudharmottara as a source of red pigment. The Jaina text, Citrakalpadruma, details its preparation -- crude cinnabar is ground with a little sugar water or lime juice in a mortar to a smooth paste. Once the cinnabar has settled, the yellowish powder is drained. This procedure is repeated fifteen times in order to acquire pure cinnabar which is once again ground with lime juice into a fine paste and later, dried in tablet form.
Lac dyes are also discussed in the above text -- powder of lac is gradually mixed into boiling water, stirring all the while. Temperature of the boiling mixture is raised, and at ten minute intervals, the powder of lode and borax is added to it. To test the ready mix - a pin is dipped and then used to draw on hand-made paper. If the ink remains consistent and whole, i.e. does not split, the mixture is considered ready, and removed from the fire. Once the water has evaporated, the residue is used.
Yellow remained a highly thought of colour in Western India, and was used in palm leaf manuscripts. Orpiment, a natural sulphide of arsenic occuring in stone form, was gathered from mountains and river beds. After being ground to a fine powder, it was transferred to a jar with water, agitated, and then allowed to settle. Impurities would sink while orpiment would float to the surface. The orpiment thus derived was subjected to the entire process again till pure orpiment was so obtained. Gum was added to render it ready for use.
Black does seem a strange choice of primary colour, but tradition held good on the purest black, i.e. kajjala, obtainable from lampblack. Both the Manasollasa and the Silparatna mention this as an important source, albeit an artificial one, as opposed to mineral and vegetable sources. Ivory black was another but less popular shade in use among Indian painters.
Blue was derived from two sources - organic and inorganic. Nila (indigo) and rajavarta (Lapis lazuli) are mentioned by the Visnudharmottara, the former source being extremely popular as both pigment and dye.
Indigo was derived from the indigofera plant, and the dye was exported to the Greeks and the Romans. Remarkably enough, this shade was not used in the marvellous paintings of the Ajanta and Ellora caves, and rarely so in the palm leaf manuscripts of Bengal and Western India! Ultramarine blue from Lapis lazuli was clearly not an indigenous colour, and may have been imported from Persia.
Metallic colours are mentioned in the ancient texts but, like indigo
blue, are absent from the Ajanta and Ellora paintings. The Visnudharmottara
lists kanaka (gold), rajata (silver), tamra (copper), and pitala (bronze)
as source substances. The chemical treatment for liquefying gold was
known during these early times, but does not find place in the Manasollasa
and the Silparatna. These texts refer to the application of gold leaf
and gold powder in painting. The process of manufacturing metallic
colours was complicated and expensive, hence these colours were not
The pioneering ''Essay on the architecture of the Hindus'' by Ram Raz came to light in 1830 and introduced ancient Indian art to an entranced world. In 1913, the Visnudharmottara was translated by the Venkateswara Press, Bombay, followed by T.A. Gopinath Rao's research paper " Painting in Ancient India'' in 1918 which discussed mural painting techniques based on the Silparatna and the Ansumadbhedagama. Stella Kramrisch translated the citrasutra part of the Visnudharmottara in 1924. In 1928, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy published a translation of the citralaksana section of the Silparatna, and in 1934, a revised publication of chapter 41 of the Visnudharmottara, clarifying many terms that had remained obscure for long. It was V. Raghavan who brought many till- then- unknown works to public attention - Kasyapasilpa, Saraswathiya-citrakarmasastra and the Naradasilpasastra among others.