Indian ArtThe term Indian art encompasses different artistic categories ranging from ancient antiquities to contemporary paintings.
As well as dating from across the centuries, items appearing in an Indian art sale have a wide variety of forms including ceramics, silver, textiles, decorated manuscripts, sculpture and painting. What they have in common is that they were conceived, commissioned and produced in the Indian sub-continent – the landmass stretching across Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The region has a rich and complex history and this is reflected in its art. Objects are often exuberant in composition and colour which has long made them appear exotic, beguiling and mysterious to Europeans. Many were made in the vast network of workshop centres across India like those in Gujarat, Goa and Vizagapatam where among the classically-styled pieces produced in large quantities were Mother-of-Pearl inlaid boxes or bookcases embellished with Indian scenes or decorated in ivory.
Motifs and patterns such as Rangoli and theva work help to emphasise the decorative quality of Indian art, ensuring it remains distinctive and desirable for both serious collectors and general buyers today.
Today, many pieces of Indian art are available to buy at auctions on thesaleroom.com. You can search by period (using terms like ‘Mughal’) or the type of item (using terms like ‘Bidri silver’).
Good entry-level items for collectors can be picked up at auction for low three-figure prices while rarer and higher-quality pieces will run into thousands of pounds.
Types of Indian art
The categories of Indian art that regularly comes up for sale include:
Sculpture – sculptures in stone, bronze, brass and copper alloys were often, but not always, devotional in nature with the different representations of Buddha and the many Hindu deities especially prominent. These objects span vast periods of history and regional types and also include symbols of good fortune and holy water vessels.
Miniature painting – often called ‘Indian miniatures’, these artworks were produced particularly from the early 16th century onward. Noted for their meticulous and stylised technique, miniature painting was an artform that flowered in the courts of both the Hindu and Muslim nobility. Subjects were inspired by famous books, folklore tales or epic stories of Hindu gods. Well known schools of painters include the Rajasthan school, Orissa School and Pahari School. Although many were of smaller form with some produced for specific books or albums, some examples can measure several feet high.
Indo-Portuguese furniture – the furniture produced in Portuguese-administered India from the 16th to 19th centuries maintains a strong appeal in part due to its combination of familiar European forms with the exotic lure of Eastern decoration. Cabinets, tables, chairs and boxes made in centres such as Gujarat, Sind or Goa for the export market would incorporate European elements as well as Indian craftsmanship and decoration such as tortoiseshell panels, gilding, shell and scrolling strapwork, and ebony, coromandel and ivory insets.
Jewellery – The Indian subcontinent has a long history of jewellery-making going back to ancient times with gold often being the preferred mineral of manufacture. Many pieces included locally-sourced precious gemstones. Read our guide to jewellery with gemstones here.
Metalwork – practical objects mostly in bronze, brass and steel, characterised by highly decorated surfaces. Bidriware is a particularly sought after type which emerged under the Bahamani sultans who ruled Bidar in the 14th-15th centuries and is known for its zinc and copper alloys inlaid with a thin layer of pure silver formed into striking patterns.
Weaponry – arms and armour including swords, daggers and rifles are sought after for their workmanship but also distinctive decoration.
Ceramics – Indian ceramics, both pottery and wall tiles, are particularly noteworthy for the levels of craftsmanship attained.
Painting – the development of painting in India spans the ancient to the modern, encompassing the colonial and post-colonial movements. The latter including the famous Bombay Progressive Artists' Group that was founded in 1952 and includes SH Raza and Francis Newton Souza.
Civilisations that influenced art
Much of the great art produced in the Indian sub-continent was made under the auspices of a prominent culture or patronage of a ruling court. Today, the names of different periods or cultures may appear in lot descriptions at auction such as:
Mauryan art – the north Indian Maurya Empire in the 4th-2nd century BC produced art that drew on influences from even more ancient traditions. Items such as terracotta figurines and female deities were especially popular.
Buddhist art – Buddhism had an increasingly important influence on Indian art from the second-century BC onwards, as well as across much of Asia generally.
Deccan art – a term referring to works made in the Hindu states of the Middle kingdoms and the Late Medieval period (c.600AD-c.1300AD)
Mughal Empire – the period of Islamic rule covering the Indian sub-continent from the 16th century until the 19th century. Prominent artworks from this period include jewellery, jade, illuminations and paintings.
Colonial period – the period of British colonial rule (1841–1947) had a significant impact on Indian art. Some Indian artists began to produce topographical works for European patrons including some of the leading figures of the East India Company. Subjects of Indian miniatures during this period expanded to include more focus on topography, natural history, architecture and costume.
Where and when to buy
Look for specialist auctions that occur periodically throughout the year, with a peak in May and November. These sales will have been put together by an expert at the auction house who will be available to answer your questions. Such auctions are often called ‘Indian and Islamic Art’ or simply ‘Asian Art’.
What to do next
Decide how much you’d like to spend and use the search facility on thesaleroom.com to find Indian art coming up for sale. You can filter your search by, among other things, price and by location of the auction house to narrow down your selection.
To research recent prices at auction so you can see how much each type of object sold for you can also try out the Price Guide.
If you are new to bidding check out our guides to buying at auction – it’s easy once you know how.