Ancient Indian Paintings: The Shadanga & Chitrasutra Traditions

Painting (Alekhyam) occupies the fourth place among the 64 Arts enumerated by Vatsyayana in his Kama Sutra. While concluding, Vatsyayana has written a Shloka which amply indicated that painting was fully developed during that period and the six limbs of Painting (Shadangas) enumerated in the Kama Sutra were already in vogue. These six limbs of Indian Paintings are:

  • Rupabheda: The knowledge of appearances.
  • Pramanam: Correct perception, measure and structure.
  • Bhava: Action of feelings on forms.
  • Lavanya Yojanam: Infusion of grace, artistic representation.
  • Sadrisyam:
  • Varnikabhanga: Artistic manner of using the brush and colours.


Since early times, the art and technique of painting were carefully studied and put down in the Chitrasutra of the Vishnudharmottara Purana. This was an oral tradition, which was recorded on paper around the fifth century A.D. It is the oldest known treatise on painting in the world. As always, according to the ancient Indian tradition in which knowledge is considered sacred, this text is meant to be approached with reverence.

  • Chitrasutra says that the paintings are the greatest treasure of mankind as they have a beneficial influence on the viewer. Chitrasutra contains the rules and suggestions on how to depict different themes effectively, the proportion of human figures, the use of colours to help in the communication of ideas, the fine details of movements and stances of the human body in different situations and in different moods, and so many other ideas and details to instruct the painter.
  • These were carefully formulated, to be passed on from father to son over the centuries and through guilds of painters. The purpose of this documentation was to preserve the legacy of the collective understanding of the finest minds.


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