What do graphic design and ancient Indian art have in common?

Each era is unique and distinctive in its cultural significance. Indian art forms, including sculptures and architectural methods, have continuously evolved over thousands of years. The history of art in ancient India begins with prehistoric rock paintings. Soon after, advanced town planning systems were displayed in important cities of the Indus Valley Civilization such as Harappa and Mohenjodaro. They had centrally planned cities indicating a highly developed architecture, during an age where it was one of its kind. The use of symbolic forms in India is as old as the Harappan seals.

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Mohenjodaro

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The Vedic period in India saw the fire altars built for prayers, which with their astronomical and mathematical significance, also played an important role in the evolution of the later temples. That was followed by a period in the history of Indian art that is important for rock-cut caves and temple architecture. Initiated by the Buddhists, the rock-cut caves were imitated by Hindus and Jains in the very famous Ellora and Elephanta caves. The rock-cut art has continuously evolved, to suit different purposes, social and religious contexts, and regional differences.

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Ellora Caves

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Alongside the evolution architecture, many tribal arts were also evolving and changing with the folk and tribal traditions of that era. These art forms exhibit the cultural and social ethos of India. Such art is an expression of the people whose life is in tune with the rhythm of nature and its laws of cyclic change. Tribal art is practiced by people whose lives blend with natural energy. It has been a tradition in India that our Gods and mythical legends are transformed into contemporary forms and familiar images. Fairs, festivals and local deities play a vital role in the development of these arts forms as well.

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Warli Art (Source)

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Mudhubani Art

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One final aspect that contributed to the evolution of Indian art into the way it is today, is the drawings of military formations used by ancient Indian empires. Formations were known as vyūha, each one had a center, two flanks and two wings. There were thirty main vyūha used, divided into four main categories. One example of a vyūha would be the Padma-vyūha or lotus formation. Also known as the Chakra-vyūha, the Padma-vyūha, is a multi-tier defensive formation that looks like a blooming lotus (padma) or disc (chakra) when viewed from above. The warriors at each interleaving position would be in an increasingly tough position to fight.

The Deputy Commanders-in-Chief would be placed at each outer point of the petals of the lotus. At the inner end, where each end of lotus petal joins with the other, to form an inner-circle resembling the corolla of the lotus, the Commanders-in-Chief would be stationed. The space between any two ‘petals’ is the only access to reach the center of the ‘lotus’ where the Supreme Commander was placed. If a contingent of enemy soldiers moved between any two petals for this purpose, the petals would close in and crush the invaders like the powerful tentacles of a crab. This was one of the toughest formations to break, and has been mentioned in many myths and epic poems in Indian history.

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Padma-vyuha (Source)

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All of these different influences shaped what is Indian art. So, what do graphic design and ancient Indian art have in common?

It’s hard to believe how big a part graphic design plays in our lives. Few would guess that ancient Indian art too relied on the basic grids that are the foundation of today’s website pages, floor layouts and even newspapers.

Unlike the static grids used in Western designs, Indian grids are more fluid, responsible for everything from the layout of temples to sari designs. Spotlighting them is Dimple Bahl, hoping to bridge the gap between modern design and traditional art with her art exhibit, ‘Scripting the Past for the Future’. An academician practicing design education, Bahl has been teaching Graphic Design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology for the last 17 years. This exhibition took place on April 8th, 2016.

When Dimple Bahl studied history of graphic design from Rhode Island School of Design, she noticed how Book of Kells (a manuscript containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables) held so much value for the museum displaying it. The realization about the significance of scriptures sparked an interest and Bahl went on to study them. Consequently as part of her doctoral research, she started studying the presence and role of grids in Indian scriptures, with the focus on Jain scriptures. She understood that even though the Western aesthetic has been known to dictate grid structures, Indian cultural heritage and its various manuscripts are good examples of the existence of an alternative that could lend variety and perspective to current studies of design.

While she studied Tibetian and Tamrapatra manuscripts from South India, it were the Jain scriptures from Rajasthan and Gujarat, with its detailed patterns, which she focused on in her research and in the recent exhibition. As mentioned above, the main focus of this exhibition was explaining grid structures. Bahl was intrigued by the way the ancient art forms had divided space between them, showing fluidity. She also saw that they were using the same old lines and still created forms including swastika, mandalas, kolam, havankund and janampatri.

The following pictures show the art forms she studied, and some of her exhibition pieces:

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Kolam pattern

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Janampatro [Native astrological birth chart] pattern

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Indian Mandala pattern

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A piece featured in the exhibition

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Fragments of a Jain manuscript

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(Cover image source)

-Nidhi

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