The art of sculpture building is an ancient one, dating back to the dawn of civilizations where people started molding clays and carving rocks to impart a particular shape. Evidence and historical artifacts tell us that almost all major early civilization has had artisans giving shape to their imagination, be it in the form of terra-cotta or stone-engravings. The Indus-valley civilization also saw its fair share of terra-cotta and Neolithic figurines. Mehrgarh is probably the earliest site in South-Asia where the genesis of this form of art took place. Many scholars now point to Mehrgarh as the precursor to the Indus Valley civilization. The time-frame of Mehrgarh overlaps with the Neolithic and the subsequent Chalcolithic age, where simple figurines mainly of the feminine gender were built. The materials used were of glazed or unglazed clay during the early stages of settlement and also of copper and bronze during the later ages. The famous bronze female dancer figurine of this period is a living proof of the long lineage of Indian sculpture.
The Mauryan dynasty can be considered as the gateway to the various styles of sculptures that took prominence during the Classical period. The pillars and the lion capital of Ashoka are the marvels of Indian Sculpture of this era. Various Greco-Buddhist artifacts show us the influence of the Greek civilization in India. Many of the statues of those era were figures related to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The frescoes of Ajanta and Ellora caves are one such example.
During the middle ages, the Cholas and Pallavas from the south contributed immensely to Indian Sculpture. The bronze figurine of Shiva as Nataraja from the Chola era is a beautiful artistic endeavor. Again, the Islamic conquests brought elements from central Asia and the middle-east which added another gem to the vast Indian art tapestry. This era saw a deviation from religious figurine sculpture towards mosaic and calligraphy on monuments and pillars. The Mughals built a great many architectural marvels where one can find their patronage for art and architecture. Perhaps the artwork in Taj Mahal is the best example to show their flair.
After the Mughals, it was time for the colonial era to mark its European presence in Indian Sculpture. The Victoria Memorial in Kolkata lay witness to its presence. Under the British patronage, neo-gothic styles of architecture took distinction. Among the lot are Lutyen’s Delhi that also encompasses traditional Indian art in its bosom.
Cumulatively, it is evident that Indian sculpture is a culmination of different methods and techniques acquired overtime through migration of different people from various regions of the globe. These migrations of people and ideas were facilitated by the historical trade-routes. The trade-routes of both land and sea play an important role in this. The Lakshmi idol found in the volcanic remains of Pompei in Rome bear testament to the importance of trade routes in the spreading and manifestation of beautiful Indian sculpture and art. Another important factor that played a dominant role in the expression of art in India is religion.
India is the birthplace of several major world religions that shaped its unique history of art. The colossal statues of Mahavir Jain, Buddha with Vajrapani, Yaksha and Yakshi statues are all but the indication of how Indian sculpture has changed over time with religion. India also has a long history of offering sanctuaries to persecute and evicted religious minorities. This allowed religions such as Zoroastrian, and Judaism to contribute as well.
Contemporary fine art has seen an increasing pivot towards abstraction. Indian sculpture, being an offshoot of fine art, is not an alien to this phenomenon. The National Gallery of Modern Art has much such creation for visitors to see and feel the inherent beauty, molded by the hands of Indian sculptors. A few artists that shine brightly among all others in this field are D.P. Roy Chaudhury, Ramkinkar Baij, Pardosh Dasgupta etc. There are also non-conventional but beautiful Indian sculptures that are sculpted in the remote parts of India by artisans that takes inspiration from their indigenous and tribal lineage.