There is a close association between Hinduism and fine arts. From the ancient period, when Hinduism was not yet formally established, the proto-Hindu culture of the Sindhu-Saraswati civilization exhibits an abundance of artistic skill and craftsmanship. As long as five thousand years ago, the direction in which the people were moving was clear by their activities: the design pattern of the housing in the upper and lower regions of the city, the ingenious drainage system, the large community baths, the storage facilities for agricultural products, the seals, the aesthetically beautiful sculptures, the production of ultra-fine clothing, and the large variety of aromatic spices for their gourmet cooking.
The inception of the Vedas has been considered as man’s first attempt to create organized literature. The world of poetry, music, dancing, sculptures, painting, and many other forms of fine arts grew steadily and swiftly. The earliest Hindu scriptures, Vedas and Upanishads, are regarded as divine inspirations. As there was no written language at that time, these were produced in poetic lyrics. These lyrics were then rendered to very haunting melodies to make them easy to recite and remember. The vast canvas of the Hindu scriptures is a testimony of the literary zeal among the followers. The free flow of written word is but a projection of a free mind. In this golden cradle of civilization were born so many new ideas and philosophies. The poets had a green pasture from which to feed themselves. Much of the early scriptures, including the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were rendered in lyrical style. The Bhagavad Gita literally means the “song of the Lord.”
In the period of Chandra Gupta II (375–415), India produced her finest poet and dramatist, Kalidasa. His most popular works include Shakuntala, Meghdoot, Kumarasambhava, Malavika, and many others. These great classics have become the world’s heritage—there has been unprecedented interest in the Kalidasa’s Shakuntala. In the nineteenth century, no fewer than forty-six translations of this masterpiece—in twelve different languages—were published in Europe.104
In the twelfth century another brilliant poet, Jayadeva, composed the Sanskrit epic song Geet Govinda, which immediately became popular throughout the country. Chandidasa, in the fourteenth century, and Vidyapati, in the fifteenth century, soon followed his example.105 The devotional aspect of Sri Radha, the Krishna zealot, often has been colored with sensuous moods, making Hindu religion unique in its abundance and passion. The love play expressed in these songs, however erotic, was still of pure type (prema), in contrast to the worldly type that is full of physical desires (kama).106
The songs of other saints—Thirukural and Chivavakkiyar (Tamil), Bhagat Namdev, Chaitanya Mahprabhu, Sant Kabir, Bhagat Narsi Mehta, Guru Nanak, Bhagat Surdas, Sant Haridas, Goswami Sant Tulsidas, Sant Mirabai, and many others—also have become extant and popular. For more than five thousand years, places of worship have been steeped in the deep melody and enraptured tunes of chanting the Vedic prayers (mantras), devotional songs (bhajans), and chorus singing (kirtan).
As extension of the Vedas, the Upavedas were created, which were mainly concerned with various human arts and sciences. For example, Sama Veda has its Upaveda, Gandharva, which deals with the art of music. Carnatic (sometimes called Karnatic) music is the original classical music of the Hindu culture, which started the basis of the sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, and ni musical notes. Carnatic, which translates as “older,” may be related to the ancient Dravidian culture. Soon afterward, the art of dance took hold in Hindu society. It is said that Lord Shiva composed the first syllables of bhav (emotion), raga (melody), tala (rhythm), and rasa (mood). He thus came to be called Nataraja, the King of Dancing. A separate scripture, Natya Shastra, was compiled between the first and third centuries and was dedicated to this fine art. Dance became the most prominent temple activity in ancient times. Dancing maids, or devadasis, performed in front of the murti (idol) of God, and all devotees cherished the worship through this medium. The sexual exploitation of these devadasis has been yet another tragic tale of human weakness, but the flower of civilization blossoms by cutting the weeds, not by uprooting the plant itself. Today, Hindu women have taken to dancing, both as art and profession, in a mature and serious manner.
Seven prominent classical dance styles are in vogue: Bharat Natyam of Tanjore, South India; Kathak of Uttar Pradesh, North India; Kathakali of Kerala, South India; Manipuri of Assam, East India; Mohiniyattam of Kerala; Kuchipudi of Andhra; and Odissi of Orrissa, East India. There are also many folk dance forms, such as Chhau of Orrissa, Raas Garba of Gujarat, Bhangra of Punjab, and Lavani of Maharashtra. The richness of these dancing arts has been admired in art circles all over the world.
Sculpture and painting became the foremost features in Hindu temple construction. From ancient times, these arts have dominated the temple scenario. The terra-cotta art of earthen pottery, as well as bronze, copper, silver, gold, and marble work, all have drawn the attention of Hindu society from all walks of life. The extraordinary display of these arts in many Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist temples is a testament to this concept. Even today, Hindus expend their wealth and other resources for art, with great passion and intensity. The Hindu temple is often a work of art and beauty in itself, both the outside and inside. The legend is that near the famous pilgrimage of Orcha in Madhya Pradesh, there is a beautiful hilltop shrine of goddess Shakti, which is known as Maihar. According to the ancient scriptures, this Shakti goddess is associated with the fine arts.
Apart from the permanent structures in the temples, Hindus started the custom of creating very large, highly artistic, and alluring idols of gods, especially during the Ganpati and Durga festivals. These idols were ceremoniously immersed in the sea or water tanks after the conclusion of the gala religious events, thus ensuring an ongoing support and patronage for the artists and craftsmen. Every year new idols with current ideas and designs are created.
Fine arts and religion have been intricately connected in the Hindu society through ages. Even, in the modern period, the classical dance patterns of Bharat Natyam, Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi, and the folk dances of Navratri, Raas Garba etc. are linked to the religion in a meaningful manner. In recent times, these art forms have touched new heights; they have become very popular in many countries outside India. With an international outreach and Bollywood connections, these arts now have frequently mind-boggling budgets. Often, the country’s most celebrated artists perform with worship rituals, dedicating their art to deities in a most devoted manner. All over the world, Hindu temples exhibit exquisite and spectacular forms of fine arts. The gorgeous and elegant forms of their architecture, sculpture, and painting etc. are unmatched. The idols of deities during Ganpati and Durga Puja are sometimes so colossal and magnificent nowadays that it becomes almost impossible for visitors, especially the non-Hindus, to imagine that these would be simply immersed in water and dissolved after the end of the ceremonial period of only a few days!