The ancient tradition of Indian sculpture has evolved from abstract figures in terracotta and stone in the Indus Valley civilisation (2nd and 3rd millenniums BCE) to the intricate human figures of the Maurian period (3rd century BCE). The emergence of several ruling dynasties over time, coupled with the upspring of religions like Buddhism and Jainism, clearly affected the art form and lent their unique aesthetics to its grammar, method and aesthetics.
Indian sculptural art is plural, in that it features a diversity of styles, subjects and mediums used in their making. The themes they depict range from the pinnacle of philosophical thought, or the depths of emotions like bhakti or shringara, to the secular and scientific lives of the masses.
The carved lions of the Mauryan period and the circular stoned pillars made way for the sophistication of figurative portrayals in the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE. In these periods, both the Hindu and the Buddhist traditions were well entrenched on Indian soil. This broad legacy formed the foundations of what was to become a highly adaptive, versatile and often subtle form of artistic expression.
In 200-75 BCE, the Sungas replaced the Mauryans in the North of India. Two important samples of scuplutral art in that period were the great stupas of Barhut and Sanchi.
The classical or golden age of Indian art followed in 300-600 ACE with the coming and flourishing of the Gupta period. A tremendous resurgence of the Hindu faith in this era churned out a variety of images and sculptures on Hindu Gods and Goddesses. As the Indian classical arts grew in popularity, depth and subtlety, reaching its pinnacle in the period of the 4th to 6th centuries, the human form was portrayed with graceful lyricism and poise. Inspired by this effervescence in the arts, the tradition of stone sculpture acquired greater and more unique representations across the subcontinent – like it did in the works of the Pallavas and Cholas from the South or the Pala Sena kingdom in Bengal.
The Kaushana period of 1-500 ACE saw the flourishing of unique sculptural styles in Gandhara, located in the Kabul valley, and Mathura. The fusion of realism with local Indian traditions was unique to the Gandhara style and its thematic range appealed particularly to Buddhist images. Located on the famous trade route, the Silk Road, Gandhara drew significantly on foreign influences – for example, on Roman and Greek realism.
The next five centuries saw several sculptural idioms flourish across the Indian subcontinent. However, by the time the famous Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh were built by the Chandela dynasty in the 10th and 11th centuries, the creative legacy of Indian sculptural art was winding to an end. Such a period of quiet stagnation found its root and prevails till the present day.