In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Historiography of South Asian Art

  • Introduction
  • Early Travel Writing
  • Historiography
  • Aesthetics and Iconography
  • The Indus Civilization
  • The Maurya Period
  • The 2nd Through 1st Centuries bce
  • Colonial South Asia
  • Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art

Art History Historiography of South Asian Art
Frederick Asher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0010


Art has been produced in South Asia for approximately forty-five hundred years. Art history, however, is much more recent in South Asia. Although some historians consider various texts dating as early as the 3rd century CE to be art history and others have gleaned the writings of early travelers to South Asia for information on art, the earliest histories of South Asian art begin in fact during the colonial period. That is both because art history is intrinsically a European field of knowledge and because colonial authorities understood knowledge about South Asia, including its past, as a tool for power. The work was done largely by amateurs, self-trained British who had come to India as part of the colonial enterprise. Historical studies of South Asian art do not really begin until the early 1900s, and the earliest surveys date back to 1927. About the same time, Ludwig Bachhofer, a protégé of Heinrich Wolfflin, published his study of early Indian sculpture. Both did much to move the study of South Asian art from its roots in archaeology and textual studies to art history as it was then conceived. Whereas Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, the pioneering historian and philosopher of Indian art, did not teach and thus produce students, Bachhofer did, although more of his students went on to gain expertise in Chinese art than in South Asian art. The earliest full-time South Asia specialists in the United States, those working largely after World War II, came from other fields of art history, for example, medieval art in the case of Benjamin Rowland and Chinese art in the case of J. Leroy Davidson, and Stella Kramrisch, who had trained with Josef Strzygowski, the Polish Austrian art historian, came to the University of Pennsylvania. Their work, though quite different from one another, did much to shape the study of South Asian art in the United States and Europe. In South Asia the study of art remained heavily descriptive and often linked to studies in epigraphy and ancient history. On the Continent much of the work came from scholars who had been part of the colonial project either in India or in Southeast Asia. For example, Philippe Stern, who initially wrote on the art of Southeast Asia, trained a number of outstanding scholars during his years at the Musée Guimet, often following a close motif analysis. And Jean Philippe Vogel, though Belgian, had worked for the British in India. South Asian scholars who wrote on the monuments of the region were most often affiliated with museums or with the Archaeological Survey of India. As literature in the field of South Asian art history expanded, scholars began to stake out areas of specialization, sometimes following the model of European art history, that is, limiting specialization by geography and chronology. But three particular areas of writing on South Asian art developed rather distinctive scholarship. First, painting specialists tended toward connoisseurship as they sought to sort out the vast number of paintings in diverse collections and to create taxonomies for the understanding of painting production. Their scholarship was often presented in museum exhibitions, creating a rich repertoire of very important catalogues. Second, specialists in South Asia’s Islamic heritage sometimes had been trained in the field of Islamic art and so came to the study of South Asia as Islamicists rather than as South Asia specialists. Finally, the contemporary scene, once seen as derivative of European modern and contemporary art, has attracted some outstanding scholarship. In fact much of the very best work on South Asian art now focuses on the period from the arrival of the British and other colonizers to the early 21st century.


Until the late 20th century works covering large expanses of South Asian art were selective. Either they focused on a particular medium or they excluded important bodies of material. For example, the earliest survey, that of James Fergusson (Fergusson 1891, cited under European Discovery of South Asian Art), focuses exclusively on architecture and was part—a very large part—of his study of world architecture. Ernest Binfield Havell’s 1908 work (Havell 1908, cited under European Discovery of South Asian Art) focuses only on painting and sculpture, and in both cases, the studies cover Antiquity, not more recent material. Diez 1914 is one of several surveys this author wrote on Asian and Islamic art, probably the first to survey at least India’s older material. This was followed by Havell 1927 and Coomaraswamy 1927, which, like Diez 1914, omit significant material. Huntington and Huntington 1985 surveys South Asian art through the 13th century with a strong scholarly foundation. As the discipline of art history became more inclusive, especially after World War II, major series of books on the art of particular regions or periods included South Asia (Rowland 1970, Harle 1986, Dehejia 1997, and Mitter 2001).

  • Coomaraswamy, Ananda Kentish. History of Indian and Indonesian Art. London: Goldston, 1927.

    This book includes chapters on Rajput painting and arts and crafts, but it entirely neglects Islamic art of South Asia and modern art. And the incorporation of Southeast Asian art into the realm of Indian art production—one chapter is titled “Farther India, Indonesia, and Ceylon”—represents a sort of cultural imperialism that persists in the early 21st century.

  • Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. London: Phaidon, 1997.

    An excellent survey with very readable text and comprehensive coverage.

  • Diez, Ernst. Die Kunst Indiens. Handbuch der Kunstwissenschaft. Wildpark-Potsdam, Germany: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion, 1914.

    Diez was a student of Josef Strzygowksi, who wrote the first reference work in German on the arts of India.

  • Harle, James. The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1986.

    This is a significant expansion and rewritten version of Benjamin Rowland’s survey (Rowland 1970).

  • Havell, Ernest Binfield. A Handbook of Indian Art. London: Murray, 1927.

    Presents a sympathetic view of the material, including Islamic architecture, but very spotty coverage. Text available online.

  • Huntington, Susan L., with John C. Huntington. The Art of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. New York: Weatherhill, 1985.

    The most scholarly among the surveys though covering South Asian art only through the 12th century.

  • Mitter, Partha. Indian Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Part of the Oxford History of Art series. Includes good coverage of modern and contemporary art.

  • Rowland, Benjamin. The Art and Architecture of India: Hindu, Buddhist, Jain. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1970.

    Part of the Pelican History of Art series, this book excludes all Islamic art in South Asia but has an entire section titled “Indian Art in Ceylon and South-East Asia,” which implies that the art of Southeast Asia is little more than an extension of South Asian art, not an art with its own style, iconographies, and meanings.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.