The art of painting has been a medium of both expression and communication from the earliest known period of history. Man, as nomad, wandering in search of food and security, gradually discovered a language of line and form for expressing his ideas; which account for pre-historic paintings appearing in rock shelters. At a later period, this found expression in the paintings on chalcolithic pottery discovered at various centres. In India, the patterns were either geometric or were styled after the flora and fauna and at times depicted human figures.
The art of painting in India progressed gradually and it reached its zenith during the Satavahana period (2nd -1st B.C.) and also the Gupta-Vakataka period (5th-6th A.D.). Mainly of the Buddhist theme, the paintings were on the large canvas of granite walls of the Ajanta caves. The style was line-oriented and natural, besides being brilliant in colour. The painters drew inspiration from the legends related to the previous incarnations of Buddha.
The pattern of large scale wall painting which had dominated the scene, witnessed the advent of miniature paintings during the 11th & 12th centuries. This new style figured first in the form of illustrations etched on palm-leaf manuscripts. The contents of these manuscripts included literature on the Buddhism and Jainism. In eastern India, the principle centres of artistic and intellectual activities of the Buddhist religion were Nalanda, Odantapuri, Vikramshila and Somarupa situated in the Pala kingdom (Bengal and Bihar). Buddhist works like the Ashtasahasrika-Prajnaparamita, the Mahamayuri and the Pancharaksha are few examples to cite, which were illustrated with Buddhist deities in late Ajanta style. In western India, however, it was the Jain faith which dominated, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Malwa being the principle centres of Jain religion and art. Apart from the Kalkacharya Katha and the Kalpasutra, two well-known Jain treatises, Hindu themes such as the Balagopal Stuti as well as secular works like the Vasanta Vilas found expression on palm-leaf illustrations and came to be known as the Jain or Western Indian Style of painting. The Jain Style is unique as it bears an exaggerated linear quality. Facial outlines are emphasized, the nose is long and sharp, and the eyes are shaped like petals with the farther eye projected beyond the outline of the face (Page 36). The backgrounds are illuminated in shades of dark blue, red and green or yellow. Gold is used for decorative purpose, especially in the manuscripts of a later era, which were done on paper, a medium, that had replaced the palm-leaf. In these the compositional format is confined to figures or objects generally arranged in horizontal bands.
It was in the 14th century A.D. that paper replaced the palm-leaf. The Jain Style of paintings attained a high degree of development by the late 15th and early 16th century. A new trend in manuscript illustration was set by a manuscript of the Nimatnama painted at Mandu, during the reign of Nasir Shah (1500-1510 A.D.). This represented a synthesis of the indigenous and the Persian Style, though it was the latter which dominated the Mandu manuscripts. There was another style of painting known as Lodi Khuladar that flourished in the Sultanate's dominion of North India extending from Delhi to Jaunpur during the late 15th and early 16th century. The best known example of the Lodi Style is the famous Aranyaka Parvan belonging to the Asiatic Society, Bombay painted in 1516 A.D. during the victorious reign of Sikandar Shah Lodi at Kachuvava, about 57 miles away from the Agra. Fine specimens of paintings in Jaur Style can be seen in the well-known manuscripts such as the Chaura Panchashika and the Gita-Govinda. This style is marked by the ornaments adorning the women and their pendulous breasts, besides the chequered designs of their garments (Page 37). The figures have large eyes and exaggerated profiles. Though emanating from the Jain Style of Delhi and Jaunpur, this form has striking characteristics of its own.