Content and depiction of art cover a wide range of subjects. From human emotions, festivals, situations to tales and stories, art finds its roots in both the mundane, divine and special activities of life. However, Indian art is also defined by the flora and fauna depictions. Interestingly, whether it is in the form of sculptures, paintings or even architecture, wildlife has always found an important place in Indian arts.
Fauna as a part of our world
Of course, animals and birds are a part of our world and their existence along with ours is a seamless integration of the dynamics of the physical earth. We see and are often fascinated by wildlife around us and since long; animals and birds have triggered the interest and imagination of humans. This curiosity in understanding animals and birds has manifested itself in artistic forms since ages. Besides, the utility and involvement of wildlife in daily routine and chores also makes them an essential and integral part of human life. The evidence of depicting animals and birds in artistic circles finds presence since the time of the Indus Valley Civilization. Animal motifs have been found on stone figurines, paintings, amulets, engravings etc. The bull, elephant, rhinoceros, monkey, bison, peacock and many more animal figures are found on pots, utensils, sculptures, jewelry etc.
The same can be seen in the arts during the Megalithic Period where animal and bird motifs have been generously used on figurines, metal and terracotta pottery, paintings and even coins.
In spiritual and religious context
Though animals and birds are a natural inclusion of our surroundings, in Indian culture they often carry a deeper symbolic meaning. Where on one hand, the animals and birds have been used in arts and sculptures purely on their merit as physical forms or utilitarian value; on the other hand, they are also delved with divine or spiritual contexts.
Hindu mythology for example, lays huge significance on the allegory of animals. The first incarnations of Lord Vishnu are the creation of a fish, tortoise, boar and half human-half lion. Almost all deities have an animal or bird that accompanies them and is depicted on their idols or in temples. And hence, the importance and significance of animals and birds rises above their natural existence into the realm of the spiritual. The architecture of almost all temples in India incorporates the usage of animals and birds in their designs and styles.
Similarly, Buddhist and Jains also have their own understanding and faith in animals that is depicted in the architecture and arts of their beliefs. For example, in Buddhism animals such as the horse, peacock and elephant represent the different traits one needs to reach enlightenment. Jains are staunch advocates of how nature and animals play a pivotal role in human peace and this belief finds expression also in their architecture and arts. Animals are also worshiped in this country; hence their merit in spiritual arts is undoubtedly significant.
Composite Animals in Indian arts
Composite art refers to images that are made of parts from different beings, such as humans, animals, insects, birds etc. Composite art is prevalent in Indian arts, with composites being made by clubbing human figures, animals, demons etc. Composite art was most popular during the Mughal era. The idea of composite art is the imagination of the artist who is trying to say much more and convey a deeper meaning through his art. The composite animals cease to be seen as mere physical forms. Each symbolizes a thought or idea that influences the emotion and nature of man.
Fauna in Literature
The importance of animals is not only seen in Indian arts of sculptures, paintings, architecture or design. They also seep into its literary treasures. Here again, animals are woven into stories and take almost human form in terms of emotions and intellect. References to animal allegories are found in the Vedas and Arthshastra. But most popularly, it is also found in the tales of Jatakas and Panchatantras.
Finally, the incorporation of fauna in our arts is so natural and seamless that very often we tend to overlook or underestimate its significance. The depiction of animals and birds ranges across a wide spectrum in Indian arts. They are present in their most natural raw forms, as well as, as divine symbols and worshipped forms from various religious beliefs. They are also allegories that represent philosophies and emotions, at the same time they are also depictions of right vs wrong or good vs evil. They serve the aesthetic purpose of beauty of all things natural or the aggression of the survival of the fittest in arts. They also serve as learning means to concretize emotions, philosophies and tenants. And then again, their depiction in the arts in temples and religious sites, exalts them to spiritual significance.