1. Gandhara art:
The Kushan age has become famous for flourishing Gandhara art. Gandhara was situated in the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent on the banks of river Indus.
Right from the time of the Buddha, the region has played an important role in the promotion and propagation of Buddhism in the whole of Central Asia.
It is difficult to determine the geographical boundaries of Gandhara as they have always been shifting. Takshasila, also called Taxila, the capital of Gandhara was famous for higher education as well as woollen clothes. Gandhara was connected by trade routes to almost all important cities of Northern India.
The art and architecture of Gandhara continued to develop until the 7th century AD. After independence, it became a part of Pakistan. Ancient Gandhara included the valley of Peshawar, Swat, Buner and Bajjora, and was ruled by the Achaenamids of Iran, the Greeks, the Mauryas, the Sakas, the Pahlavas and the Kushans in succession; consequently, it developed a cosmopolitan culture and Hellenism or Hellenistic art influence on its art. Gandhara art is primarily Buddhist art. V.A. Smith is of the view that the Gandhara style is Greeco-Roman, based on the art of Asia Minor and the Roman Empire. Nihar Ranjan Ray states that, the Gandhara art was active from about the middle of the 1st century BC to about the 5th century AD.
Gandhara art is considered to be influenced by the Hellenstic art because of the depiction of transparent garments draped in the Greeco-Roman fashion and the very curly hair of the Buddhist idols. B.N. Puri opines that in the Gandhara art foreign elements are conspicuous, though Indian iconography dominates. Stella Kramerish also argues that Gandhara art may be considered as an eastward expansion of the Hellenistic civilization and as westward expansion of Indian culture in western garb. We may conclude that the Gandhara art is certainly Indian in subject and content, though Hellinestic in form and execution.
There is a debate regarding the influence of the Gandhara art. Paul Masson Oursel is of the view that this art exercised a twofold influence. We can notice the influence of Gandhara art in Central Asia, China and Japan, Indo-China and Indian subcontinent. Mathura art is said to be influenced by the Gandhara art.
2. The Mathura School of Art:
The Mathura School of Art belongs to the age of the Kushanas. R.C. Sharma argues that this school of art has six styles and finds Gandhara art’s influence on Mathura sculptural art only at the end of the reign of Kanishka. In this Mathura School, the images of the Buddha, the Bodhisattva and Jaina Thirthankaras became the prominent elements.
The specimens of the Mathura School are found at Mathura, Saranath, Sanchi and Kosam. The beginning of the Mathura art style can be traced to the 2nd century BC and by the 1st century AD; Mathura had become a major centre of art and was in great demand at far-off places too. The sculptural pieces were carved out of a local variety of black and red sandstone.
The characteristics of the idol of the Buddha are:
(a) Buddha sitting under a Bodhi tree with right hand in Abhaya posture,
(b) Dharma Chakra and Triratna chiselled in palms and at the bottom of the feet, and
(c) Except for one lock, the entire head is shaven.
Mathura was a sacred centre of Buddhists, the Jains as well as the followers of the Brahmanical faith. Some images of the Brahmanical faith have been found at Mathura. The earliest representations of Siva, Lakshmi, Surya and Sankarshana or Balarama are found here. During the Kushan age, the images of Kartikeya, Vishnu, Sarasvati, Kubera and the Nagas were chiselled on stone.
Mother Goddess worship was prevalent during this period. A number of Yaksha and Yakshini images have been discovered at Mathura. Very interestingly, we come across the images of Kanishka, Vima and Chastana from Mat, very near to Mathura. This practice appears to have been copied from Central Asia along with the Central Asian mode of dress.
3. The Amaravati School of Art:
The Amaravati School inspired by Buddhist ideas, developed in the lower valleys of the Krishna of the Eastern Deccan, was patronized by the Satavahanas, the Ikshvakus, and the nobles, officials and merchants of their time. Art was inspired by the Buddhist themes. The main centres of this art were Nagarjunakonda, Amaravati, Goli, Ghantasala and Jaggayyapeta. This school of art reached its heights during 150 BC and AD 150. The stupa railings, plinths and other parts show sculptural themes. The stupas of Amaravathi are the largest and most interesting.
The dome of the stupa was 20 feet high with four rectangular offsets. A railing 192 feet in diameter and 600 feet in circumference surrounded it. Sir John Marshall observes that there is greater originality, freedom of treatment and spontaneous exuberance in the art of Amaravati.
The reliefs of Amaravati indeed appear to be as truly Indian in style as those of Barhut and Ellora. They seem to follow as a natural sequence of the Mauryan art, when that art was finding expression in forms that are more conventional. They have certain motifs and types that filtered from the north-west, but these elements have been completely absorbed and assimilated without materially influencing the indigenous character of the sculptures. This art depicts the Buddha as a divine being receiving worship.
In Gandhara, the Buddha is portrayed as a Guru or preceptor. At Mathura, he assumes the garb of a local Yogin while Amaravati transforms him into a preaching monk or a public orator. We may conclude with a remark that the Amaravati School: “struck a quite novel and unique chord in the symphony of Indian plastic art.
The Amaravati School exerted significant influence on the later south Indian sculpture. It also influenced in the skill of the sculptors of Ceylon and south east Asian countries”. The Amaravati art served as a link between the earlier and the later art traditions.
Nihar Ranjan Ray aptly observes, “Never so far was the delicate and voluptuous beauty of the human frame so richly and luxuriously conceived and were never technical skill and efficiency more adequate for realisation of the conception”.