Cows, bulls and calendars


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LIVESTOCK as a term is familiar to most people, understood primarily as referring in particular to those animals that are considered an asset. Beyond this technical definition wherein the animals provide an income of sorts, the term ‘livestock’ can also generate strong associations in the mind and have a much broader aesthetic value.

Slowly sinking on the horizon, the sun’s last illuminating rays fall on the farmland. A tranquil picture emerges of rustic pastures, the farmer’s everyday toil and, most importantly, his cattle and other livestock as an integral part of the setting. As the famous landscape artist, John Constable, once said, ‘Painting is but another word for feeling.’

A pastoral landscape accompanied by the sleepy rays of the sun can evoke a certain mood in the onlooker. Though not tangible, yet it constitutes the essence of nature in art. The question here though is whether this scene, but without the livestock, can have the same effect? Our basic understanding of a pastoral landscape involves living creatures in addition to fields and pastures. Every small component in the scene is of equal importance, with each adding its own value to the overall picture.

While the above scene illustrates the importance of cattle in the imagery of an agricultural panorama, it is also revealing to look at the role livestock imagery has played in our daily lives throughout history. In India, this importance has been expressed in numerous ways and in various visual art forms over time. This paper briefly looks at the depiction of livestock in Indian pre-history, the use of livestock products in art, the importance of livestock in religious art, and in modern art forms involving livestock. This discussion, on the visual representation of livestock however, concentrates on the cow and the bull, as they form the basic link of livestock to art.

Some of the earliest expressions of livestock in our art date back to the Indus Valley Civilization viz. the many sculptures in bronze and stone as also the seals, many of which depict lively figures of both people and animals, including a number of so-called mythical beasts. The pottery found from this period is also significant and shows fine craftsmanship and attention to detail in the geometric patterns and designs found on their surfaces. The highest aesthetic of the Indus people is perhaps reflected in their seals, which were probably used for the purpose of trade.

The seals of Mohenjodaro and Harappa are highly regarded for their brilliance in artistic portrayal. These portray scenes of everyday life with most involving an animal. The natural balance in all compositions is particularly striking, especially in such miniature form. Many of these masterpieces show mythical creatures, the most famous of which is a rendition of a unicorn with features of a bull, as well as the renowned Pashupati, which depicts a seated figure surrounded by animals. The worship of animals and animal forms seem to have taken root as early as this civilization, showing our dependence on livestock from early times.


There are also other highly realistic depictions on the seals, like that of the famous Harappan Bull. This majestic creature is one the earliest references to livestock in art. Both its wide curving horns and heavy dewlap add to its sinuous line work and remarkable nature. These creatures were often found alongside inscriptions and are commonly called the zebu motif. Seals with the zebu motif are rare, despite the humped bull being a recurring theme in other decorative arts of the Indus Valley. It is often said that the bull may signify the leader of the entire herd – the strength and virility of the bull protects the community and ensures reproduction. It could also have been used as a sacrificial animal in rituals. Whatever the symbolism, the bull seal is easily recognizable as one of the earliest depictions of livestock in art.

Another early rendition of livestock can be seen in the Bhimbetka caves, located about forty-five kilometres east of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. These rock paintings (dating as far back as 15,000 years) have been classified into groups based on their styles and the subjects they depict. Though the most ancient of these groups is said to belong to the Mesolithic Age, many paintings can be dated to early historic and even medieval periods. The artwork in the rock shelters is rendered in white and red, with the occasional use of other colours like yellow and green. Dancing, hunting, animals fighting, honey collection, types of animals and other aspects of social life are some common themes that are show-cased here.

The depiction of humans is more common than of animals, but it is believed that about sixty-six cows (accompanied by five calves) are depicted as part of the Bhimbetka oeuvre. Some bulls also make an appearance along with horses (mostly used for riding) and other wild animals. The rock paintings at Bhimbetka display a clear reference to livestock as they depict scenes of everyday life relating to agriculture. The paintings show an evolution of style over time, with the later cows and bulls being rendered in a more elaborate and detailed manner.


The role of livestock in Indian traditional art is of importance not merely as a subject of depiction, but equally as a source for providing key ingredients in the art. For instance, the traditional Kalamkari process involves the use of buffalo milk to ensure the right degree of stiffness of the cloth before subjecting it to dyeing. The use of cow dung is especially significant in the traditional floor designs found in many states in India. Kolam, an almost daily occurrence in South India, becomes a central activity during the time of Margazhi, a particular season that ends in the festival of Pongal. A lump of cow dung is placed in the centre of these floor designs and removed carefully at the end of each day, to be replaced by a fresh lump the following morning. These used lumps are kept till the end of the season and then used as a fuel for cooking during the festival of Pongal.


Cow dung also serves as a base in tribal art: viz. the Warlis of Maharashtra plaster their walls with either red mud or cow dung before painting figures using rice powder. These are just a few instances of the use of cow dung, used extensively by many tribal and other artists. Equally, the image of a cow or bull can be commonly seen in many of these renditions, perhaps because of the community’s deep connection with nature.

The cow is considered sacred in Hindu culture and mythology, appearing frequently as a motif in art. Kamadhenu or the ‘cow of plenty’ is not only the mother of all cows but also of the eleven Rudras in Hindu culture. Though most worship is conducted by revering deities and idols, Kamadhenu is honoured by showing kindness to all cows and other livestock. This is partly due to the fact that all cows are supposed to be incarnations of Kamadhenu, making them integral to the practice of Hinduism in India.

Krishna looking at Sage Vashishta worshipping the Cosmic form of Kamadhenu – the cow, National Museum, New Delhi.


The use of the cow image has been further enhanced through calendar art, popularized by the father of modernism in India, Raja Ravi Varma and B.C. Sharma, a traditional Indian artist, known for his religious art and portrayals of gods. The cow as a national symbol as well as the cow protection movement in the late 19th century was likely a result of this popularization of calendar art.

B.C. Sharma was probably the first artist to portray an image of the cow designed to be reproduced on a calendar, thereby directly linking it to the cow protection movement. The picture created by him showed a cow which had all the Hindu gods within its body: The animal being milked by a woman in the presence of small Hindu figures, identified as Hindu from their attire. Titled ‘Milching a Cow’, this was one of the first representations of the cow as a symbol. The artist’s depiction of the body of the cow infused with gods probably resulted in the cow becoming a divine symbol and a new entity to worship. One advantage of creating such an image was that even those without any access to a temple could still worship the cow, thereby creating a new social dynamic between the viewer, the image and the notion of religion.

Calendar art evolved through the 20th century, eventually even promoting the symbol of the cow as an all encompassing and inclusive platform for all religions. Post-independence India required a unified and secular identity in its drive for strengthening nationalism. The disturbances and violence in the country in the Nehruvian era were a cry for harmony between communities – the image of the cow thus gained importance.

Portrayed as a universal system of sustenance and support, the cow became as important as Mother India. Raja Ravi Varma’s ‘Chaurasi Devataonwali Gai’ took its basic motif from Sharma’s calendar art and developed the figure of the cow by making it an abode for eighty-five Hindu gods. Most importantly, the new figure seemingly not only represented all communities regardless of religion and caste, it also helped transcend the rural-urban divide. This representation was, however, mired in controversy for also depicting a figure that looked suspiciously like a Dalit/Muslim attacking the cow. This in turn led to multiple litigation, with the case being popularly termed the ‘Holy Cow case’ by the British press. Calendar art and its development underlined the relationship between livestock and religion, and the importance of the cow as a symbol in India. While the cow might ultimately be depicted as an entity for worship, its representation in a calendar allegedly distracted from its religious links, giving it a wider appeal.


Looking now at contemporary art in India, N.S. Harsha’s compositions speak of a philosophical realm. He draws both from Indian painting traditions as well as those in the West. Harsha’s work encompasses a larger system, one that is made up of knowledge, credence and authority. It speaks of interconnectedness, forcing the viewers to question their own relationship to art. A hint of personal experience can be seen in his narratives of the wider spectrum that is the world.


A reflection of farmers and their problems can be seen in ‘A Macroeconomic Dispute on Price Band of Rs 30 to 60 Per Day’ (2004). It shows farmers and businessmen in a paddy field, ankle deep in the crop. It alludes to emerging economies, a clear representation of the troubles faced by Indian farmers and their livestock. Many of the canvases by the artist showcase cows and dairy farmers. ‘Mooing Here and Now’ (2014) is unusual in its content – commercial milking devices are attached to a garlanded cow by a deep-sea diver. A soldier/scientist shoots at an elephant, whose intentions vis-a-vis the cow are unclear. The relationship between animals (cows) and religions is what inspired this curious scene. Even though it appears surreal, the painting does not divert from contemporary reality.

Harsha very clearly states the necessity of isolating the critique from painting. His comments on society and culture are just that: comments. He gives the example of going back to his hometown and experiencing a new farm with modern equipment. The art that he produced is more a reflection of his experience of this phenomenon, rather than a reaction to it or hinting at a possible solution. He also claims that in India, the Hindu association with the image of the cow is very strong, resulting in his work being interpreted as religious. For him, the inspiration to delineate the cow drew very much from a Swiss context, having no basis in religion. However, Harsha is open to interpretation of his work. Any community with agrarian links will relate to the cow – interpretation is what makes it unique.


One of India’s more prominent post-modern artists, Sunil Das, rose to fame from his ‘Bull Series’. This series, as made clear by the title, portrays bulls in different forms. Greatly inspired by the bullfights in Spain, Das was fascinated by the power of the magnificent bull. Though not an allusion to agrarian life in India, the series greatly appealed to the Indian public because of their fondness for the cow and bull. Incidentally, bullfights exist in India as well, and the importance given to them by society can be seen in the recent Jallikattu protests that took place in Tamil Nadu. Though it was not these local spectacles that inspired Das’ paintings, it is nevertheless obvious that given the Indian fascination with such animals, these paintings came to be highly regarded within this context.

Recently, there was an incident around an installation of a styrofoam cow, suspended by a balloon at the Jaipur Art Summit. A number of Hindu ‘religious’ groups objected to the installation, titled ‘Bovine Divine’, demanding its removal because the ‘holy cow’ was not being displayed with due respect. One protester from the People for Animals group found it disturbing that the cow was dangling from a balloon, making it look as though it had been hanged. The artist, Siddhartha Kararwal, pointed out that he intended to show the suffering of a cow after having consumed plastic. As our society is becoming increasingly materialistic, cows end up eating plastic, as it is commonly found littered in the streets.

India holds the cow as sacred and many Indian states have even banned not merely the slaughter but the consumption of beef as a result of this sentiment. The styrofoam cow created a stir as some people felt ‘our cow’ was not being treated respectfully. As soon as the cow was taken down, it was garlanded and worshipped, almost as if to make up for this ‘unethical’ act.


The portrayal of livestock in art is a continuing process – right from its early beginnings in the Indus Valley Civilization and the Bhimbhetka caves. India considers the cow as an eternal being: an essence of all that is pure and good. The cow image also has many ties to religion, especially Hinduism. The danger, however, lies in it becoming associated with only this strain. Perhaps it is time we shed all our preconceptions and look at the cow without religious overtones.

The fact that we still continue to showcase livestock in our aesthetic is a clear sign that we value it greatly. Even if the depiction is a questioning of the relationship of such livestock to a modern world filled with equipment and gadgets, its representation within that spectrum is important. Using art as a universal language to appeal to all audiences is perhaps a step forward in keeping alive the livestock dialogue.



J.R. Mcintosh, The Art of the Indus Valley, in A.J. Andrea, World History Encyclopedia. 2011 (Online). ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara. Available from https://ezproxy.sothebys (accessed 1 March 2017).

S. Menon, Jallikattu and the Bovine Underbelly of Indian Nationalism, 2017. Available at: (accessed 3 March 2017).

B. Mohanty, How Calendar Art Helped Make the Cow a Divine Figure in India, 2015. Available at figure-in-india (accessed 1 March 2017).

H. Thorne, N.S. Harsha: ‘I am like a cook. I love to make a dish, offer it to the people, and wait for a reaction’, 2015. Available at (accessed 1 March 2017).