How to Study Art & Culture?

For the purpose of understanding, we first list some of the important sources for studying Indian Art and Culture:

  • Exclusive Indian Art and Culture NCERTs (New NCERTs)
    • Class XI: An Introduction to Indian Art (Part I)
    • Class XI: Living Craft Traditions of India
  • Art and Culture content in new NCERT History textbooks (Class 6 to Class 12 NCERTs)
  • Art and Culture section under InstaPedia (content will be regularly added and updated)
  • Previous year question papers (both preliminaries and mains)
  • Current Affairs (with an orientation towards the main examination), examples include:
    • Google Doodles, Government initiatives, UNESCO, Supreme Court orders and judgments, Republic day parade, Padma awards, etc.
    • Issues associated with Indian Art and Culture, ex: Jallikattu, Sabarimala, art theft (Subhash Kapoor), toppling of statues (ex: in Africa -> Gandhi’s statue in University of Ghana), the issue of return of artefacts taken away by colonialists once upon a time etc, state of preservation of artefacts in India, etc.
  • Judicious usage of the internet
  • You will have to cover the Tamil Nadu state syllabus history textbook for Ancient and Medieval India; in the process, you will be gathering some Art and Culture content too.


Now, how does one study something as vast as Indian Art and Culture, wherefrom the questions are varied and diverse? On average, there are about 5 questions one can expect in the preliminary examination. The situation is different in the main examination. In 2019, there was just one 10-marker question. On the other hand, there were 4 questions in 2020 that accounted for 50 marks.


The mantra is an oft-repeated one: stick to your sources. Revise these sources repeatedly. Practise tests – both prelims and mains.


The first step in preparing Indian Art and Culture is to study your sources at least once, cover to cover, to become familiar with the subject. Judiciously use google images and youtube videos to make your study engaging. Art and culture can otherwise be boring. Some other ways to make your study interesting:

    • Prepare maps, Ex: prepare maps of all folk music, folk dances, folk theatre, martial arts, national intangible cultural heritage, etc. Your NCERTs already have several maps, ex: a map locating important temples of India.
    • Prepare tables, ex: approximate dates of construction of different temples and names of their patrons; approximate dates of Bhakti-sufi saints (there’s a table already on this in the NCERTs)
    • Prepare a document with imagery so that you can use that file every time you have to revise Indian Art and Culture, and you don’t have to repeatedly google them.


How should one study this subject for tackling questions in the preliminary examination?

  • Prepare 50-word content for every option that has appeared in previous year papers. This is because UPSC picks up such options from them and frames questions for subsequent question papers centred around them.
  • Identify the types of questions appearing, and prioritise your study on this basis. Ex: one, the dreaded ‘D’ word – dates – are important. Many questions in history, including art and culture, are based on being familiar with dates. Two, questions on Buddhism and Jainism, especially the former, are recurrent. Three, there are many unique things in Indian Art and Culture that UPSC asks questions on, ex – Ashoka’s Kanaganahalli relief with his name inscribed on it, Varaha sculture in Udaygiri, etc. Identify many other such trends!
  • Attempt topic-wise MCQs along with your study.
  • Attempt exclusive full-length art and culture mock tests only after every round of study of sources. You cannot expect your scores in mocks to improve in any subject without working on your weaknesses and revising all your sources once again.
  • Use every test not just to “test” your knowledge. Every test must be used also to add to your knowledge as well as to understand what the possible types of questions could be.


How should one study this subject for tackling questions in the main examination?

  1. Identify the types of questions appearing, and prioritise your study on this basis. Ex: There are questions that tend to appear on Bhakti-Sufi tradition, on Buddhism/Buddhist art, questions on/allied to literature (2013 – Sangam literature; 2016 – Krishnadevaraya literature patron; 2018 – Chinese and Arab accounts in reconstruction of Indian history; 2020- Persian literary sources) etc.
  2. Prepare 250 word-answers for every A&C question that has appeared since 2013.
  3. Prepare 250 word-answers for every A&C question that has appeared in History optional papers since 2013. Yes, you read it right. History optional papers.
  4. Pay attention to A&C related issues in the news. Ex: there recently was a Sunday Magazine (The Hindu) cover story on folk music preservation. The Supreme Court constantly intervenes in matters of protection and preservation of the Taj Mahal. Art theft is a hot issue, and so is documentation of Indian art.
  5. Points 3, 4 and 5 from “how to prepare for preliminaries” applies here too.


We often look at questions (preliminaries + mains) and wonder how one can answer them. We do this without studying our sources carefully. Remember that no one will have a good answer to bouncer questions (ex: 2020 – Persian literary sources of medieval India, or 2018 – Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu). But those who had revised the same sources repeatedly would have been able to answer these questions far better than those who did not revise well.


Abide by the mantra highlighted earlier. You will do better than the rest.