Going back into the history of art and painting in India

India has a long history of painting and art work dating back to several centuries. The paintings in India can be broadly classified under two categories namely wall paintings and miniature paintings. And all the different Indian paintings fall under one of these two broad categories. Some of the most popular types of paintings that are well known are Mughal paintings, Rajasthani paintings, Madhubani paintings, Tribal and folk art, Lepakshi paintings, Batik paintings , Modern paintings and Tanjore paintings.

The medieval history of India had seen glorious periods when arts and cultural expressions were given a lot of importance by the rulers of those times across the country. It was a defining moment in Indian history when different forms of arts and crafts evolved in almost all the regions of India. Some of the Paintings, which evolved during this period, were Tanjore paintings, Rajput and Mughal Miniature Paintings and Deccan paintings all of which are considered classic true style Indian paintings.

A little about Tanjavur 

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Thanjavur as it is called, also known as Tanjore in English is a municipality and the headquarters of the Thanjavur District in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Thanjavur has always been an important center of South Indian art and architecture.Thanjavur, according to legend gets its name from Tanjan, a demon who caused a great disturbanceand harm to the people living in the area and was eventually killed by the lord. His last wish was that the place of his death be named after him. Today, Thanjuavur is also foremost in agriculture and is known as the "rice bowl of Tamil Nadu" .

Most of the ancient and existing Chola Temples which are UNESCO World Heritage Monuments are located in and around Thanjavur. The foremost among these ancient Chola temples is the Brihadeshwara Temple which is located in the center of the city and is the greatest examples of Dravidian architecture . Thanjavur is also the home of many other art forms including Tanjore painting, a painting style unique to the region. Tanjore or Thanjavur paintings , as they are locally called are basically paintings created using a style and technique, which originated in Thanjavur during the 16th century. It is a unique type of painting named after the place Thanjavur ( or Tanjore in English) .

Thanjavur district , as I already mentioned is famous for various arts and crafts in which paintings are ranked high. There are many other art forms like Thanjavur Toys, Thanjavur Plates, etc; Tanjore paintings are very beautiful, besides being ancient, and also they come under the category of miniature type of painting. 

About Tanjore Paintings

The origin of Tanjore painting dates back to the Nayak and the Maratha rule that prevailed in the 16th century.The Maratha rule of Thanjavur spanned for over two centuries from the late 16th century. Almost all the Maratha rulers were great admirers of the local traditional forms of paintings and gave a lot of encouragement to all local art forms. Although there is no record as to who was first started the trend of this form of painting, there are some evidences that support that the painting evolved with skills and talents in later years.The Thanjavur school of painting evolved and bloomed during a period when there was a lot of political chaos in South India especially in Madras or what is Tamilnadu today.

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According to records available this art form was practiced by two main communities namely The Rajus (a family) in Thanjavur and Trichy which is a city close to Thanjavur and The Naidus (another family) in the temple city of Madurai which is again a very famous temple city that was being ruled by Pandya kings during that period of time. Both the artists namely Raju and Naidu were originally from neighboring Andhra pradesh or Rayalseema region who had migrated to Tamil Nadu.. Initially the early paintings were done on materials like wood, glass, or even ivory.The subject material of most of those paintings were of Hindu deities and saints. 

Apparently , the early paintings were also embedded with real Diamonds, Rubies and other precious stones since they were all made for temples and palaces patronized by the royal families and to this day they have retained their stunning beauty. Later, as it became more popular and others too ( mostly the richer classes) began to own these paintings , use of semi-precious and artificial stones became the trend. There are a few examples of this art ( the ones which have precious stones as well as semi precious stones)in the Saraswathi Mahal Library art gallery in Tanjore, which was set up and developed by King Serfoji who although was actively engaged in warfare with the Nayaks of madurai, also gave due importance to art and culture. Serfoji ruled between the years 1798 to 1832, and , he was instrumental in building the "Ganesha shrine" within the courtyard of Tanjore Brahadeeshwara temple.

The art of Tanjore painting

A typical Thanjavur painting normally would consist of one main figure, a deity, with a well rounded body and almond shaped eyes typical of Dravidian structure. This figure would be etched in a very decorative enclosure consisting of arches, curtains and other such design elements. The painting is normally bordered and highlighted with the gilded and gem-set technique . This is a technique used predominantly in all Tanjore paintings where gold leaves and floral patterns and also sparkling stones (sometimes semi precious on demand ) are used to highlight certain aspects of the painting like head dress, ornaments, border of a dresses etc.

The painting are normally very bright and colorful and breathtakingly beautiful. The impact in a darkened room is mesmerising since it glitters and glows because of the various artifacts and gem stones that are embedded on the surface . Child Krishna and his various pranks are the main theme of most of these paintings but, paintings of other deities were also created. Later, more intricate details were also added with many more gods. Over a period of time many changes have occurred in the style and form of painting - for example, the figures are no longer too round, showing the changed preferences in body structures . Presiding deities of various famous temples are also being depicted in the more recent paintings, in fact this is also one way of detecting an authentic old Tanjore painting from a more recent one.

Tanjore Paintings are known for their rich surfaces, vivid color combinations and compact compositions. As mentioned earlier the art of making Tanjore painting was practiced by two main communities who were  well versed in their art and mastered it to such an extent that even today, the modern day painters are unable to recreate the same kind of look and magic in their paintings. No doubt that the innovations were limited those days  due to many factors, partly also due to the lack of exposure to the public. However, the tradition of making  Tanjore painting remained as a distinct art of that particular region. Later the painters began to try painting on other surfaces like glass and on materials like wood, mica, and exotic media such as ivory, murals and manuscripts..


Learning the art of Tanjore Painting

 In spite of there being a lot of fame and popularity for the paintings as such, there is no school in India which teaches this particular form of arts to this day, to carry it forward to the future generations. This form of painting and skills involved profoundly remains the personal property of the individual artists or sometimes remain as the personal knowledge of the families concerned.. Apart from this, there are many interested artists who have shown great inclination to learn this art on their own efforts and practice it with their own added techniques that include more innovation and a modern mix of thoughts, that has taken Tanjore paintings to a wider audience all over the country.

And because of these efforts made by the modern day artistes Tanjore Paintings have not only become the symbol of traditional paintings, but also a blend of old and new thoughts which have all come together to make the paintings richer. The colors are a little more muted instead of being garish and the proportions of the deities more pleasing and realistic, which has all gone on to make the later day paintings even more beautiful.

 Tanjore paintings since they were meant for temples and palaces were considered as the divine forms of expressions of love and adoration for God and was also supposed to express truth, and beauty. Most of the olden day painters were totally devoted artists from Tamil Nadu, who kept this beautiful form of art alive and managed to bring about new innovations into it without in any way distorting it or taking way the basic essence from it.These brilliant items of paintings have become an essential part of almost all art galleries in India and are now being put up even in prominent art galleries located in foreign countries as well. However, the true inheritors of Tanjore paintings are mostly the artists who hail from the place of origin and practice this art to this day .They have not grown rich in financial terms but are fully satisfied with what they do to enrich our cultural heritage.

I spoke to one such artiste who living and working in Tanjore, who comes from the nearby village of Vishnampettai and his family has been actively involved in this art form since 6 generations and that is some record, shows the kind of dedication and single minded determination they have in keeping the art alive and thriving. He leads a simple life and can only boast of an ancestral house owned by him, and no other luxury! This after having been continuously contributing to the art for six generations. Tanjore paintings are very expensive when you buy them but most of the money is made by the middlemen paying the artistes a bare minimum. But what is even more amazing is that the artistes who are the inspiration and life of these paintings ,instead of striking out to be independent and on their own still continue to depend on these middle men.

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Various influences

According to available records Tanjore painting actually takes its origin form the murals of the Vijayanagar period (between 1500-1600 AD) in Hampi, Karnataka. Tanjore paintings , according to prominent artists of today, acquired its robust forms, architectural details and vibrant colors during this period.

Later with the advent of the royal Maratha artists , some more details were added which made the paintings richer . They combined the existing mural style with an amazing precise detailing that was also characterized by exquisite workmanship of precious stones and gold leaves.Those days real gems and gold was used.

Later during the British rule, Tanjore painting underwent some more minor changes with respect to the concept of three dimensionality – gessore(a paste of chalk powder and gum arabica ahesive is mixed and smeared on the surface on which the art work is done) was used using chalk powder and adhesive to give a depth to the painting.

The British were great patrons of all art and cultural forms in India and went all out to encourage the artisans and gave them the necessary help in the form of contructing sheds and providing the raw materials needed, but many or most of those paintings made their way into their private collections which is quite another matter ! But art thrived during british times and so did Tanjore painting.

Some details about the paintings

 Frames are very important in any painting and this is also true of Tanjore paintings. Frames when effectively used can highlight and enhance a painting. Also a bad frame can totally spoil the effect.

Normally, the frames used for Thanjavur paintings are of two types – Wooden and the more ornate and ornamental type of framing that is known as Chettinad style. 

1) The wooden frame – is normally made from teak wood, rose wood,Buma teak or any other good quality wood that can withstand normal wear and tear besides adding character and grace to the painting. The wood is polished and left in its natural color, may be with a coat of varnish given to it for durability.There are many different styles used keeping in mind the subject ( deity) being painted and also the combination of colors used in the painting. Sometimes an intricate design is carved on the wood to make it decorative and more attractive.

2) The Chettinad style of framing -The more ornate and ornamental type of frame that is used for Tanjore paintings is based on Chettinad style ( based in Tamilnadu) which is known for its ornamental designs. Brass decorations and borders are extensively used in this kind of framing which makes the painting look like  jewels, gleaming and absolutely gorgeous! Instead of breakable glass , these days transparent acrylic sheets are used to avoid breakage during transit.but once it reaches its destination and the owner , they may do as they like , probably re-frame it with an added glass sheet to prevent dust and dirt from entering and spoiling the painting.

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Antique frames - Apat from these two basic styles of framing , these days one can increasingly see antique finished frames being used for these paintings. Some of them do look good but by far and large the two basic types are best suited for the paintings. Frames can be very expensive depending on the quality of wood, the design and also the intricate metal detalings. They further increase the price of these paintings which are already very expensive .Even an authentic copy costs a few thousand rupees and an orginal painting by the artisans can cost anywhre between 2 -3 lakhs for a smaller version and much more for larger more intricate paintings.

To conclude, One can say that Tanjore painting is one of the finest and the most visually beautiful forms of classical paintings in South India. The group of painters feel that working on these paintings is akin to conveying their devotion to the deity they are painting. 

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