Deep in the heart of old Thanjavur city in Tamil Nadu a narrow path weaves its way between houses with deep verandahs. The patch of land in front of the doorsteps is decorated with the traditional kolam, a design made fresh each morning with rice powder. Enter one of the small doorways and emerge in a long, enclosed verandah. At first sight it resembles a small art gallery but then a closer look reveals innumerable paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses on the walls. They range from miniatures measuring a few square inches to frames as large as doors, gleaming, twinkling and reflecting light in the cool interior. These are examples of the famed “Tanjore paintings” (Tanjore being the anglicised name for Thanjavur).
The origin of this ancient art form lies in the fabled Vijayanagara Empire (1336-1646 A.D.) which included large areas of present-day Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Thanjavur was a part of the kingdom. The Vijayanagara kings were great patrons of all forms of art. It is speculated that this art form began as a method of decorating building interiors – walls and doors. The interiors of palaces were painted with depictions of important events in the king’s reign – coronation, famous battle-field victories and other scenes that the king commissioned, while the wall paintings and murals in temples involved religious themes. Remnants of these wall paintings can still be seen on the walls of the temple of Virupaksha in Hampi the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, in the temple of Lepakshi in Andhra Pradesh and the temples of Kamakshi and Varadaraja in Kanchipuram. Thanjavur itself has samples of this painting in the interior of the first tier of the gopuram of Periya Kovil of Brihadeeswara. Since access into the gopuram is restricted, replicas of these paintings can be seen in the museum situated in the temple compound. Over time, the technique was used in smaller compositions such as portraiture or the depiction of a religious theme.
Around the 1600’s, this painting style evolved into two schools- Mysore School and Tanjore School. The Tanjore School went through several changes in its early days, with respect to the base material, materials used for embellishments and the technique. The themes of the paintings are largely religious- gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Gods are depicted with absolute pomp and show. A long and tedious technique is involved in creating this magnificent piece of art. Heavy ornamentation is used to decorate the figures and clothing of the gods.
The predominant themes are religious – essentially gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Krishna in his babyhood reigns supreme – as Vatapatra Sayi, the baby lying on the banyan leaf with his big toe in his mouth; Navaneetha Krishna, the toddler with a pot of butter in his hand and Krishna with his mother Yashoda. Other Krishna themes are usually the God with his consorts Rukmini and Satyabhama; Krishna dancing with gopikas and Krishna with Satyabhama on Garuda. Rama Pattabhishekham, the coronation of Rama, is another perennial favourite. It is a depiction of the tableau of Rama’s coronation where the central figure of Rama is flanked by his wife Sita, his brothers and members of the darbar with the ever-faithful Hanuman at his feet. The artists of the Tanjore School of painting return time and again to the subjects of Narasimha, the goddesses Lakshmi – depicted often as Gaja Lakshmi and Santana Lakshmi, Saraswati and Parvati. Other subjects that have been adopted recently are of the Sikh gurus and the scene of the Nativity of Christ.
Though the themes remain predominantly religious, the social and cultural milieus in which these paintings are situated make them unique. Royalty and the gods are depicted with absolute pomp and show. The ornamentation and dress of the main figures offer a rich panoply to view. These comprise bolsters and cushions, several types of flower garlands mainly stylised strings of lotus, jewellery to decorate every part of the body – armlets, bangles, girdles for the waist, finger rings and toe rings, nose rings and studs worn both on the sides of the nostrils as well as in the centre, hair ornaments such as Chandraprabha and Suryaprabha, multi-tiered necklaces with pendants, waistbands, ankle-bands and ankle chains.
The Tanjore style is not confined to wall paintings alone but is also used to decorate ornamental plates, mantapas, pooja cupboard panels and kalashams of coconut used in worship. Palanquins and vahanam for the transport of deities such as Garuda, Sesha, Hanuman, Kamadhenu, Nandi in temple processions, Annapakshi huge enough for temple processions as well as smaller ones for display in homes are also where the Tanjore style is used for decoration.
Even today, artists of the Tanjore School keep traditional practices, methods and themes alive. Their ancestors migrated into Thanjavur from Telugu-speaking areas during the Nayak period of the city’s history and they remain rooted in their language and culture. Although the present day artists have retained the traditional practices and methods, they have also adapted to the methods and materials, changing with time. This is one of the reasons, why this art unlike the other ancient arts has survived and evolved.
Authors: Padma Raghavan, Savita Narayan Source: Heritage India Magazine Volume 1 Issue 2 (2008) Web editor: Kshitija Pande