Thanjavur Painting: The Exquisite Indian Art

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A classical artform from Thanjavur formerly Tanjore, a city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Thanjavur painting is a celebration of the region’s rich artistic tradition. Also, known as Tanjore, these paintings are known for their dense composition and extravagant depictions of Hindu deities using vibrant colors and glittering embellishments, especially gold foil. Though this exquisite artform has undergone several changes over the years, it continues to be popular with art enthusiasts even today, with some particular creations such as Ganesha art still having a broad appeal and inspires many artists with its distinctive style.

The Roots

Thanjavur painting has its origin in the early 16th century where it was introduced by the Chola dynasty, who were great lovers of art and sculpture. This was also a period when the Nayakas of Thanjavur under the reign of the Vijayanagara Rayas administered the region, being great patrons of art and literature, they also propagated this artform extensively.

Later in 1676, Maratha rule was established in the region, and Maratha rulers patronized the Thanjavur art and artists. It was during this time that this style of painting truly flourished and developed into the form in which we recognize it today.

Maratha palaces and buildings were adorned with large illustrations of deities such as Shiva and  Lakshmi Tanjore painting as well as Maratha rulers, courtiers, and nobility. Using flat colors, almost all the deities featured in these paintings were depicted with almond-shaped eyes, thick-rounded faces usually shaded to add in more depth, and streamlined bodies often compactly placed within arches, drapes, and ornate borders.

The Technique

Popularly known as ‘palagai padam’ (meaning picture on a wooden plank), Thanjavur paintings are typically done on boards or planks made from jackfruit or teak wood. But nowadays plywood is primarily used, the canvas is pasted on it with Arabic gum. For decoration, apart from the vibrant colors and gold leaf embellishments which are characteristic of these South Indian paintings, cut glass, pearls, precious and semi-precious stones also used.

In the past, natural colors were used wherein the artists derived it from vegetable and mineral dyes for these artworks, over time, synthetic or chemical paints have taken over. The dazzling color palette of Thanjavur paintings uses vibrant hues of reds, blues, and greens — outlines were marked with bright red and dark brown colors. The background was also mostly created with red color though shades of blue and green colors were also used often. Apart from this, a specific color palette was used for every deity, and theme, such as Lord Vishnu was colored blue, Lord Nataraja was usually done in chalk white. Lakshmi Tanjore painting had a yellow color, while blue color was used for the sky and black was employed on occasions. Gleaming colors along with the rich and dense compositions, ensure that they stand out from other Indian artforms.

The Making Process

The first step in the making of mesmerizing Thanjavur artwork is the drawing of the preliminary sketch of the images or figurines on the surface of the canvas, which was usually a wooden base over which a cloth was pasted firmly. Then the second step involves the application of the paste of zinc oxide or the chalk powder in a water-soluble adhesive, on the canvas base, which is then left for drying. Once the canvas is ready, a detailed sketch of the subject using stencils is done and finally, the drawing is filled with vibrant color combinations in accordance with the theme and ornamented with pearls, cut glass, semi-precious stones, decorative laces or golden threads. Furthermore, delicate thin sheets of gold are pasted on some parts of the painting such as pillars, arches, thrones, dresses etc.

Diverse Stylistic Influences

The exquisite Thanjavur painting not only drew heavily from the diverse cultural groups and rulers that patronized it but was also deeply influenced by other prominent styles of painting that were under the famous Vijayanagara school of painting, including Mysore, Kalamkari and Tirupati styles of painting. Produced in the famous Venkateshwara temple town of Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, Tirupati painting employs different media and techniques, depicts Hindu deities covered with gold and gem-set quite similar to Thanjavur paintings.

Another genre of the traditional Indian art form practiced in southern India called reverse glass paintings was also strongly influenced by Thanjavur painting. It also depicted religious figures in vibrant colors, decorated with metallic foils and other details.

The popular art form of Mysore painting, known for its elegance, muted colors, and extreme attention to detail, shares so many characteristics with the Thanjavur art, which often leads to confusion between the two. As both are executed by artists from the Raju and Naidu communities and have roots in the Vijayanagara period, their styles are remarkably similar. However, there are notable differences like the use of paper as the base and limited use of gold foil, glass beads, and precious and semi-precious stones, unlike Thanjavur paintings. Even the themes vary significantly, the themes in Mysore paintings are reflective of the contemporary style of the Mysore Palace, and also features elaborate landscapes, in contrast to the dense composition of Thanjavur creations.

The Journey

This great traditional art of Thanjavur continues to be practiced till date, though the virtuosity and rigor of these paintings are under-appreciated in the present day. Also, Thanjavur painting was granted GI tag by the Government of India in 2007-08. To match up with contemporary demands, artists have taken this conventional form of art and blended it with modern styles and recreated on other mediums so as to produce varied mixed media arts such as embellished Ganesha art. Today, this art is also done on mirrors, glasses, and canvases in the same distinctive style using gold foil.

Unfortunately, as this sacred art is losing its popularity over the last couple of years and is not practiced in the present days extensively like in the past. However, several large-scale revival programs are being held regularly by the government and other prominent cultural institutions. Also, workshops, exhibitions and training camps on Thanjavur paintings are organized from time to time so as to preserve and promote this mesmerizing art form.

Wrap Up

The tradition of Tanjore art has been kept alive even today by a few dedicated artists based in Tamil Nadu. Though there has been a shift to the use of synthetic colors and plywood canvases, it still retains all the rich, traditional, and artistic elements of the glittering embellishments, especially gold foil that makes up the essence of the art form.