Tanjore Painting: The Rich South Indian Artform That Stood the Test of Time

Art Wise

A classical artform from southern India, Thanjavur painting – also known as Tanjore painting – is a celebration of the region’s rich artistic tradition, named after the town of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, India. Tanjore paintings are known for their extravagant depictions of deities using vibrant colours and gaudy embellishments, especially gold foil. Though the artform has undergone various changes over the years, it continues to be popular with lovers of art even today, and inspires many artists with its truly Indian style.

Ancient Roots and Patronage

Tanjore painting drew inspiration from Indian art of the 16th century, when the Vijayanagara Rayas administered their vast kingdom in southern India through the Nayaka Governors. The Nayakas were great patrons of art and literature.

In 1676, Maratha rule was established in the region, and Maratha rulers encouraged the flourish of art and artists. It was during this time, that Tanjore painting truly flourished and developed into the form and style in which we recognise it today.

Maratha palaces and buildings were adorned with large paintings of deities as well as Maratha rulers, courtiers and nobility. Almost all the deities were depicted with rounded faces, almond-shaped eyes and streamlined bodies. Flat colours were used to paint the figures, which were often compactly placed within arches, drapes and ornate borders. The dense composition was a distinct feature of Tanjore paintings, and faces were usually shaded to add a feeling of depth.

A Tanjore painting depicting Nataraja and Sivakami, circa 19th century (Source: Wikipedia)

The Company Style

With the decline of the Maratha rule, the Britishers who had come into Tanjore in the wake of the Mysore Wars of 1767-99 patronised the Tanjore artists. In 1773, a British garrison was installed in Tanjore and it became a base for British troops. Indian artists in and around Tanjore, prepared sets of paintings for Company personnel throughout the next century.

These sets were called albums or album paintings. They were collections of “native” or “Indian” subjects, painted in a manner that appealed to English sensibilities and tastes. The usual subjects of deities and episodes from Hindu mythology were joined in by others which piqued the interest of the English, like fairs, ceremonies, festivals, caste occupations and Indian flora and fauna. They were completed with little or no gold foil and avoided any glass or gem inlay. The paintings also carried short descriptions about the subject matter in English, and occasionally in Tamil or Telugu. Though these paintings were grouped under the Company style of painting, they were typically Tanjore in style and characterisation, and were executed by the same group of traditional artists.

An album painting depicting Rama and Hanuman fighting Ravana (Source: Wikipedia)

The Tanjore Technique

Tanjore paintings are known as palagai padam – meaning “picture on a wooden plank” – as they are typically completed on boards made from jackfruit or teak wood. The use of vibrant colours and gold leaf embellishments are characteristic of Tanjore paintings, with cut glass, pearls and precious and semi-precious stones also used for decoration.

In the process of creating a Tanjore painting (Source: dsource.in)

While artists in the past used vegetable and mineral dyes as natural colours for these artworks, over time, chemical paints have taken over. The dazzling colour palette of Tanjore paintings uses vibrant shades of reds, blues and greens. This, along with the richness and dense compositions of these paintings, ensure that they stand out from other Indian artforms. Common themes in Tanjore paintings include Bal Krishna, Lord Rama, as well as other gods, goddesses, saints and subjects from Hindu mythology.

A Tanjore painting depicting Bal Krishna; click to purchase on Artisera

A Migrant Artist Community

In the olden days, Tanjore paintings were executed by the Raju community of Tanjore and Tiruchy and the Naidu community of Madurai. These artists, who were originally Telugu-speaking and hailing from Andhra Pradesh, moved to Tamil Nadu after the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire. Patronage was of utmost importance to these artists, and even the size of the paintings varied depending upon the subject and the patron’s choices.  

The technique of Tanjore painting demanded a great deal of perseverance and perfection from artists. Furthermore, the creation of the artwork, considered a sacred task, was to be performed with some degree of ritual purity and humility by the master craftsmen. Remaining true to the Indian artistic tradition, most artists chose to remain anonymous and never signed their paintings.

An artist working on a Tanjore painting (Source: inrootz.in)

Diverse Stylistic Influences

Tanjore painting not only drew heavily from the diverse cultural groups that patronised the artform – it was also influenced by other prominent painting styles which were under the Vijayanagara school, like the Kalamkari and Tirupati styles of painting. Tirupati paintings, produced in the famous temple town of Tirupati using different media and techniques, portrayed deities, and many were gilded and gem-set in a manner similar to Tanjore paintings.

A bulk of reverse glass paintings – another genre of traditional Indian art – which were from southern India, were heavily influenced by Tanjore painting and depicted religious figures in vibrant colours, with metallic foils and details adding to the richness of the artworks.

The popular artform of Mysore painting shares many characteristics with Tanjore painting, often leading to confusion between the two. They were both executed by artists from the Raju and Naidu communities, and have roots in the Vijayanagara period. Though the styles are remarkably similar, there are notable differences like the use of paper as the base for Mysore paintings and its limited use of gold foil, glass beads and precious and semi-precious stones. The themes in Mysore paintings are reflective of the contemporary style which was prevalent in the Mysore Palace, and also features more elaborate landscapes, in contrast to the dense composition of Tanjore paintings.

A Mysore painting depicting Varamahalakshmi

Thriving Against the Tide of Time

The tradition of Tanjore painting is kept alive even today, mostly by a few dedicated artists based in Tamil Nadu. Along with the shift to the use of synthetic colours in the artworks, jackfruit and teak wood have also been replaced by plywood.

Shivoham, a Tanjore Painting; click to purchase on Artisera

Today, Tanjore paintings still have a broad appeal. In recent times, they have been commercialised extensively, and can be found being sold even in street markets. Although the artform has stood the test of time and continues to be popular, the general decline in quality is disconcerting to many art lovers. What is heartening though, is that workshops and training camps are being held to ensure that the artform continues to thrive, while retaining all the rich, traditional and artistic elements that make up the essence of the artform of Tanjore painting.

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