Tanjore Art of India

The Tanjore School – This form is a grand admixture of Craft and Art. It is dominated by an iconic style that lays stress on pure colours and untinged mixtures. Special care is laid on ornamentation and background architectural frames which are slightly raised and yet relieved by the use of special paste and wrapped in ‘gold leaf’ after setting in stones of multiple hues. The principal figures in the paintings are Gods and Goddesses depicted in bold and larger than life proportions. Krishna in his many facets is a favourite as is the enigmatic Ganesha along with the bountiful Lakshmi and the erudite Saraswati. Depictions of Ranganatha, Shiva, Rama and other deities are fewer but with greater grandeur and complexity. Only the most talented and mature master artists can do justice to such intricate and complex compositions. These are much sought after by art collectors.

Historical Perspective – The Tanjore school of art was born on the banks of the river Kaveri in South India. It developed out of the Bhakti Movement, long after the unification of the two great factions of Hinduism, the Shaivites and the Vaishnavites. However it is to be noted that even the Vedas have a mention of Ratan Jadit chitra or jewel encrusted paintings.

The Tanjore school flourished under the royal patronage of the Maratha kings of Tanjore (in itself a historical accident!) and reached it’s pinnacle during the rule of Sarfoji Maharaj, a great patron of the art. Later it fell on bad days during which the workmanship suffered.

Tanjore Paintings – An Evolution – During the early 18th Century, when Tanjore was under the patronage of the Maratha Rulers the Tanjore art form was developed. Tanjore which is the anglicised name for Thanjavur, is in South India, about 300 Kms. from Madras (Chennai). Tanjore was the capital of the Chola Kingdom which has made significant contributions to Indian Art and Architecture. This art form has a distinct personality, with a painting style which is a mix of formal and folk art.

Tanjore style paintings communicate rituals with a mass appeal. The subjects chosen are usually illustrations of scenes from the Ramayana & Bhagavatha Purana. (Both these texts are held in high esteem by the Hindus in India) The portrayal of the figures in the paintings are breathtakingly brilliant. Almost all the figures have rounded bodies and almond- shaped eyes. The traditional Tanjore Artists have a flair for ornamenting the figures with jewellery and ornate dresses.

The early paintings were embedded with real diamonds, rubies and other precious stones. Now-a-days, the artists use Jaipur stones (semi-precious and artificial stones) to embellish the paintings. The early paintings were rendered with vegetable dyes for colors and shades. The present-day artists use chemical paints which enhance the sharpness and provide better shade contrasts.

The genesis of the Tanjore art dates back to the early 18th Century or probably even before and it is a unique culmination of several influences. Integration of art forms of Mysore as well as Andhra is fairly evident and apparent. Tanjore art is a natural extension of the skill and dexterity of the Tanjore craftsmen. The art is more skill oriented and it demands a lot of attention on fineness and perfection. The art is fundamentally iconic and the theme is normally based on Hindu gods and godesses and very rarely on heroes. The style and modality have undergone some minor variations due to contemporary demands.

The visual art of the Thanjavur school, had its growth and development over a long period, from 1700 to 1900, with its peak during the reign of Serfoji (1797 – 1833). It is a unique mixture of the Bhakti cult and the ability to present the same in an attractive manner. It is basically iconic, with the popular Hindu Gods, forming the central theme. If the painting depicts an event from Hindu Mythology, then the main figure is supported by a number of smaller figures, to bring out the reality of the event. While it does not call for major innovation or creativity, it does call for skill, finesse and perfection. Some of the popular themes are the coronation of Rama, Krishna eating butter and Devi.

How Tanjore Paintings are made – The traditional art was done on a single wooden board, on which cloth was pasted. The cloth was coated with a compound comprising an adhesive and a smoothening agent. Earlier, this compound used lime white, but now it is a mix of adhesive and plaster of Paris or French chalk powder along with water. The surface of the board is then polished with a smooth stone to make it even. This facilitates easy sketching and painting.

Detailed sketching is then done, including areas where gems are to be pasted and relief work is to be incorporated. Owing to the repetitive nature of the themes, a master drawing is kept, from which the reproductions are traced using carbon paper. While sketching, care is taken to include margins for the frame on all four sides. Upon completion of sketching, the gems are placed in their positions using an adhesive. This used to be tamarind paste, but now any popular adhesive is used. Earlier, during the patronage of royalty, precious stones were used, but now semi precious stones are used.

In order to begin work on relief, a compound is used. This was initially a mixture of unboiled lime powder with glue. But now it is adhesive with Plaster of Paris or French Chalk. The finer the relief the more attractive the painting. The compound is applied using a brush or a cone with a hole in it, from which the compound is ejected.The compound binds the Gems firmly ensuring they remain in place for many years.

The relief work is covered with Gold foil. This is a very precise and delicate operation. The foil is to be cut to size and pasted over the relief without excessive application of pressure. A piece of cloth or a sponge is used for this. Excess pressure may damage the relief. Painting is then taken up. The central figure is normally white in colour, with shades of blue. The figures are usually plump and static. The background features supporting figures, pillars, curtains and angels with flowers. The rest of the area is done in striking red, blue or green colours. Extensive use of gems, gold foils and other embellishments add richness to the picture.

The paintings are usually framed and hung on walls.