Bright and gorgeous

Bright and gorgeous

traditional The themes of Tanjore paintings are religious and mythological.

That had been the starting point of my getting interested in Tanjore art which I had never seen before. His magnum opus, ‘Rama Pattabhishekam’ (the crowning of Rama) was 9 ft by 6.5 ft and had 50 characters in all, with Lord Rama as the central figure. Like all Tanjore paintings, Raj’s abhishekam painting was embossed with gold leaf and encrusted with semi-precious stones, synthetic stones and crystals, which gave it a three-dimensional look. In addition, he also used a paste of gum and powdered chalk to heighten the effect. Mounted on an elegant teak frame, the painting needed half a dozen people to lift it! I had asked him then how long it had taken him to complete the painting.
“A whole year,” he had answered. He has been holding exhibitions of his work regularly ever since, sometimes at Lalit Kala, sometimes at the AIIFACS, or else at the Tamil Sangam. And I attended whenever I could make it because he always had something fresh to offer – the same favourite gods and goddesses but presented differently, my favourite being a painting of dancing Ganesha with a playful smile lurking on his lips that still adorns the wall of my study.  

Tanjore art is very different from other forms of traditional Indian art. This does not imply, of course, that all Tanjore paintings are large. The size can vary between works that cover a whole wall and miniatures that are no bigger than 6 inch squares. It gets it name from Thanjavur (shortened to ‘Tanjore’ by the British), a town about 300 km from Chennai. That is where the art originated, evolved and flourished in the 16th century during the reign of the mighty Chola rulers. They were not just great warriors but also important patrons of art and culture. These beautiful paintings adorned the walls of their palaces and the simpler, smaller ones found a place in every household within the empire. Later, the Maratha princes, the Nayaks of Vijayanagar dynasty and the Naidus of Madurai also patronised Tanjore Art until the 18th century.

Tanjore painting is one of the most popular forms of traditional Indian art. What sets it apart from other Indian paintings is the way it is embellished after the basic painting is done. The liberal use of rich and vibrant colours, heightened by gold leaf, the abundance of precious and semi-precious stones, pearls and glass pieces, are its distinctive hallmarks. These days, semi-precious stones and pearls are often replaced by synthetic stones and crystals that look quite as beautiful. But the gold leaves are still used extensively, giving the paintings a sheen that does not get dull with time. Crafted with meticulous care, each painting is a unique piece of art and has a three-dimensional look.
Many of them are panel paintings done on solid wood and known as palagai padam in local parlance. The themes of the paintings are mainly religious and mythological.
Evergreen favourites are Lord Krishna and Lord Rama in various stages of their lives; Ganesha; Kartikeya; Ambika and so on. I was surprised to find that in many of the Tanjore paintings, Krishna does not appear in his traditional blue complexion but is as fair as Radha, even when he is depicted as Bala Gopala.

Creating a Tanjore painting involves many stages. At first the preliminary sketch of the image is made on the base which consists of a cloth pasted over solid wood. Then powdered chalk or zinc oxide is mixed with a water-soluble adhesive and applied on the base. Sometimes a mild abrasive is also used to make it smoother. Once the final drawing is made, the jewellery and the apparel of the figure is made with stones (semi-precious or synthetic) and sometimes threads and laces are also used to give the cloth a realistic look. Then the gold leaves are pasted. Finally, bright colours are used to give the painting a finished look. The gold foils used are of high quality so that the painting remains bright for generations.

Where does one learn Tanjore art? I remember asking Ravi Raj when I first met him. He was an alumnus of the Chettinad School of Art, located in the Chettinad palace grounds at Chennai, then run by Meena Muthaiah. Raj was initially a student of fine art and followed it up with a course in metal sculpture. But more than anything else, he had been impressed by the distinctive style of Tanjore paintings to which he was exposed while at the school of art. He loved the clean lines, the smooth yet firm finish and the delicacy of details which are the special features of Tanjore Art and realised that herein lay his forte.

Raj’s paintings have won the heart of many a connoisseur and art lover from across the country and abroad because of their individualistic quality. There are several learning centres that specialise in teaching Tanjore art in all the major cities, including Bangalore. It appears to be equally popular as a hobby. In fact, there are quite a few websites where you can pick it up online, step by step.