Known for their elegance and intricacy, Mysore paintings are in dire need of some revival strokes, writes Bindu Gopal Rao.
Characterised by fine lines, attention to detail and focus on soft expressions, Mysore paintings have their roots in the Vijayanagara empire. Post the disintegration of the empire in the 16th century, it is believed that one set of artists from the kingdom headed to Tamil Nadu and one set to Srirangapatna, where the Wodeyar king gave shelter to them. However, the art really took wings under the patronage of the then Maharaja of Mysore — Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar. In a way, many artists credit him for what is called the “golden period of Mysore paintings”. He commissioned a lot of art for his books, thereby encouraging artists. These paintings have a royal feel as they flourished in the palaces. Thus, the life of royal family, their body language, dressing style and ornaments have been depicted on canvas.
The subject of these paintings is normally inspired by Hindu mythology and includes representations of various aspects of Hindu gods and goddesses. The painting procedure comprises the basic gesso work and use of traditional colours and thin strips of real gold foil (24 carat) for embellishments.
“The most popular themes are the traditional deities of the Hindu pantheon. The paintings are executed according to strict details of the scriptures. Mysore style of painting is characterised by the intricate use of colours and fine relief work, to be preserved as a prized possession forever,” says M Girija, a senior artist, who has been working on Mysore paintings for the last 24 years. For someone who has actually been part of the restoration work at the Mysore Palace, she explains that Mysore paintings use thin lines and it takes a minimum of three months to learn the basics of the art. Incidentally, pearl work is also very important in this art form as the embellishments are done using zinc oxide and the pearl work can be of two or three strands. Raghu Dharmendra, designer, Ramsons Kala Pratishtana, Mysuru, avers, “Learning this art form requires a lot of effort. Like how children are taught to write alphabets, artists need to practise each and every part of the painting, whether it is the face or hand, first by drawing it many times. Only then can they graduate to the larger canvas.”
To understand the art itself, I got chatting with a fourth generation Mysore painting artist K S Shreehari. He is the son of K V Seetaraman and grandson of K Venkataraman and this art has been passed down to the family from Tirupalli Raju, a master artist who decorated the temple of Nanjangud with murals during the 19th century. “It was in the earlier part of the 20th century, and European influences on the art were evident. Subsequently, the availability of coloured prints at lower prices led to a loss of identity and many artists actually moved out of the profession. In fact, now there are only a few families that have taken up Mysore paintings as a hereditary profession.”
B P Ramakrishna, an artist with 35 years of experience, says, “Mysore paintings focus on anatomy and we have over 200 subjects in our repertoire. Learning this art form requires time, patience and practice. Unfortunately, this is lacking in today’s generation.”
The Mysore style of painting is much older than the Tanjore style. While an untrained eye often cannot see the difference between the two styles, there is a world of difference in reality. Usually in Tanjore paintings, the base is a cloth mounted on wood, while the base for Mysore painting is paper mounted on canvas or wood. Also in Mysore paintings, clothes and ornaments resemble that of Mysore kings and the architectural designs are similar to the art found in the palace and old-Mysore homes.
Most Tanjore paintings depict scenes from Hindu mythologies. The focus in Mysore paintings is on fine lines, aesthetic colours, detail textures and pure gold leaves. On the other hand, Tanjore paintings make use of embellishments like pearls and glass. The paintings are bright and the lines are not very fine. It is said that gold-coated silver foil is used in Tanjore paintings. Basically, a Mysore painting is more intricate, while a Tanjore one is ornate.
As an art form steeped in history and tradition, naturally there is a huge opportunity that can be used to revive the art. Shalini Kailash, an art enthusiast and promoter, suggests, “It would be a good idea to interpret the art with a contemporary twist. I advise my artisans to do this all the time and also make the paintings in smaller sizes for the sake of making it accessible to all.”
Likewise, there is a lot of interest from the overseas market for these paintings. Documenting the nuances of art work and explaining the finer elements of painting in the form of a note that accompanies the art work is being done by some artists as well. Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat has also been organising several activities to revive the art, but more focus from the government is what the artists are hoping for.
“Creating an art village and encouraging the artists will certainly help,” opines Shreehari who has incidentally applied to the Guinness World Records for his 8x12 inch painting. A Google search for Mysore painting throws up about 6,24,000 results in 0.54 seconds. And here is hoping that this art gets what it deserves in the offline world too!