Think Thanjavur paintings and what flashes in the mind are vividly colourful, dazzling, simplistic, structured, solid, static, iconic, rotund, wide-eyed, probing, powerful and super-calm visualisations of the pantheon of Hindu deities.
Rendered with the most ornate and ostentatious elements conceivable, including gold foil and precious stones, the grammar of Thanjavur paintings arrived at by a confluence of legacies, defy the sway of individual fancies. Meddle with the structure and idiom of this school of art and they cease to be Thanjavur paintings, the parallel Mysore school of paintings notwithstanding. Its distinctive style has earned it the Geographical Indication (GI) tag. Who were the people and what was the culture that conceived this intriguing amalgamation of the spiritual and the spectacular?
For a moment, let’s step back into the 16th century, to the fertile Cauvery delta region of Thanjavur, the seat of power of the mighty Chola empire and home to an enlightened people who celebrated the exquisite in arts as much as they celebrated endurance, strength and precision in metal craft and architecture; a people who were as passionate about spirituality as they were with military prowess. Around this time, in this land that saw the arts as exalted, there emerged yet another iconic art form, the palagai padam aka Thanjavur paintings.
It was a time when governors of the benign and devout Vijayanagar Rayas were administering their outlying provinces or states such as Thanjavur, Senji and Madurai regions. While new influences were wafting in, the Chola sense of symmetry and dimensions reigned strong. The spectacular colour palette of the Cholas that found immortal expression in the exquisite wall paintings of the ‘big temple’ aka Brihadeeswarar Temple continued to hold sway.
Meanwhile, in 1565 CE, the bloody Battle of Talikota had concluded, the Deccan Sultanates had come together to conquer the waning Vijayanagara empire, following which their army went on a rampage looting and defacing the magnificent city of Vijayanagara, disfiguring its glorious art, sculpture and architecture. Forced to flee, some of the artists of the Vijayanagara empire arrived at Thanjavur, and received patronage of the Thanjavur Nayakas, and later that of the Marathas who conquered Thanjavur.
These artists evolved the Thanjavur paintings. At the pivot of it were the Raju communities of Thanjavur and Thiruchirapalli (Trichy) and the Naidus of Madurai. With the waning of the Maratha rule, the Thanjavur paintings received the patronage of the wealthy mercantile Tamil Chettiar community.
Down the centuries, militarily, it was a troubled time in this region, but the art never lost its grip. Experts believe that its form was cemented during the reign of Maratha king Sarfoji (1798 to 1832). While experts trace in this art influences of Vijayanagar, Maratha, and even Mughal or Deccani, and European influences because of colonialisation, the rise of the Thanjavur paintings was entwined with the rise of the Bhakti movement.
Thanjavur paintings, carrying influences of various dynasties, saw the evolving of an ornate art form. The artists rendered the imagery of deities on cloth stuck to a palagai or solid wood (usually jackfruit wood) planks and framed in teak wood, and so the paintings or padam came to be known locally as palagai padam. Palagai padams grew to be compositions focused on a central deity or a few of them, with limited foreground or background elements, celebrating colour, metal and mineral.
Inspired by Chola metalcraft, gold-gilding technique became a key element of these paintings. The canvas stretched on wooden panels, after being sketched over, got layered by limestone paste and primed with powdered tamarind seeds with gum to receive the gold foil, and precious and semi-precious stones, and received the vegetable or mineral dyes only after this.
The relief work framed as prabhavalis (temple pavilions) and other fixtures, served to glorify the deity portrayed, besides adding depth and perspective to the painting. The paintings glowed in the dark, thanks to the gold foil, the precious and semi-precious stones they were inlaid with, configured to radiate positive energy and vibrations, and last for eternity.
Reason behind colours
Only those colours representing the five elements and believed to radiate positive energy were favoured. There existed a colour code — green for Goddess Sivakami, blue for Lord Vishnu, white for Lord Nataraja, blue for sky, and most often, red and green as background colours. It was definitely seen as sacred art and was executed with ritualistic purity and humility, and left unsigned, like many of the masterpieces of Indian art.
Thanjavur paintings followed the grammar set by the chitra sutras of Visnudharmottarapurana, the ancient source text (dated 320 to 550 CE) for Indian paintings and sculptures. Like other Chola precision arts, the artists began with a pre-determined end. This art was not a flight of fancy.
Classical Indian art has never been limited to aesthetics. It has always reached out for the sublime, entwined with celebration and seeking, and euphoria and enlightenment. The Thanjavur paintings, too, were rendered as tributes to its deities and to the divine.
The aura these paintings radiate made them perfect for private worship. The paintings were mostly on palagais, and sometimes on walls, such as at the Thiruvaiyaru Chatram built by Serfoji after his pilgrimage to Kashi, and in some ancient private buildings of Thanjavur.
This art travelled through Nayaka to Maratha to Chettinad patronage, but its core philosophy of worship stayed unchanged.
For instance, the Chettiars commissioned the famed Koviloor Thanjavur paintings on the lives of the 63 Shaivaite saints or Nayanmars, and the Thiruvilaiyadal Puranam that chronicles the 64 miracles of Lord Shiva, while the Bhimarajagoswami Monastery was commissioned with the mega painting of 108 Vishnu temples. Though the Marathas did commission some Thanjavur paintings of Maratha rulers, they retained the paintings’ thrust on deities.
While the British, Dutch and the Portuguese have ferried away several masterpieces, India retains some glorious ones at Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur built by Serfoji II, at Thanjavur Art Gallery, and Government Museum in Chennai, besides as family heirlooms and in a few private collections in India.