A canvas change

A canvas change

As an comeback, Tejasmi Das combines two painting styles

I’m sitting in Tejasmi Das’s house in a quiet area near Porur, on the outskirts of Chennai. Close by, the Adyar river meanders just before it enters the main city. Tejasmi Das comes into the drawing room, we exchange pleasantries, and start talking.

Tell us about your early years and how you started painting ?

I discovered painting while growing up in Odisha. In fact, at the time, my hobby was writing poetry and I wrote poems for many local magazines. I was also actively involved in student politics in college, and painting was just one of those things that I loved and dabbled in, but never had the time to pursue seriously.

So, when did you actually discover that painting was your first love ?

After marriage, my husband Ashok Kumar Das, who’s an IPS officer, was transferred to Madurai. For someone who had lived all her life in Odisha, this move to interior Tamil Nadu was a big change. But my fears were allayed when I settled down in Madurai. I found the people warm and friendly, and in a matter of months, I had fallen in love with Tamil Nadu, its rich culture and its people. I learnt to read and write Tamil, and I started cooking dishes like puli kozhambu, pongal, rasam etc.

Later, my husband was transferred to Ramanathapuram and that’s where I discovered the beautiful art of Tanjore paintings. I started spending a lot of time with the local artisans, learning their centuries-old techniques.

After a four-and-a-half-year stint at Ramanathapuram, my husband was again transferred, this time to Thanjavur. I continued spending hours every day with Tanjore artists, learning their techniques and honing my skills.

In 2015, my husband was transferred to Chennai, and we moved to this house. I had done a series of 18 paintings by then, in Tanjore style, and I was planning on having an exhibition in early 2016 when the calamity struck. The Chennai floods of December 2015 submerged my house. My family and I were not in Chennai at that time, so I lost all my paintings. Years of love, labour and toil were gone in the blink of an eye. I was heartbroken. I decided to quit painting.

When did you start painting again ?

For many months after the floods I didn’t touch the canvas, but my daughter and husband kept encouraging me to start painting again. When I did start painting again, I started experimenting and mixing the styles of Tanjore from my adopted state, with intricate brush strokes, and drawings of Odisha patachitra, my home state.

This fusion of ideas and techniques had the effect of a dam inside of me bursting open, and I painted with a fervour I hadn’t felt before. In a short period of time I had completed a series of 37 paintings.

Tell us more about the two different styles of paintings and how you combined them.

The name patachitra has evolved from the Sanskrit words ‘patta’ meaning canvas and ‘chitra’ meaning picture. Patachitra is a rich colourful painting done on canvas, depicting mythological and folk stories from the Panchatantra, the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In the days before Amar Chitra Katha, parents read out stories to their kids from patachitra paintings.

Tanjore paintings were originally done for royalty. These paintings are done on wooden planks and hence referred to as palagai padam. In Tamil, ‘palagai’ means wooden plank, and ‘padam’ means picture. Tanjore paintings are full of vivid colours with gold foils overlaid on extensive gesso work and inlaid with glass beads and pieces or semi-precious gems. In the early years, rubies and diamonds were also used. Because of the inlaid stones and the relief work, Tanjore paintings have a 3D effect.

In my paintings, the visuals, detailed brush strokes, exquisite borders and intricate drawings are predominantly done in the Odisha patachitra style, while the gold-foil work, inlaid stones, wooden plank and gesso work are all done in the Tanjore tradition. The theme of these 37 paintings is of Radha and Krishna as seen through Radha’s eyes . I’ve invited the viewer into the mind of Radha and all the paintings are done from this perspective.

Are you the first artist to combine the techniques of Odisha patachitra and Tanjore ?

As far as paintings are concerned, the answer is yes. But there is a deeper and much older connection between Odisha and Tamil Nadu. About 500 years ago, a Kanchi princess called Padmavati married Purushotama Deva, the King of Orissa. The story of how Purushotama married Padmavati is folklore. Padmavati’s Tamil influence is still felt in the kitchens of the Jagannath temple in Puri where they serve Tamil delicacies like murukku, medhu vada etc.

What are your plans for the future ?

I would like to experiment with different styles of other states, too. Patachitra paintings are not restricted to Odisha, there is patachitra in Bengal, too. And as for Tanjore paintings, it was started under the rule of the Cholas, was furthered by Telugu-speaking artists working under the Nayaks, and later given patronage by the Marathas.

All our art forms are an amalgamation of various influences over thousands of years. The richness of Indian art is its pluralism and diversity.


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