Thanjavur Paintings – Religious art with an ancient tradition
Thanjavur, a famous temple town in Tamil Nadu, was the capital of the Chola dynasty, under whose reign temple art and architecture flourished in the region. The town is also renowned for another type of art – Thanjavur (or Tanjore) paintings, which became a part of the city’s heritage long after the Cholas, when the Nayaks kings (1600-1800 A.D.) patronized this form of religious art.
The paintings are characterized by large images of gods and goddesses. They have a three-dimensional effect as they are embellished with semi-precious stones and gold leaf – a technique that gives them a unique identity compared to all other ancient art forms of India. In the earlier era, paintings were miniature with a central image as the focus. Originally, only images of Lord Krishna featured in the paintings, but over the years, they have evolved to include other gods and goddesses. Some paintings depict scenes from Indian mythology.
In order to appreciate the true beauty of this treasured art form, it’s essential to understand the meticulous process involved in the creation of each painting, and this is best done by visiting an artist’s studio. To this day, Thanjavur paintings are a household tradition, where the craft is passed down from one generation to the next. The cluster of small houses to the south of the famous Brihadishwara temple is the best place for getting acquainted with this unique art form and the artists who preserve the ancient tradition.
At the first stage of creating a Thanjavur painting, the artist makes a sketch of the composition on cloth and then pastes it on a wooden board or base. Next, chalk and an adhesive are applied on the base, and the surface is smoothened using an abrasive. At the third stage, semi-precious Jaipur stones are fixed on the image and surrounded by a mixture known as muk that gives it an embossed appearance. Finally, gold leaf is pasted on the muk and bright colors are used to fill in the images.
Artists display their work in their home galleries, from where they can be purchased directly. The paintings come in three different finishes. The classic paintings follow the original style that is characterized by bright colors and shiny gold leaf, while the antique finish has duller gold and muted colors. The third style – embossed – has greater depth and comes in the same vivid hues and gold finish as the classic style.
In earlier times, Thanjavur paintings were purely religious art and belonged in puja or prayer rooms in Hindu households. Nowadays, they are considered more of a decorative art with an antique appeal and are used to adorn walls of homes. This ancient art form is an important part of South India’s rich royal heritage as it gives an insight into an earlier era where religious art was the predominant form of creative expression.