Tanjore Paintings – A brief Introduction

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The history of Tanjore Paintings dates back to the Maratha conquest of South India during the 16th century. Thanjavur Paintings flourished under the patronage of the Nayak & Maratha princes in the 16th to the 18th centuries. Though Nayaks were the ones who created the art form, it was under the rule of Maratha, it flourished and reached even far off places.

In the 18th century, the English stationed their army in Thanjavur during the Anglo-Mysore war. During that period, Tanjore Paintings were influenced by the European style (for a very short time). This style was popularly called the company style (The East Indian Company), which helped Tanjore paintings spread to Europe albeit in a different style. The British looted a lot of wealth from Akhand Bharat during that time, among which many precious Tanjore Paintings can also be counted.

The Artists

The art was initially created and practiced by two main communities namely – the Rajus & the Naidus. The artists have a common root – the Vijayanagara Kingdom after whose fall, artists moved to Tanjore, Madurai, and Mysore. The artists who are originally Telugu speaking people from the “Rayalseema” region, moved to Tamil Nadu in the wake of the Nayaks rule of Madurai & Tanjore. Tanjore was later passed on to the Marathas. The artists who migrated to Mysore created a ‘sister-art’ called the Mysore paintings that are very similar to Tanjore Paintings.

The paintings were rooted in tradition and the innovation was limited. In fact, any attempt to add innovation would only result in dilution of the art form. The art was sacred to those master craftsmen who chose to be anonymous and humble. The current artists are no longer limited to these two communities. There are many Tanjore Painting production companies that are creating many artists each passing year spread across various communities.

What makes this art form Unique?

The Most unique feature of Tanjore Paintings is the Gesso Work (its 3D property). Let us explain it further. Tanjore Painting has EMBOSSED areas on it which most other paintings don’t have. That is, the painting has areas that are ELEVATED from the surface. This emboss is called Gesso work in art lingo. Usually, Gesso work is done on pillars and other areas of a building in Europe but never done on any painting during that time.

Durga Unfinished Art

The figure above shows a semi-completed Tanjore Painting of Durga Devi – the consort of Lord Shiva, also known as Shakti, Sati, Kali, et al. A Tanjore painting has typically 10 processes which will be explained in the subsequent articles in detail.

Gesso work is one of the steps and the most unique process that would ever involve in a painting. That is the extent of creativity Tanjore artists have showcased in the creation of the painting

The other Unique feature is to do more with the material than the technique – the Gold Foil gilded on the Gesso work. Real 22-carat gold foil is used and since it is made of real gold, it never fades.

The Mysore variant of Tanjore Paintings

Mysore paintings and Tanjore Paintings have something in common as already discussed – The Vijayanagara Empire. After the fall of this once great empire, numerous artists fled the kingdom to escape from the Islamic invaders who went on demolishing the most beautiful art forms and temples built by the Vijayanagara Artists. Luckily, these artists were patronized by the Marathas and the Nayaks in Tanjore and Madurai. These artists kept our culture alive by portraying various Hindu Gods in the court & palaces of the kings who patronized them. As a result, the theme and the subject remained the same in both types of paintings. But some techniques and styles vary. Mysore and Tanjore Paintings look very similar to except for a few aspects.

  • Firstly, Tanjore Paintings are always done on a wooden board that has a cloth with chalk paste coating on it. Whereas Mysore paintings are done on a variety of bases such as paper, cloth, or even the same base board that is used for Tanjore Paintings.
  • Mysore Paintings are mostly devoid of stones or glass beads, whereas Tanjore paintings are rich with stones, beads and other decoration
  • In some Mysore style paintings, gesso work is completely absent and so are the gold foils. Instead, all the detailing is done using gold colours which is a striking difference in some cases
  • A lot of creative freedom is taken in Mysore Paintings as a result, countless variations can be found for a God in Mysore style, which is clearly not the case in Tanjore Style. Tanjore artists seem to play by the unwritten rules by adhering to the standard and traditional portrayals and processes. As a result, variations of Gods are very limited in Tanjore Paintings
  • Sometimes, the difference is visible even in the framing which is relatively a recent phenomenon. Tanjore paintings are normally famed using three designs– traditional, beaded, and Chettinad. Mysore paintings have mostly plain frames without any designs/ carvings on them. Teak wood frames are mostly used for Tanjore and Rosewood/ synthetic frames for Mysore. Ultimately, it is up to the end customers to choose the frame varieties, but these are general observations

To Sum up

Tanjore Paintings are one of the last surviving traditional art forms of India and Hinduism. The paintings are made with devotion – all subjects being Hindu Gods and the stories associated with them. Each Tanjore Painting has a story to tell. Stories preserved through art. These are akin to the sculptures and drawings in a temple, just that the former is portable and hence can be preserved easily from the destruction the temples were usually subjected to.

About the Author: Ranjeeth is the founder of Chola Impressions – an art company situated in Thanjavur, the cultural capital of South India. The company strives to preserve all the traditional and ancient art forms of India that reflect the Hindu culture and tradition. The author likes to read the stories on Hindu Puranas, Upanishads, Vedas, and ancient scriptures.