Thanjavur, the ancient capital of the mighty Cholas from 850 CE, had always boasted of a rich tradition of temple architecture, scriptural renditions, portraits and paintings from times immemorial. The ‘Prabodha Chandrodayam’ — a classical work in Sanskrit language — was composed much before the pinnacle of the Roman Empire. The Chola kings Rajaraja-I and Rajendra made greater contributions to the development of the art of painting. The Kailasanathar temple in Kanchipuram and the Vishnu temple in Malayadipatti house fine examples of Chola paintings.
However, the specific genre of Thanjavur painting (also called the Tanjore school by the Europeans) was shaped by the Nayaka rulers of Thanjavur around 1600 CE under the suzerainty of the Vijayanagar Rayas, a patron of all arts — classical dance and music — as well as literature (both in Telugu and Tamil) and paintings of chiefly Hindu religious subjects in temples. It reached its zenith under the Maratha princes who defeated the Thanjavur Nayakas and began to nurture the Thanjavur atelier. Needless to say, the artists absorbed the local influences and the individual tastes of their Maratha patrons, which helped evolve the unique Thanjavur style of painting. The Thanjavur artists, in addition to decorating temples, also began painting and decorating major buildings, palaces, chatrams and residences of the Maratha kings and nobility. Most of these paintings revolve around the theme of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, along with saints. Thanjavur painting, as we know it now, originated in the Maratha court of Thanjavur (1676–1855), and this is confirmed through the Marathi translations of ‘Mahabharata’ and ‘Bhagavatam’ by Swami Madhava (c1824). After the decline of the Marathas, the mercantile Chettyar community continued to patronise the Thanjavur artists. It is this art form (and not the Tanjore Company school) which has received the GI and is held by the collective of artists from the Thanjavur district under the banner Tanjavur Oviya Padhukaapu Sangam from 2007-08.
With the decline of the Maratha rule, the Britishers, who had come into Tanjore in the wake of the Mysore Wars of 1767–99, patronized the Tanjore artists. In 1773, a British garrison was installed in Tanjore, and it became a base for British troops. Indian artists in and around Tanjore prepared sets of paintings for Company personnel throughout the next century. These sets were called albums or album paintings. They were collections of ‘native’ or ‘Indian’ subjects, painted in a manner that appealed to English sensibilities and tastes. In the words of the famous art curator Dalla Piccola – “The works, executed on canvas pasted on a wooden support, were framed – a major departure from the pan-Indian tradition, in which paintings are of small size – and designed to be hung on the walls of domestic puja rooms or in bhajan halls. The themes, as in painted albums, (made for European patrons) were usually gods and goddesses, holy places, religious personalities and occasionally portraits. Their dazzling palette consisted generally of vivid reds, deep greens, chalk white, turquoise blues and the lavish use of gold (foil) and inset glass beads. Sometimes precious stones were also used in the paintings. The large format of the majority of such works and the relatively simple composition are the hallmark of the style. This school was greatly inspired by European techniques and was the most popular in Tamil Nadu until the early twentieth century”. Though these paintings were grouped under the Company style of painting, they were typically Tanjore in style and characterisation, and were executed by the same group of traditional artists.
Thanjavur painting typically consists of one main figure, a deity or the king/royal patron with a well-rounded body and almond-shaped eyes. The main figure is always painted at the center of the painting, and is housed in an enclosure created by means of arches, frames or curtains. The painting is made by the gilded and gem-set technique — a technique where gold leaves & sparkling stones are used to highlight certain aspects of the painting, like ornaments, dresses etc., giving it a unique 3-D effect (also called the Gesso effect). The impact in a darkened room is that of a glowing presence. Since Tanjore paintings are mainly done on solid wood planks, they are locally known as ‘Palagai Padam’ (palagai meaning wooden plank and padam meaning picture).
The art was initially created and practiced by two main communities — the Rajus & the Naidus — and both belonged to the Vijayanagara Kingdom after whose fall, the artists moved to Tanjore, Madurai, and Mysore. The artists from the ‘Rayalsema’ region, moved to Madurai and Tanjore while those who migrated to Mysore created a ‘sister-art’ called the Mysore school; and therefore, it is important that the distinctions are clearly brought to the fore.
Firstly, Tanjore Paintings are always done on a wooden board that has a cloth with chalk-paste coating on it whereas Mysore paintings can be done on a variety of bases such as paper, cloth, or even the same base board that is used for Tanjore Paintings. They are mostly devoid of stones or glass beads whereas Tanjore paintings are rich with stones, beads and other decorations. While a lot of creative freedom is taken by Mysore painters, the Tanjore artists follow the traditional code of adhering to standards and traditional portrayals and processes. Tanjore paintings are normally framed using three designs – traditional, beaded, and Chettinad — while Mysore paintings have mostly plain frames without any designs/carvings on them. There is near unanimity that the Thanjavur painting is the most authentic and unadulterated form of Indian art.
A rich display of Thanjavur paintings can be seen in Saraswathi Mahal Library in Tanjore, built by Serfoji II. The Government Museum, Chennai and the Thanjavur Art Gallery also house fine collections of paintings and portraits depicting the Maratha kings of Thanjavur. The best pieces of its Tanjore Company school variant are displayed in The British and Victoria & Albert museums in England. But the prime repository of the 17th-century traditional Thanjavur paintings is at the National Museum of Copenhagen — these had been commissioned in the reign of King Christian IV of Denmark who was building the Tranquebar Fort (Tharangambadi) to set up a Danish trading post in the region. While the Danes may not have made tangible gains in the trade, the credit for commissioning and preserving this genre is certainly due to them!
History never ceases to spring surprises.
Views expressed are personal