Thanjavur, the ancient capital of the mighty Cholas from 850 CE, has always boasted of a rich tradition of temple architecture, scriptural interpretations, portraits and paintings since time immemorial. The “Prabodha Chandrodayam” – a classic work in the Sanskrit language – was composed long before the height of the Roman Empire. The Chola Kings Rajaraja-I and Rajendra made greater contribution 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 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 mainly Hindu religious subjects in temples. It reached its peak under the Maratha princes who defeated the Thanjavur Nayakas and began to nurture Thanjavur’s workshop. Needless to say, the artists absorbed the local influences and individual tastes of their Maratha patrons, which helped evolve Thanjavur’s unique style of painting. Thanjavur artists, apart from decorating temples, also started painting and decorating large buildings, palaces, chatrams and residences of Maratha kings and nobility. Most of these paintings revolve around the theme of Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as saints. Thanjavur painting as we know it now originated in the Maratha court of Thanjavur (1676-1855), and this is confirmed by the Marathi translations of ‘Mahabharata’ and ‘Bhagavatam’ by Swami Madhava (c. 1824). After the decline of the Marathas, the merchant Chettyar community continued to patronize the artists of Thanjavur. It is this art form (not the Tanjore Company school) that has been awarded the GI and has been held by the Thanjavur District Artist Collective under the Tanjavur Oviya Padhukaapu Sangam banner since 2007-08.

With the decline of Maratha rule, the British, who had come to Tanjore following the Mysore Wars of 1767 to 1799, patronized the artists of Tanjore. In 1773, a British garrison was installed in Tanjore and became a base for British troops. Indian artists from Tanjore and surrounding areas prepared sets of paintings for the staff of the society throughout the next century. These sets were called albums or album paintings. These were collections of “native” or “Indian” subjects, painted in a manner that appealed to English sensibilities and tastes. In the words of renowned art curator Dalla Piccola – “The works, executed on canvas glued to a wooden support, were framed – a major departure from the pan-Indian tradition, in which paintings are kept small – and designed to be hung on the walls of domestic puja halls or in bhajan halls.The themes, as in the painted albums (made for European patrons) were usually gods and goddesses, holy places, religious figures and sometimes portraits. Their dazzling palette usually consisted of vivid reds, deep greens, chalk whites, turquoise blues and the abundant use of gold (leaf) and encrusted glass beads. Sometimes precious stones were also used in paintings.The large format of the majority of these works and the relatively simple composition are the hallmark of This school drew heavily on European techniques and t was the most popular in Tamil Nadu until the beginning of the 20th century”. Although these paintings were grouped under the Company style of painting, they were typically Tanjore in style and characterization, and were executed by the same group of traditional artists.

Definition elements

Thanjavur painting usually consists of a main figure, a deity or the king/royal patron with a well-rounded body and almond-shaped eyes. The main character is always painted in the center of the painting and is housed in an enclosure created by means of arches, frames or curtains. The painting is done by the golden technique and set with precious stones – a technique where gold leaf and sparkling stones are used to highlight certain aspects of the painting, such as ornaments, dresses, etc., giving it a unique 3D effect (also called the gesso effect). The impact in a dark room is that of a luminous presence. Since Tanjore paintings are mostly done on solid wooden boards, they are known locally as ‘Palagai Padam’ (palagai meaning wooden board and padam meaning picture).

The art was originally created and practiced by two main communities – the Rajus and the Naidus – and both belonged to the Vijayanagara kingdom after whose fall the artists moved to Tanjore, Madurai and Mysore. Artists from the ‘Rayalseema’ 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 highlighted.

Firstly, Tanjore paintings are always done on a wooden board covered with a cloth covered with chalk paste, while Mysore paintings can be done on a variety of mediums such as paper, cloth or even the same base panel as used for Tanjore. Paintings. They are mostly devoid of stones or glass beads while Tanjore paintings are rich in stones, beads and other decorations. While Mysore painters enjoy a great deal of creative freedom, Tanjore artists follow the traditional code of adhering to norms and traditional depictions and processes. Tanjore paintings are normally framed using three designs – Traditional, Beaded and Chettinad – while Mysore paintings mostly have plain frames without any designs/carvings on them. There is near unanimity that Thanjavur painting is the most authentic and pure form of Indian art.

A rich display of Thanjavur paintings can be seen in the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Tanjore, built by Serfoji II. The Chennai Government Museum and Thanjavur Art Gallery also house fine collections of paintings and portraits depicting the Maratha kings of Thanjavur. The best pieces of his Tanjore Company school variant are on display in British and Victoria & Albert museums in England. But the main repository of traditional Thanjavur paintings from the 17th century is in the National Museum in Copenhagen – these had been commissioned during the reign of King Christian IV of Denmark who was building the fort at Tranquebar (Tharangambadi) to set up a trading post Danish to the region. Although the Danes may not have made any tangible gains in trade, the credit for commissioning and preserving this genus certainly belongs to them!

The story never ceases to amaze.

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