Tanjore painting

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Tanjore painting (Tamil: தஞ்சாவூர் ஓவியம், Thanjavur Oviyam) is a classical South Indian painting style, which was inaugurated from the town of Thanjavur (anglicized as Tanjore) and spread across the adjoining and geographically contiguous Tamil country. The art form draws its immediate resources and inspiration from way back about 1600 AD, a period when the Nayakas of Thanjavur under the suzerainty of the Vijayanagara Rayas encouraged art—chiefly, classical dance and music—as well as literature, both in Telugu and Tamil and painting particularly in temples. However, Tanjore painting, as we know it now, originated in the Maratha court of Thanjavur (1676 - 1855).[1]

Tanjore paintings are known for their rich and vivid colors, simple iconic composition, glittering gold foils overlaid on delicate but extensive gesso work and inlay of glass beads and pieces or very rarely precious and semi-precious gems. It can be said that in Thanjavur paintings one can see the influence of Deccani, Vijayanagar, Maratha and even European style of painting. Essentially serving as devotional icons, the subjects of most paintings are Hindu gods, goddesses, and saints. Episodes from Hindu puranas and religious texts were visualised, drawn and painted with the main figure or figures placed in the central section of the picture. There are also many instances when many Jain, Sikh, other religious and even secular subjects were depicted in Tanjore paintings.

Tanjore paintings are panel paintings done on wooden planks, and hence referred to as palagai padam (palagai = "wooden plank"; padam = "picture") in local parlance. In modern times, these paintings have become souvenirs for festive occasions in South India, pieces to decorate walls, and collectors' items for art lovers as also sadly sometimes, dime-a-dozen bric-a-bracs to be purchased from street corner practitioners.

A miniature Tanjore painting of Natarajar flanked by Sivakami, circa 19th century


Thanjavur has a unique place in the history of Indian painting, in that it houses the 11th century Chola paintings in the Brihadeeswarar temple (Periya koyil or Pervudaiyar koyil in Tamil) as also paintings from the Nayak period dating to the 16th century. The fall of the Vijayanagar Empire in 1565 AD and the sack of Hampi in the Battle of Talikota resulted in the migration of painters who had been dependent on the patronage of the empire. Some of them migrated to Tanjore and worked under the patronage of the Tanjore Nayakas. Subsequently, the Maratha rulers who defeated the Tanjore Nayakas began to nurture the Tanjore atelier. Needless to say, the artists absorbed the local influences and the individual tastes of their Maratha patrons which helped evolve the unique Tanjore style of painting.

Processional scene with Amar Singh, ruler of Thanjavur (Tanjore) (1787-98) and Sarabhoji (1798-1832) - note the chariots being pulled by Bulls

The Vijayanagar empire reached its zenith under Krishnadevaraya (1509–29). Its territory stretched from the Tungabhadra river in the North to Kanyakumari in the south. In 1521-22, Krishnadevaraya travelled to the Tamil country (Tamilagam) visiting holy places and as was his wont, made munificient donations to temples and other religious establishments.[2] It can be surmised that some of this munificience was also channeled into art and artists.

The third important Nayaka state in Tamil country, Thanjavur, (Senji and Madurai being the others) had been established under his half-brother and successor Achyutaraya (1529–42). The Thanjavur Nayaka line commenced with Sevappa Nayaka (1532–72). Sevappa ruled for several years with his son Achyutappa (1564-1614). It was during his reign that the Vijayanagara empire fell, leading to the exodus of numerous litterateurs, philosophers, musicians and artists who migrated to several other neighbouring kingdoms like Mysore and Thanjavur. Achyutappa was succeeded by his son Raghunatha Nayaka who in turn was succeeded by Vijayaraghava Nayaka. Raghunatha and Vijayaraghava were great patrons of art and artists.

Due to internal dissensions in the Nayaka line, Ekoji (1676–83), half-brother of Shivaji marched into Thanjavur and established the Maratha rule in Thanjavur. Despite intermittent wars, Ekoji and his successors like Tulajaji, Serfoji II (Sarabhoji in Tamil) and others were great patrons of the arts and artists. It was during the Maratha period, particularly during the reign of Serfoji II[3] that Thanjavur painting flourished and reached the form and style in which we recognise it today. Serfoji II had to traverse a difficult path to the throne of Tanjore, being constantly challenged by Amarasimha who ran a parallel court in Thiruvidaimarudur even after Serfoji's accession. However despite the troubled times, Serfoji's reign was a time of great innovations in Tanjore art and many other parallel fields.

After the Maratha rulers waned, the mercantile Chettiar community continued to patronise Tanjore artists. The Chettiars being staunch Shaivites encouraged Shaivite themes. One of their monasteries in Koviloor has two large Thanjavur paintings on the different aspects of Shiva, minutely labelled in Tamil. Similarly, the Bhimarajagoswami monastery in Thanjavur has a large painting of 108 Vishnu temples.

A Tanjore Glass painting of Venugopala Krishna flanked by Gopikas

Style and Technique[edit]

Large paintings of deities and the Maratha rulers, painted and installed to serve as architectural accents in the palaces and buildings in which they were commissioned, made the Thanjavur Maratha school of painting popular and famous. To quote Dallapiccola - ' 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 godesses, 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.[4]'

Paintings were also done on walls, wood, glass, paper, mica and exotic media such as ivory. Ivory portraits were typically worn as small cameo pendants called rajaharam. Thanjavur glass paintings following the techniques of Chinese reverse glass paintings were popularised during Serfoji II's reign as a cheaper and faster craft. The paintings were done on the reverse surface of a glass sheet with strips of metal beaten into transparent gaps to simulate the effect of jewellery and precious stones. Most of the paintings were of Hindu deities & saints. Other courtly and secular portraits were also created.

A Tanjore painting of Vayu on mica in the collection of Government Museum, Chennai

A Thanjavur Painting was generally made on a canvas pasted over a plank of wood (Jackfruit or teak) with arabic gum. The canvas was then evenly coated with a paste of French chalk (gopi) or powdered limestone and a binding medium and dried. The artist then drew or traced using a stencil, a detailed outline of the main and subsidiary subjects on the canvas. A paste, made of limestone powder and a binding medium called sukkan or makku, was used for creating the Gesso work. Gold leaves and gems of varied hues were inlaid in selected areas like pillars, arches, thrones, dresses, etc. Finally, colours were applied on the sketch. In the past, artists used natural colours like vegetable and mineral dyes, whereas the present day artists use chemical paints. For outlines dark brown or red was usually used. Red was favoured for the background, though blue and green were also used. Lord Vishnu, was coloured blue, and Lord Nataraja chalk white, and his consort Goddess Sivakami was green. The sky, of course, was blue, but black was also employed on occasions. The portrayal of figures in the paintings was also typical with almost all the figures having rounded faces with almond-shaped eyes and smooth, streamlined bodies. The composition is static and two-dimensional with the figures placed within arches, curtains and decorative borders. The main subject is much larger than the other subjects and occupies the centre of the painting. The figures were painted with bright flat colours except for the face where shading was shown.

There are some examples of this art in the Saraswathi Mahal Library, in Tanjore built by Serfoji II. The Sanskrit work Prabotha Chandrodayam in the library has a few pages of Tanjore art as also Marathi translations of Mahabharata & Bhagavatham in which are found the works of the painter Madhava swami dated 1824 AD. Faint traces of Maratha style paintings inset with glass are found on the walls of the Thiruvaiyaru Chatram built by Serfoji after his pilgrimage to Kashi.[5] The Government Museum, Chennai also houses a fine collection of Tanjore paintings depicting the Maratha kings of Thanjavur and other allied subjects.

Tanjore Glass painting of Raja Sarabhoji


Tanjore paintings were painted by 'Moochys or Artists of India' according to the British chronicler Charles Gold in his book Oriental Drawings published in 1806. Traditionally, it is well known that the Raju community of Tanjore and Tiruchi , also called as Jinigara or Chitragara and the Nayudu community of Madurai were the artists who executed paintings in the Tanjore style.[6][7] The artists (Rajus & Naidus) were originally Telugu speaking people from the artistically rich "Rayalseema" region, and moved to Tamil Nadu in the wake of the fall of the Vijayanagar empire and the Nayak rule in Madurai & Tanjore. The art was a sacred task to be performed with ritual purity and humility by the master craftsmen, many of whom chose to remain anonymous and never signed their paintings, true to the Indian tradition. However a few works signed by their artists are also known. C. Kondiah Raju, the famous calendar artist from Kovilpatti, was one of the illustrious descendants to make a name as an artist during modern times from the Raju community.

Tanjore and Mysore paintings[edit]

Tanjore and Mysore paintings both spring from the same source - Vijayanagara paintings. The very same artists, Chitragars and Naidus migrated to various places including Thanjavur and Mysore. This is the reason for the remarkable degree of similarity between the two styles. However, there are many differences that can be made out by the discerning viewer. The differences are largely in the techniques used to create these artworks and in their distinct iconography. The techniques adopted by the Mysore artists are slightly different from those of the Tanjore School. While Tanjore School used white lime powder and powdered tamarind seeds with gum arabic on cloth stretched on wooden panels, Mysore artists used white lead powder (Makhisafeda) or Makhi Gamboge (yellow) drawn from the juice of the indigenous tree (Revana Chinni halu) on paper. As against the high relief of the Tanjore 'Gesso' work used prominently across large areas of the painting, the Mysore school preferred low relief, in selected areas such as jewellery, borders, etc. The Mysore school used pure gold leaf in lesser quantity as against gold-coated silver leaf handled across larger areas in the painting by Tanjore artists. The use of glass beads, precious and semi precious stones is also very rare in Mysore paintings. More elaborate interior and exterior landscapes are featured in Mysore paintings, whereas Tanjore paintings tend to be more iconic and static. In Mysore paintings, the jewellery, costumes, architectural features, furniture, etc reflect the contemporary style prevalent in the Mysore Palace. The throne on which Gods and Goddesses are shown seated is usually a replica of the Mysore throne in many Mysore paintings. Both styles however, frequently show traditional temple pavilions and towers particularly for framing the main characters. However the geographical proximity, constant transmigration of artists and a heavy cross fertilisation of ideas and techniques ensured that one could see Tanjore paintings employing Mysore techniques and vice versa.

Tanjore paintings in Company style[edit]

Rama and Hanuman fighting Ravana, an album painting on paper, c1820 - British Museum Collection

Many of the traditional Indian artists were also patronised by Europeans, beginning with the Portuguese who landed on the west coast in 1498. Gradually the other Europeans followed suit and commissioned local artists to paint in the so called company style. While no specific character or technique marked out the Company school of paintings, it can be understood to mean the large body of paintings painted by Indian artists in a mixed Indo-European style which would appeal to the Europeans who were employed by the various East India Companies.

The deity Yama with fangs and holding a daṇḍa (a rod), circa 1814 - British Museum Collection

The direct impact on Tanjore paintings began with the stationing of a British garrison in Thanjavur in 1773, during the Anglo-Mysore Wars of 1767-99. Throughout the nineteenth century, artists based in and around Thanjavur prepared standard sets of paintings for the Company personnel. These sets were called albums or album paintings and were a collection of 'native' or 'Indian' subjects of interest, suited to the English sensibilities and tastes. Common subjects were Gods and Goddesses, episodes from Hindu mythology; Fairs, ceremonies, processions and festivals; Castes, their occupations and dresses; Indian Flora and Fauna, etc. These paintings were executed by the same Tanjore artists in a style suited to western tastes. The paintings were usually executed on European paper, without gesso work, little or no Gold foil and without any glass or gem inlay. The paintings would also carry a brief description ( most times extremely quaint and so typically English) of the subject in English and sometimes in Tamil or Telugu. Paintings on cloth backed by wooden panels were also executed for the English patrons. Many of these were carried to England where they probably enlivened many an evening tea! The British Museum and The Victoria and Albert Museum have an enviable collection of such paintings.

Modern Times[edit]

Tanjore paintings continue to be made even to the present day, though not with the rigour and virtuosity that marked the paintings of yore. The materials used have also changed according to the ease of availability. Plywood, for example has replaced Jack and teak wood. Synthetic colours and adhesives are preferred over the traditional components. While it is a happy development that this traditional art continues to hold its sway, the brazen commercialisation and lack of aesthetics are disturbing trends. Be that as it may, Tanjore paintings, the style and aesthetics continue to inspire many contemporary artists. The Calendar prints of C. Kondiah Raju and his student followers, marked by an iconic solidness as against the western naturalism of Raja Ravi Varma, are examples of the continued influence of Tanjore paintings in modern, popular and academic art.


  1. ^ http://www.chennaimuseum.org/draft/gallery/03/01/012/tanjore1.htm
  2. ^ South Indian Paintings - A catalogue of the British Museum collection by A. L. Dallapiccola Published by Mapin Publishing in association with the British Museum Press
  3. ^ Thanjavur - A Cultural History by Pradeep Chakravarthy Published by Niyogi books
  4. ^ South Indian Paintings - A catalogue of the British Museum collection by A. L. Dallapiccola Published by Mapin Publishing in associatiion with the British Museum Press
  5. ^ Thanjavur - A Cultural History by Pradeep Chakravarthy Published by Niyogi books
  6. ^ Tanjore Paintings, A Chapter in Indian Art History by N. S. 'Kora' Ramaswami
  7. ^ http://www.thanjavurpaintings.com/abouttp.html

Further reading[edit]

  • South Indian Paintings - A catalogue of the British Museum collection by A. L. Dallapiccola, published by Mapin Publishing in association with The British Museum press
  • Welch, Stuart Cary (1985). India: art and culture, 1300-1900. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9780944142134. 
  • Thanjavur - A Cultural History by Pradeep Chakravarthy Published by Niyogi books