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Tanjore Painting 101

Witnessing Gods and Goddesses could involve more than a journey to the temple, for it is an essential personal experience than an entourage. Such a yearning could have been the origin of the idea that “God is Everywhere“. Given the sheer legion of Hindu deities, the dharshan of your guardians could now be free from the limitations of a weekly visit. Here, is a legacy of art to the rescue.

Tanjore Paintings originate from the historical city of Thanjavur, where epics like Ramayana and Krishna-Leela were turned into breathing works of art. The art form has evolved through the ages, and artisans who embody the calibre of authenticity that was passed onto them, work to aggrandize the homes of believers into a sanctum of worship and veneration.

The Critical Evolution

16th century Thanjavur was ruled by the Nayakas, for whom art was an elevated personal experience. It encompassed their homes, workplace, and places of worship, famously the Brihadeeswarar Temple whose murals stand testament to such times. When the Marathas waged war and won over the empire, miraculously unlike in other wars, they protected the artisans and ateliers of Tanjore Paintings. Their tastes and techniques were reflected in the paintings themselves, imprinting a model on the Tanjore Paintings of today.

Characteristics of a Tanjore Painting

The most famous identifiers of a Tanjore Painting are the gold leaves, and the vivid colours. Decked with semi-precious stones, gilded metal hunks and painted with natural flat pigments, the Tanjore Painting depicts tales of the supernatural lives that abided in our world, and beyond. Through the ages, Tanjore Paintings were adored and supplemented by the Marathas, and the Europeans who came to India. The protagonist of a painting takes the forefront, surrounded by elements and supporting subjects essential to the storyline. Did we mention each subject could be portrayed in innumerable ways? You can always find multiple portrayals of a God, reflecting their avatar, or a famous epic from the vedas. Befitting the nature of these stories, the scenes are framed within ornamental arches and curtains.

The Process:

The paintings begin on a plank of wood, and that’s why they are affectionately called as “palagai padam” in Tamil. 

The canvas (in early days was stacked wasli layers) is laid atop the plank of wood, and primed using arabic gum. It’s then coated with a layer of limestone paste, and rice kanji.

Artists then use stencils of pre-made sketches, and fill in the details of subjects and surroundings. Limestone is again used as gesso, adding a 3D effect to the painting.
In order to make larger-than-life paintings, the artisans project a reverse sketch made on glass onto a wall using a torch.

Red or brown colours are used for the outline work, followed by intricate application of the stones and 22-carat gold leaves.

The Gods are painted in unique bright, flat colors devoted to each of them. Though the European connoisseurs influenced the paintings, the use of tones and shades are more to add depth to the painting, as opposed to the realism bought by the european counterparts.

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.”
- Anna L. Dallapiccola, Honorary Prof. of Indian Art (for a British Museum Catalogue)

As is the case in many cultures, the use of gold is said to channel positive energy into the home. This quality sets apart Tanjore Paintings from any work of art, in that a sanctuary built for the Gods themselves, must be adorned with similarly precious elements. It’s more than a painting - a conduit that draws in good vibrations and keeps calamities at bay.

Could your home be a fitting consecration for a Deity? Of course - the aura must be pure, the ambience, pristine. Our cultural art has given us the gift of envisaging the Gods within our living, working spaces. Home is where your Deity is.