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The Ancient history of Tanjore Painting

The Ancient history of Tanjore Painting

Tanjore painting, also known by the name Thanjavur painting, is an ancient South Indian art form that was named after the city from where it originated. Locally, Tanjore Paintings are also called ‘Palagai Padam,’ which means picture on a wooden plank as these paintings are crafted on wooden planks. The innovative painting style, vibrant colors, iconic composition, and surface richness make Tanjore Paintings unique and popular across the world. Each Tanjore Painting is embellished with glass beads, semi-precious gems and stones, vibrant natural colors, and glittering gold foil. All these provide a three-dimensional effect to the painting.

The art form got its original inspiration from 1600 A.D., when the Nayakas were under the control of Rayas of Vijayanagara. During this period, Rayas encouraged various forms of classical art, including dance, painting, music, and literature. However, the painting style as we know it today is highly influenced by the Maratha court of Thanjavur. In 2007-2008, the Government of India recognized Tanjore Painting as a Geographical Indication. The skilled artisans use this painting style to paint the portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses in different postures.

History of Tanjore Painting

The Thanjavur city of Tamil Nadu has contributed a lot to the history of Indian art. The city has been the heart of art and architecture for centuries. Thanjavur was the capital of the Chola dynasty from the 9th to the 13th century, and during this period, Thanjavur reached new heights in art and architecture. The Brihadeesvara temple is the symbol of this period and houses several wall paintings from the Chola Empire and Nayaka period.

The roots of Tanjore Paintings are also linked to Thanjavur. The painting style originated and flourished here in the 16th and 17th centuries. The origin of this classical painting style is linked to the Vijayanagara Empire (1336 A.D. to 1646 A.D.), including the areas of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. The rulers of Vijayanagara were patrons of art and culture. The roots of this South Indian art form are linked to the Mural art of the Vijayanagara Empire.

Tanjore Painting was first used for decorating the doors and walls of homes, palaces, and temples in Thanjavur. The interior walls of the palaces were also painted with depictions of various events like a coronation, battle victories, and other achievements of the rulers. In contrast, the walls of temples and homes were decorated with murals and paintings involving religious themes and portraits of various Hindu deities.  

The remains of these ancient wall paintings are still present on the walls of Virupaksha Temple in Hampi, the capital city of Vijayanagara Empire, Varadaraja Temple, Kamakshi Temple in Kanchipuram, and Lepakshi Temple in Andhra Pradesh. Some of these paintings are also present in the Brihadeeswara Temple’s gopuram of Periya Kovil in Thanjavur.

During the reign of Vijayanagara, the Rayas of Vijayanagara administered the kingdom through Nayaka governors. These governors also administered the outlying states under the supervision of the Raya of Vijayanagara. During the reign of Achyutappa (1564-1614), the Vijayanagara empire fell, and several philosophers, artists, musicians, and litterateurs migrated to Thanjavur, Madurai, and Mysore. Raghunatha Nayaka, the son and successor of Achyutappa, was the most successful Nayaka ruler and patron of art and artists. He established a unique school for Thanjavur artists, who later evolved the Tanjore Painting style during the reign of Marathas.

How did Tanjore Painting get its current form?

In 1676, Thanjavur was captured by Ekoji, the half-brother of Chatrapati Shivaji, on behalf of Adil Shah of Bijapur and established the Maratha rule in the region. The Maratha rulers were great patrons of art and artists. During the reign of Serfoji II in Thanjavur, the Thanjavur painting style flourished into its current form.

The royal Maratha artisans induced innovation into the traditional Tanjore Painting style to make it more royal and astonishing. They introduced ornamentation of Tanjore Paintings by using gesso work, glass beads, precious and semi-precious gems, and gold foil to bring out the glow. Maratha artisans also introduced the reverse class painting technique into the Tanjore Painting style. Serfoji II’s reign was when Tanjore Painting and other art forms underwent innovation and greatly flourished.

After the Maratha rule ended with the death of the last Maratha ruler – Shivaji II, the Britishers annexed the state of Thanjavur. The mercantile Chettiars patronized the art form in Thanjavur and around South India.

Being Shaivites, the Chettiar community encouraged Tanjore Painting with Shaivite themes. The monastery in Koviloor, Tamil Nadu, has a huge Tanjore Painting depicting the lives of all 63 Shaivaite Saints or Nayanmars and 64 miracles of Lord Shiva (Thiruvilaiyadal Puranam). Thanjavur’s Bhimarajagoswami monastery has a large Tanjore Painting of 108 temples of Lord Vishnu. Britishers who came to the city of Thanjavur also patronized the South Indian art forms and encouraged Tanjore Painting style.

Even after the end of the Maratha Empire and the overpowering of the East India Company, the South Indian art form received huge popularity. After the wake of the Mysore wars in 1767-1799, the East India Company settled in the state of Thanjavur and greatly patronized the Tanjore Painting style.

Later in 1773, when the East India Company installed its military base in the city for British troops, the skilled Tanjore artisans illustrated their art for British personnel. The painting style appealed to British taste and sensibility. The Britishers inclined toward the South Indian art form and encouraged Indian artisans to portray different scenes of Indian festivals, rituals, flora, and fauna in Tanjore paintings.

Tanjore Artists

Charles Gold, the British chronicler, mentioned in his Book “Oriental Drawings” that ‘the Artists of India or Moochys’ painted Tanjore paintings. The Raju community of Tiruchi and Thanjavur, also known as Chtragara or Jinigara, and the Naidu community of Madurai executed the Thanjavur painting style. The Rajus and Naidus were basically Tamil-speaking people from Rayalseema of Andhra Pradesh. These artisans migrated to Thanjavur, Madurai, and Mysore during the fall of the Vijayanagara empire and the rise of Nayaka’s rule in Thanjavur and Madurai. The art form was carried out by the artisans who migrated to Thanjavur and Madurai, and the art form was patronized by Nayakas and the royal Maratha artists who added their innovation into the art form to enhance it.

The skilled Tanjore Painting artisans used to portray this art form on different subjects and themes as required by the patrons, their interests, and financial capacity. They performed the art as a sacred task with ritual purity and humility. Most of these artisans remained anonymous and never signed their art.

The artisans who migrated to Mysore created a similar painting style called Mysore painting. The Mysore painting style is very similar to the Tanjore painting. As the origin of both the South Indian art forms was the same, the subject and themes of these painting styles remained the same. Artists used the art form to portray various deities of Hindu mythology. The main difference between the Tanjore and the Mysore painting styles were:

  • As Tanjore Painting style was patronized by the Maratha artists, they introduced ornamenting the paintings with glass beads, stones, and gold foils. However, Mysore paintings are devoid of these decorations.
  • Tanjore Painting is always done on a wooden plank covered with cloth and chalk paste coating, whereas Mysore painting is done on cloth, paper, or even a wooden plank.  
  • The use of gold foil and the gesso work is completely absent in most Mysore paintings. Instead of gesso work and the use of glittering gold, the detailing of the paintings is done with gold colors.
  • Due to the creative freedom in Mysore painting, many variations of portraying the face of deities can be found in the Mysore style of painting, whereas this is not the case with the Tanjore Painting style. Tanjore artists always followed the same traditional styles and standards of portraying. As a result, there are not many variations available in the Tanjore Painting style.

While originating from the same place, both painting styles have developed to be very different from each other, and one can clearly differentiate between the two painting styles.

Conclusion

Tanjore Painting style is one of the oldest South Indian art forms that still exist. These paintings were made with humility, ritual purity, and devotion. Mostly, the subjects of these paintings are associated with Hindu Gods and Goddesses. The art form has stood against the test of times through history and went through several innovations. The reason it survived through centuries is the adaptability of the painting style to change the format. Even today, Tanjore Paintings still have a broad appeal. The artists have kept the traditional practices and techniques alive.

Buy high-quality antique Tanjore Paintings from Mangala Arts. Each painting in our wide range of Tanjore Paintings is specially handcrafted by skilled artisans from Thanjavur. The paintings are decorated with semi-precious Jaipur stones and 24-carat glittering gold foil. All our paintings come with a 25-year warranty, providing a feeling of trust and authenticity. You can also choose to customize the size and frame of your painting to match your style. We also offer shipping across India and abroad while ensuring that our customers receive their paintings in excellent conditions.

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