History of Tanjore Paintings

Dating to about more than three and half centuries back, the art flourished in the kingdom of Tanjore, under the Nayaks. The painters came from Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Tirupati - but were mainly Rajus from Andhra. The art being rich in style, royal patronage was essential to its survival.

Originally, long ago, genuine uncut diamonds, rubies and emeralds, along with pure gold leaf were used on a base of wood that was treated with tamarind seed and Arabic gum paste. This ensured a termite-free life for the painting. The borders had lovely square cut mirrors set symmetrically enhancing the beauty of painting, giving divine glow.

The old artists were such masters that the eyes seemed alive, lending popular characters like Krishna, his unique charm and Rama, his serene grace.

Gajalakshmi and Saraswati were also popular, deemed auspicious for the Hindu home. Ganesh is a fairly recent subject. Rama’s coronation was the most attempted subject and the most difficult to achieve as the numerous characters present at the coronation had to be fitted in proper perspective.

The next stage of painting saw the use of silver leaf treated with turmeric smoke to achieve a golden hue. These today have a brown metallic seen dulled with age. Colored cut glass, or plain glass painted on the back, came to be used along with the mirrors. Today, only glass and plastic pieces are used, and a shiny gold paper. With the later influencers of Europeans, the painting started to include chandeliers in the scene, hanging above the canopy of the seated Lord. Garlands too showed different motifs compared to the earlier pieces.

Glass paintings too came about as part of the European influence. The same subjects were done on glass better affordable, but breakable. Today even partly broken faded or cracked on glass paintings are sold for handsome prices. The Uraiyor style, from a place near Trichy, consisted of Tanjore style paintings without any stones or glass work, just plain embossing.

The Tirupati prints too came to influence Tanjore paintings. A few precious clay models exist in private collections-fired and then painted the subjects in low relief. The Tanjore paintings all have the distinctive muted reds and vibrant blues, gloriously offset by greens and whites. Of all paintings, one stands undimmed in memory – a seated Rama with his brothers and Sita - simply majestic and unusual, for here Rama is depicted with an imperious moustache. This unforgettable painting hangs in the private rooms of the Tanjore palace.

Though one longs for work like these, or the fantastic miniatures in the Serfoji Museum, Tanjore - today we have to settle for more modern versions. Old of courage is gold but the art must be kept alive.