The city of Thanjavur, 280 km south of Chennai, has not only seen the rule of powerful dynasties such as the Cholas, it has also been a thriving centre of art and architecture throughout history. Amid its rich and enduring artistic tradition are the Tanjore Paintings, a style of painting that originated and thrived in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu in the 17th century, under the patronage of the region’s Maratha rulers.
These ornate creations are beautiful panel paintings traditionally done on wooden boards and depict deities, and characters and scenes from Hindu mythology, the epics and the scriptures. Their signature feature are their embossed contours covered in glittering foil, beads and stones. Locally known as Palagai Padam, which translates into ‘paintings done on wooden planks’, Tanjore Paintings are a very important part of the living cultural legacy of Thanjavur.
Thanjavur was the imperial capital of the Cholas from the 9th to 13th centuries CE, a period during which the city reached its zenith in art and architecture. One of the symbols of this period that survives is the Brihadisvara Temple, which towers over the city. An architectural jewel and one of the most famous temples of South India, it represents the zenith of the Chola Empire and its temple-building tradition.
After the decline of the Cholas in the 13th century CE, Thanjavur was captured by the Pandyan King, Malavarman Kulasekara Pandyan I, in 1279 CE. He annexed the entire Chola kingdom. Over the following centuries, Thanjavur saw the rule of the Delhi Sultanate (briefly in the 14th century), followed by the Vijayanagar rulers (between 15th and 16th centuries), the Thanjavur Nayakas (16th-17th centuries) and the Marathas (17th-18th centuries).
Interestingly, the legacy of these great rulers can still be found in Thanjavur today. While the temple architecture in the region represents the pinnacle of Chola architecture, the mural traditions of the Nayakas and the Cholas can be seen on temple walls, and the painting legacy of the Marathas in the Tanjore Paintings. It is said that the Tanjore Paintings draws their inspiration from the paintings done by the Nayakas.
Tanjore Painting, as we know it today, originated under the patronage of the Maratha rulers of Thanjavur in the 17th century CE and flourished under the most famous ruler of the line, Maharaja Serfoji II (1777-1832 CE), a great patron of learning and the arts. Thanks to him, large paintings of deities and portraits of Maratha rulers, their courtiers and nobility were painted and installed in Maratha palaces and other buildings.
Traditionally, it is the Raju community of Thanjavur and Tiruchi (also known as Jinigara or Chitragara) and the Naidu community of Madurai who painted in the Thanjavur style. It is believed that these artists were originally Telugu-speaking people from the Andhra region, who moved to Tamil Nadu after the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire in the 17th century and the founding of Nayaka rule in Madurai and Thanjavur. Tanjore Paintings are known for their vivid colours and rich embellishments, especially the use of gold or silver foil. The paintings usually depict a deity from Indian mythology, the epics or religious texts. Krishna, Vishnu and Lakshmi are commonly depicted in Tanjore Paintings, sometimes surrounded by subsidiary figures or elements such as temple arches, animals, trees etc. It is this depiction that made the paintings significant as objects of worship. One can also see the assimilation of many stylistic influences in these paintings – Tamil, Telugu, Maratha, Deccani, folk and even European, thanks to colonial rule.
Each painting goes through several layers of work and is a labour of love, time and skill. The process begins by preparing the base, which was traditionally wood from the jackfruit tree or teak. Now, the base is usually plywood. The wooden base is cut to the required size and is covered with a layer of gum, originally made using tamarind seed. A cloth is pasted on the wood and left to dry. After this, a paste of glue and chalk powder, known as gesso, is applied to the cloth. Once the paste dries, the surface is smoothened and polished using a stone or an emery sheet or sand paper. It is on this surface that the artist draws the sketch of the painting.
Next, layers of the gesso paste are masterfully added to the sketch, carefully following its contours, to give it an embossed, three-dimensional look. Once dried, the embossed areas are covered with gold foil. A thin layer of the foil is placed on an embossed area and the foil is then cut to shape. The painting is enhanced by using glass beads, semi-precious stones and other decorative material.
The painting is then coloured in and allowed to dry. Traditionally, vegetable or natural colours were used but these have been replaced with chemical colours. The painting, once complete, is framed with a glass panel to protect it.
Some spectacular examples of old Tanjore paintings, dated to the 17th and 18th centuries, can be seen at the famous Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur. This library is also considered the great legacy of Maharaja Serfoji II, who expanded it from being the state library under the Nayakas of Thanjavur. The Government Museum in Chennai and the Thanjavur Art Gallery also have fine collections of Thanjavur Paintings, depicting the Maratha kings of Thanjavur and allied subjects. While the wood and paints used in this craft have undergone a sea change, artists have also started making Tanjore Paintings on mediums such as glass, mirror and canvas.
Tanjore Paintings, which have been assigned a Geographical Indication tag, now also flourish in the temple town of Srirangam in Trichy as well. An acclaimed artist of this style, L Ramanujam, has been leading the revival and promotion of Tanjore Painting in Srirangam by training students, especially women, in this traditional art form.
Apart from successful revival attempts like this, it is really through digital platforms like Peepul Tree that the art can generate far greater awareness and be taken to a much wider audience. An e-commerce platform working with award-winning artisans, Peepul Tree has spectacular Tanjore Paintings of Goddess Lakshmi with beautiful gold foil work, sourced from L Ramanujam.
A legacy carried forward for over three centuries, Tanjore Paintings are a true symbol of devotion, art and heritage.