Tanjore or Thanjavur, one of the two major cultural zones and political powers and an eminent seat of religion in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in Tamilnadu, had been for centuries a great centre of dance, music, architecture and arts - sculpture, woodcraft, metal-cast, mural painting, ete. Though, it was during the last two-three decades that the world bowed to its unique talent and for its brilliant miniature painting. Thanjavur's inherent creative genius turned to miniature painting around the 18th century; when its Maratha rulers brought to it some level of stability and economic prosperity. Temple architecture, or even the art of temple murals and sculptures, was yet a remote possibility, though in dance, music, philosophy, literature, arts and crafts, there was a renaissance and a new cultural and religious awareness was born. The recurring British inroads into lower Tamilnadu during the 17th and the early 18th century did not allow the Maratha rule to stabilise initially, but by the middle of the 18th century; the scenario largely changed. The staid Tamil culture, its rich literary traditions and teachings of domiciled Telugu and Kannada saints cross-fertilised with the Maratha spirit of adventure, their vigorous life-style and fervour of their devotional literature and religious legacy and out of it was born an era of over-all development and
great creativity. Serfoji II, who ruled for long fifty-five years (1778 to 1833 A.D.), himself a scholar and enthusiastic patron of arts, music and literature, was largely instrumental in reviving Thanjavur's past glory.
Tanjore miniature painting, the most glaring aspect of this renaissance, trans-shifting of a theme and the material medium representing
it from the temple wall to a small canvas - usually a piece of cloth, was in vogue by around the middle of the 18th century itself; though, it was only by the first half of the 19th century that it reached an unprecedented level of maturity and magnificence. Tanjore paintings are miniatures by their technique, not by the size of their canvas, which is often large. This essentially votive painting, producing divine icons for temples and domestic shrines for the cross sections of the Indian society, who strove hard to preserve its religious identity against encroaching extraneous influences and pursued the colourful visual line of Brahmanism - Vaishnava and Shaiva, but with a secular spirit hardly ever seeking to mystify, or even mythicise its subject. Here the plumpish Krishna, as if cast of molten gold, squatting with a pot of butter, is more a lovable child rather than a divine image. If at all, the Tanjore artist aimed at freeing the entire Indian community, by reviving the medieval bhakti movement from the fetters of indecision it had fallen into, due to increasing dominance of extraneous powers and weakening hold of Indian rulers. Its perception has always been aesthetic, assimilative and broad-based, also allowing to emerge on its canvas the elements of the other art traditions and disciplines, architecture and jewel-setting in particular. Pavilions in many of the paintings seem to have been modelled after the known temples of the South and sometimes also like the altar of a Christian church. Here, the wall of Yashoda's chamber, where she churned curd, might have a modern mechanical clock hung over it; or a pair of winged angels (a European element) carrying garlands or showering flowers, might be found spanning the sky over typical Dravidian cupolas.
Tanjore paintings may broadly be divided into three categories: one, devoted to Vaishnavism portraying images of Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, Vishnu's other incarnations, Lakshmi and other Vaishnava gods; two, devoted to Shaivism portraying various forms of Shiva, Parvati, Karttikeya or Subramanya, Ganesha and other Shaiva deities; and, three, the portraits of various kings, saints and others. Paintings, belonging to the first two categories, are Tanjore's main thrust and are in abundance, but some of the paintings of the third category, especially those portraying King Shivaji II in various aspects and his durbar scene, are excellent. It was during the tenure of Shivaji II (1833-1855 A.D.) and under his patronage that Tanjore painting attained its ever greatest heights. Krishna of all gods has been the most favoured theme of Tanjore artists. The nude plumpish child, Krishna, holding a huge pot of butter in his tiny hands, has become synonymous with Tanjore painting. Tanjore painters were so much overwhelmed with Krishna as child that even when portraying him as engaged in love - making or in other sensuous acts, they portrayed him only as a nude child. He does not grow on the canvas of the Tanjore painting, even when he is surrounded by his eight consorts. He treated the theme of Rama with a different mind and great reverence, and by carefully pursuing the tradition and artistic discipline. Besides the Puranic symbols, his durbar scenes also have elephants, horses and winged angels showering
flowers from the sky. Shiva has been painted in his various manifest forms, though his Nataraja form excels over all others. The over-all iconography of various divine figures conforms to the iconographic tradition of divine images.
The Tanjore painting is known for its brilliance and a jewel-like rich look, which its artists created by using real gold and silver foils, and inlay material- precious and semi-precious stones, beads, mirrors, coloured glass-pieces, powdered metals - gold in particular. A patron's
financial status and willingness to spend determined the value-wise quality of the material used, though despite that the over-all aesthetic merit of the painting depended on how the artist, working with this material, used it. The gems or even the palette, used in a particular painting, was not always the choice of the artist. Sometimes, a patron's astrologer decided as to which of the stones and colours would suit him and the same were broadly used in the painting rendered for him. Many a time a patron believed that the best of his possessions - jewels, were a Divine custody, things of the Lord, and to symbolise it preferred keeping them, or their part, as inlaid with His canvas image believing that this image was one of His manifestations and anything dedicated to such image was his direct dedication to Him. In simple analogy, with such painted image in his possession, he yet possessed these jewels but now he was merely a keeper of the Divine custody, not its owner for he could keep them, not make a personal use. As was the practice, the patrons used to give from their coffers at least the precious stones and gold, and the artist was required to conceive his designs with what his patron made available.
Unlike a painting on paper or cloth, a Tanjore painting was rendered on a differently prepared canvas and was accomplished in many steps. The canvas ofTanjore painting comprised a base layer made of sliced wood; over it was pasted a card-board; and finally, over the cardboard was pasted one layer, or two, of cloth. The glue made of tamarind seeds was the commonly used adhesive in their pasting. The cloth on the facing side of the so prepared canvas was then toughened with repeated coats of white lime paste. The surface so arrived at was then smoothened by rubbing it with a polishing stone or a foaming sea shell, locally known as kadal-nurai or cowrie. Now, the canvas was ready for painting. The artist would now sketch on it, by using a brush, lead or charcoal stick, the desired figure or theme, drawing each of the details and pin-pointing the spots where gems would be inlaid. An adhesive paste, quite sticky in nature, made of raw unboiled lime mixed with glue of Chinahalu (a local tree) was then applied over the spaces where, as per the design, gold or silver leaves were to be laid and semi-precious stones, beads, glass-pieces, ete. to be embedded. This paste was known as sukkan. Used like stucco, the layers of sukkan were repeated, so as to reach such level of thickness which could firmly hold the embedded material, provide for relief drawings and give to such spaces height perspective, whatever its degree, and to the painting, three dimensional effects.
The scheme of the painting provided such raised spaces, mainly for ornaments and costumes of the figures, architecture pavilions,
canopies, pillars, domes, seats, crowns, frames and other similar members. On the intervening spaces, not covered by various inlays, were engraved decorative lines and dots which simultaneously formed relief designs and grip for the gold leaves. Now, over such elevated spaces a narrow strip, rectangle, square or whatever, were pasted gold or silver leaves, each covering the relevant space in its entirety, that is, the area of relief designs as well as of various inlays. Relief designs appeared in the gold or silver leaf when such leaf was pasted and pressed on these designs, but contrarily, such leaf hid under its gems ete. inlaid over there. Hence, the artist was required to remove from over these gems and other inlaid material such as parts of the leaf hid them. He used a sharp pointed knife for the purpose. Now these gem-studded zones, more particularly, ornaments worn by the principal deities, back-rest of their thrones, and lintels, arches and facade of pavilions, not only glittered with unique brilliance but also imparted the look of actual gem-studded gold ornaments.
Rest of the canvas space, not overlaid with sukkan and gold or silver leaves, might be defmed as the coloured zone. It is devoted to portray various figures - human or animal; other incidental details of the theme and the over-all background, all rendered using primary colours red, green, blue, black and white in their basic tones, shaded very rarely. Blue is used in light tint as well as in navy blue-type dark, and both tints have often been used to defme the sky. The ocean is figured in Tanjore paintings rarely. Yellow is sparingly used. Pink, amongst the lighter tints, has a wider use. Besides the body colour, it has also been used for representing various other articles. Instead of the blue-hued Krishna, Krishna of the Tanjore painting is pinkish with red defming the outline of the figure. His figure has been conceived with marble's translucence and butter-like softness. The Tanjore painter replaced with deep green the conventional blue body-colour of Vishnu, Rama, Vishnu's other incarnations, Rama's brother Bharat and others. Quite contrary to the established tradition, Parvati, the daughter of Himalaya, also named Gauri due to her gold-like complexion, has been conceived in the Tanjore painting as deep green. The Tanjore artist arranged his palette, particularly red, green and black, in striking contrast, contrasting mutually as well as against gold and other inlay material. Gold is a brilliant metal but in Tanjore painting, with red, green and black around it, its brilliance magnifies to its optimum. Significantly, the two zones, of which one is the coloured zone with a normal level, and the other, the inlay zone, elevated by
using thickening agents; one rendering its theme in simple basic colours, and the other using metal leaves and various inlay-material, stand in absolute harmony and perfectly synthesised.
Gold is perhaps the most dazzling aspect of Tanjore. From its paddy fields to the temple murals, from its divine icons enshrining its sanctums - domestic and public, to its royal mansions; with images of Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, Shiva and other divinities gracing them, Thanjavur is covered with gold. Both, the unseen hands of nature that created paddy fields, and the brush-holding hands of the Tanjore painter who created Navaneeta Krishna squatting under a canopy with a huge pot of butter, seem to have used molten gold as their ink. This massive use of gold imparts to the Tanjore painting its unique distinction and very special character. In a Tanjore painting, gold reveals three perceptible zones: flat, embossed or raised, and recessed and the last two being the aspects of relief designing. During the early phase ofTanjore painting, gold was restrictively used. In the quality of its portraiture, this early Tanjore painting was unsurpassed. It was different during its subsequent phase. Its use of gold was now quite extensive leaving relatively lesser space for the coloured zone. The role of the brush and the artist's individual skill were subordinated to the dazzling magnificence of gold. This deteriorated the over-all quality of the painting, of portraiture in particular. The paintings of the later phase favoured portraying individual isolated deities with larger iconic
figures. They were hardly composed with other deities of the pantheon or with the groups of their own subsidiary gods. The early Tanjore painting was more elaborately composed and revealed a greater variety and also a strong unity of various sects of the pantheon. Using grid pattern, Tanjore paintings of the early phase designed their canvas with multiple cubes, enshrining in the central ones - nodal gods, and in the side ones - their manifest forms and ancillary gods, and created on a small portable piece of wood is the magnificence of a multi-tiered temple.
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