Tanjore Painting: Images of Divinity

Tanjore painting traces its origins to Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. It emerged as a distinct style in the court of the Maratha rulers of Thanjavur in the 17th century, and reached its peak under the reign of Serfoji Bhonsale II in the late 18th century. The Raju community of Thanjavur and Tiruchi was noted for creating quality Tanjore paintings.

These mainly religious themed paintings were displayed on walls in homes and evolved out of the growing prominence of the Bhakti movement which focussed on private worship. Patrons of Tanjore paintings looked for portable religious icons, hence themes from the Hindu pantheon abound. Images of infant Krishna with a butterball, surrounded by Yashodha and gopis, and the Ramapattabishekam (the coronation of Rama) are dominant, but Kartikeya, Nataraja, Ganesha, and Parvati are also popular.

Tanjore paintings differ from other paintings of the region in terms of medium, material and technique. “The Tanjore painter preferred cloth on wood... [they] used raw lime powder with a paste made of powdered tamarind seeds for gesso work.” (Krishna Chaitanya, A History of Indian Painting: The Modern Period, Volume 5, Abhinav Publications, 1976, p. 36) Outlines of the subjects were traced using French chalk or powdered limestone. Gesso work was in high relief and made of gold leaf or gold-coated silver leaf. Artists embellished their works with semi-precious stones and coloured glass beads. Colours are often “flat without tonal variation” (Chaitanya, p. 30), with dyes initially made from mineral and vegetable colours, and later, from chemicals.

The Tanjore School as we know it today, is an amalgamation of styles and painting traditions from the Vijayanagar period to the British era. Certain pictorial elements, such as the arches, were influenced by Vijayanagar and Deccani painting styles. Costumes and ornaments are of “the Deccan type, particularly of the Maratha region.” (Tanjore Paintings, Government Museum Chennai website) Glass and gold leaf were used to recreate the mythical living abodes of the Gods as referred to in religious texts.

Many significant Tanjore paintings are now part of important museum and gallery collections around the world, including the National Museum of Denmark, the Government Museum, Chennai, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the British Museum, London.

The 27 Tanjore paintings offered here are from the Poonam Amin collection epitomise the themes, techniques and traditions of this distinct art form.

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