When we think of Indian art, many of us
immediately imagine resplendent depictions of the Hindu gods. We think of
bright colors, beatific poses, and gold leaf.
Whether we know it or not, what we are
thinking of are Tanjore (Thanjavur) paintings.
Also known as “religious paintings with a
royal heritage,” this form of south Indian visual art began in the town of
Tanjore in the 16th century. These oil paintings have been made by indigenous
artists for generations, and it is kept alive by practitioners who faithfully
replicate the old ways and the beloved style.
When we examine this genre, we find so much
intertwined in the story: history, religion, and art all mixed. The
masterpieces this style has left behind and the contributions it still makes
today express an inexhaustible vitality rarely seen in the art world.
Over the last two centuries, art has become a
place where styles come and go, where the wave swells and crests and disappears
within ten years. But Tanjore paintings remain. Is it because of the access
they grant us to the divine? Is it because of the inherent beauty and splendor?
Let’s take a close look and discover what makes Tanjore paintings a permanent
part of the art landscape.
The style has a few major trademarks:
These make up the main features, but when we
look at them, we see there is another quality — one harder to grasp with words.
It’s the presence of the divine, an ability to relate the gods to ourselves. In
this way, Tanjore paintings awaken within us the Atman, that Higher Self in us
that always was, always is, and always will be the whole of the cosmos.
Tanjore paintings typically make little use of
perspective, instead favoring a two-dimensional layout. The subjects are almost
always depicted with softened and circular features. These two choices lend a
certain storybook unreality to the paintings, making them at the same time less
directly realistic while also much more relatable.
The color choices are one of the most striking
elements of any Tanjore painting. For instance, the sky is often painted black
— allowing the colors of the scene to almost glow. There is also frequent use
of a deep, scarlet red. Because many of the gods are depicted with blue skin,
the contrast allows both colors to vibrate off the canvas. No matter the
individual choices of the artist, the colors are always rich and bright. This
is an important part of the style’s exuberance.
The architectural motifs are ubiquitous. These
create a frame within a frame, while also giving the artist the chance to use
inlays and gold leaf to decorate the painting. This in part lends itself to
another important feature: the stiff tableaus and poses of the subjects. Those
poses make the paintings feel like a direct address to the viewer, a way for
them to understand the significance of what they bear witness to, and it gives
the subjects an auspicious presentation.
In 1336 CE, Harihara I and Bukka Raya I of the
Sangama dynasty established the Vijayanagara Empire in south India. They were
from a simple cowherd community, yet they united to fight off Islamic invaders.
Over the next two centuries, the Empire cultivated a distinct culture with
lasting influence in the region today.
The empire was incredibly diverse and liberalized.
The region’s contact with Islam was centuries old at this point, leading to
much cultural exchange. And they protected many forms of Hindu painting against
the ongoing tide of Islamic conquerors. The leaders also made sure to welcome
all forms of Hindu practice. For this reason, the architecture, sculpture and
painting that occurred in the empire is still upheld as a great flowering of
By the 16th century, repeated military defeats
led to the destruction of the empire. With cities falling, painters in the
traditional style once protected and patronized by the empire migrated to safer
places, including Tanjore. It is in Tanjore where the traditional style mixed
with the preferences of local patrons.
In this context, Tanjore painting as we know
it sprouted. Over the intervening centuries, many tropes and conventions were
created, altered, and passed on. But while there has certainly been
development, artists have made sure to keep the fundamental style intact.
When we view these paintings, we are
witnessing history and the present meet. We are feeling the impact of a
long-fallen empire and the passion of living, breathing artists.
Tanjore paintings begin by preparing the
surface. Jackfruit or teak wooden panels are covered with a canvas, using
Arabic gum as an adhesive. The canvas is then covered in either French chalk or
powdered limestone with a binding agentadded.
Once dried, an outline is sketched, and gesso
applied. Then, inlay and gold leaf are applied. These ornamental features cover
the architectural elements in the composition, like pillars and arches. The
artist then uses oil paints to color in the scene.
For many, this style of art is important
because of its beauty and its ability over the last five centuries to keep a
tradition intact. But above and beyond the aesthetic or historic importance,
these paintings have brought countless numbers of people in closer contact with
When we look at a Tanjore painting, we not
only see gods. We see them the same way people have for half a millenia — even
longer. That staggering time scale includes so many who have been born and
died, so often to be born again. Amid all that, paintings in this style have been
a reliable well of inspiration, a balm to difficulties of existence, and a
guide to liberation.
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