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    Thanjavur Kalamkari

    Map Academy

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    A style of kalamkari native to a group of artists from Karuppur in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu and now practised in the Sikalnayakanpet region of the city, Thanjavur kalamkari features figurative drawings distinguished by black outlines and intricate borders. Owing to its figurative motifs, it is also known as chithira paddam (chithira refers to “picture” and one of the meanings of paddam is “trace”). Thanjavur kalamkari was first patronised by Sevappa Nayak, the first Nayaka ruler of Thanjavur. In 1540, he brought a contingent of artists from Karuppur to work in palaces and temples of the city and who later settled down in Sikalnayakanpet. During this period, kalamkari was used in painting temple hangings (vasamalai), panels for door frames, canopies (asmangiri), umbrella covers, door hangings (toranams) and tubular hangings (thombai). Ornamental fabrics known as kuralams were also adorned with kalamkari and hung on either sides of temple chariots.

    Thanjavur kalamkari is a labour-intensive technique practised on pure cotton cloth. Before painting, the cloth is prepared with at least three layers of treatment using a cow-dung paste. Following this, it is starched with rice water and milk for stiffness and strength, as well as beaten for pliability. The artist draws on the cloth base using natural brushes, known as kalams, made from tree bark and bamboo pens. Colours are extracted from plant roots, vegetables, barks, leaves and stems and traditionally they were limited to only three: black, red and yellow. Of late, a pale blue colour has been integrated into the paintings.

    Given its ritual importance in temple worship and decoration, the Thanjavur kalamkari portrays Hindu mythology, epics and royal narratives, including, the Pandya kingdom of Madurai; royally attired Nayaka ruler, Thirumalai Nayak; the coronation of Rama from Ramayana; and the churning of the ocean of milk from Bhagavata Purana. Thanjavur kalamkari paintings draw immensely from the motifs used in stone and wood carvings of local temples like the Kabartheeswarar temple. They feature prominently in temple festivities, such as, the festival of Panguni Uthiram held in spring during which temple chariots are decorated with kalamkari paintings depicting the stories related to deities Murugan, Ayyappa, Shiva and Vishnu. Additionally, the ceiling of the Kabartheeswarar temple was painted in a style that was figurative and was supplemented by design motifs, a technique that is also reflected in the textile works.

    Records reveal that some 300 families of artisans were involved in the art of Thanjavur kalamkari, which had just one major master artisan left, R Emperumal – known to use this style of kalamkari on signage as well – who passed away in 2016. The tradition is continued by his son E Rajmohan and a team of artisans trained by them who work not only in traditional mediums but also produce sarees, tablecloths, bedspreads and curtains.


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