A style of painting that was developed in and around the area of Thanjavur in present-day Tamil Nadu, Thanjavur painting emerged in the early seventeenth century under the patronage of the Nayaka rulers of the region. These paintings are generally made on cloth and represent a divinity and their consort or attendants, positioned in a single plane at the centre of the frame in a tranquil pose. They wear elaborate jewellery, executed using gilding techniques and gem-setting, a characteristic of Thanjavur paintings. Backgrounds are tonally flat but brightly coloured. The main subjects of Thanjavur paintings include gods and saints, usually derived from Vaishnava myths and epics such as the Ramayana; secular and courtly portraiture, especially of the Maratha rulers; manuscript illustrations; and paintings on varied media including glass, cloth, wood and ivory.
After the dissolution of the Vijayanagara Empire in the late-sixteenth century, Thanjavur emerged as a major cultural, religious and economic centre. Painters of the Kshatriya caste from the Telugu speaking regions of present-day Andhra Pradesh migrated there in search of patronage. These early painters of Thanjavur were influenced by surviving examples of Chola murals from the region, as well as contemporary techniques such as sculpture and Kalamkari textile production. According to scholars, other influences include the Vijayanagara painting tradition from the regions corresponding to present-day Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana; the paintings of Masulipatnam, produced across the territories of the Golconda Sultanate in present-day Andhra Pradesh; and those of Tirupati in present-day Andhra Pradesh, then a major centre of south Indian pilgrimage, commerce, and art. These imparted a mix of Deccani, Persianate and south Indian elements to the emerging Thanjavur style.
Early examples of the Thanjavur style were primarily of Hindu divinities, depicted in stiff, static poses and gilded with gold leaf. However, after the Maratha conquest of Thanjavur in the late seventeenth century, the style began to be used in secular portraiture as well. The popularity of Thanjavur paintings grew rapidly under the patronage of these rulers. Several Maratha kings, especially Venkoji and Pratap Singh, commissioned paintings depicting themselves in various courtly contexts. Thanjavur style portraits of this period incorporate both Mughal and Maratha elements, but their compositions tend to centre the monarch and use brighter colours and more dynamic poses. Later portraits include elements like curtains or pillars and incorporate techniques such as shading, three-dimensional perspectives, and views of architectural spaces: these are possibly due to interactions with European art. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Maratha court at Thanjavur had become a centre for the diffusion of styles and artists to other south Indian centres of painting such as Puddukotai, Trichinopoly, Madurai and Srirangam.
Over the next century, the Thanjavur region increasingly came under British control, leading painters to incorporate techniques from the Company School of painting. The media used changed from ground colours on cloth and wood to gouache and watercolour on paper. The style also began to move beyond the court and reached new markets and classes of patrons. The British commissioned Thanjavur artists for ethnographic illustrations, while some Indian patrons employed them to make drawings of insects, birds and animals at this time.
Simultaneously, Thanjavur style religious paintings also underwent considerable change. Glossy, polished paintings of deities like Krishna, with cherubic forms and gilded decoration, were produced for a popular market. Hitherto static poses gave way to more naturalized depictions with some influence from Western academic realism. Expensive gold leaf was still applied to some of these works, while others began to use cheaper gold paper for embossing. Many of these innovations are still used in Thanjavur paintings today.
Contemporary Thanjavur paintings are large, framed objects meant to be hung on walls and seen from a distance. They are generally executed on wooden panels wrapped in cloth, leading them to be called palagai padam (“pictures on wood”) in Tamil. The wood of the jackfruit tree is usually preferred for this purpose. A sheet of cardboard is pasted onto the panel, with gum sometimes made from tamarind seed. One or two layers of cloth are applied, coated with lime, and smoothed down using a stone or shell. This prepared surface is painted on with brush, leaving out the places where gems are to be set. Unboiled limestone, ground and mixed with glue, is used to mark the spots where decorations are to be applied. Gems or stones are directly embedded on the marks first, followed by gold paper. Embossing is achieved by pressing the foil down with the pointed end of a paintbrush. More recent Thanjavur paintings bear heavier applications of gold work and a few dark, rich shades of colour. The background colours used include deep greens, blues or reds; the main figures are usually executed in white, yellow, green or blue.
The influence of the Thanjavur painting style has had considerable geographic and temporal range. According to some scholars, elements of the style influenced paintings produced as far away as Solapur in Maharashtra as well as various parts of Karnataka in the eighteenth century. Its depiction of deities with a hybrid of southern Indian and European styles influenced realist painters like Raja Ravi Varma as well as popular art such as prints and calendar paintings through the twentieth century and up to the present day.
Although the tradition of Thanjavur painting was historically limited to men of the Kshatriya caste, efforts have been made to open it up to others in recent years. The Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Development Corporation has conducted training courses in Thanjavur painting exclusively for women. Thanjavur paintings continue to be extremely popular as tourist memorabilia and objects of worship, and are among the most recognisable south Indian paintings today.
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