Updated: February 21, 2011 23:44 IST

History of murals in Tamil Nadu

P. S. Sriraman
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Paintings in Tamilnadu — A History: I. Job Thomas; Oxygen Books, 33/15 Eldams Road, Chennai-600018. Rs. 300.
The Hindu
Paintings in Tamilnadu — A History: I. Job Thomas; Oxygen Books, 33/15 Eldams Road, Chennai-600018. Rs. 300.

The volume traces the history and development of painting in Tamil Nadu — from its beginnings in the form of rock art to modern schools of art

In the evolution of human cognitive expressions, painting is a significant milestone. Paintings fundamentally are made up of lines and colours. Humans used lines that enfold the space to fashion both abstract and real forms. What began as drawing lines to represent abstract forms several millenniums ago slowly evolved into depiction of real forms. What constitute the cornerstone of Indian painting per se are the strong lines and bold colours used to capture the volume and mass of the figures that are mostly imaginary and conventionalised.

It is no surprise that Vishnudahrmottara, the foremost work on Indian arts and aesthetics, has an exclusive section on paintings. It declares that chitra (painting) is the “best of all arts. It gives the fruit of dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Wherever it is established in a house, it is the harbinger of the best of auspiciousness.”

This was, exactly, the viewpoint of Indian painters, until it was overridden by the colonial art doctrines spread by the various Schools of Art the British established for the purpose.


In ancient India, Tamil Nadu being no exception, artists painted on cloth, leather, ceramics, and several other mediums. However, it is the murals and the ceramic art that survived the vicissitudes of time. This volume traces the history and development of painting in Tamil Nadu — from its beginnings in the form of rock art to modern schools of art — under several sequentially arranged chapters based on dynastic/periodic affiliations.

Given that paintings on other perishable materials did not survive the test of time, it is understandable that the book concerns itself essentially with the history of the murals.

Sangam painting

In the beginning, an account is given of the few significant remains of rock art discovered recently. The various references to painting found in the Sangam and post-Sangam literature are dealt with before discussing the murals of the dynasties that ruled the Tamil country. Each chapter starts with an introduction providing the historical and cultural context and then follows it up with a concise description of the remains arranged location-wise. Wherever necessary, the author has done well to give the mythological background and discuss the varied interpretations.

There are, however, a few generalised statements, which are contestable. For example, he says the Marathas did not contribute to the temple architecture of the ‘Cholanadu'. Not only did they build some simple stone-structures; they also added brick structures extensively to the temples of the region. Some of them were decorated with murals too.

The author conveniently ignores the paintings of Tiruvilaiyadal that adorn the corridors of the Brihadeesvara temple, Thanjavur. The ‘portraits' of the Maratha rulers executed in the same temple are more a relic of northern tradition of portraiture than of the European, as claimed by him. The inspiration for Raja Ravi Varma need not be traced to the portrait paintings of the Marathas.

As for omissions, the contribution of the Indian and European artists, particularly the engravers, during the colonial era has not received any attention. Also, the school of Thanjavur paintings, created by many unknown artists during the 18th century, finds no mention.


The rich illustrations, both colour and black-and-white, deserve appreciation. So do the rich line drawings of the murals; after all, lines are the cornerstone of ancient Indian painting. Indeed, the credit goes to the illustrator for capturing the lines as true to the original as possible and thus facilitating the reader to connect the two.

The photographic and line documentations, as the ones made in this volume, are of great importance, given that the murals in temples are vanishing thick and fast, thanks to the mindless and unscientific ‘renovation'.

Publications on art history tend to focus on glossy illustrations, backed by highly ornamental appreciation of art based on Sanskrit texts. This volume represents a welcome break from that trend. The text is simple and precise, while the illustrations are sufficiently rich from the reader's point of view.

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