The discovery of Chola frescoes in 1931 “extended the frontiers of the history of Indian painting,” set the scholarly world abuzz, and expedited conservation efforts at the Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur.
The 1000-year-old frescoes, painted at Rajarajesvaram, or the Big Temple as it is popularly known, remained unknown and hidden for centuries. The man who brought them back to life was a 28-year-old historian, S.K. Govindaswami.
On April 9, 1931, Govindaswami, a lecturer with the Department of History of Annamalai University, was examining the seven-feet-wide dark passage around the sanctum of the temple. What he found with the help of his ‘baby petromax’ was not Chola paintings but the 17th century Nayak paintings. He was disappointed and almost gave up hope of finding something from the Chola period. As he walked the remaining part of the passage, the cracked painted plasters on the western wall drew his attention. He touched or scraped the peeling flakes. They fell down and through the cleared portions he found what he excitedly described as “a fine series of frescoes palpitating with the life of other days.”
Govindaswami realised he had discovered the Chola frescoes. The very next day, he wrote to The Hindu about his sensational discovery. On April 11, 1931, the newspaper published his admirably factual account. It described the paintings and his experience of discovering it. Govindaswami followed this up in The Hindu with a two-page feature article on the Chola paintings titled “A new link in Indian Art.” It was published, with impressive illustrations, on June 7, 1931. It is here, even before he wrote his scholarly papers, that he described at length the themes of the paintings and its connections with India’s art history. He even identified a figure in one of the panels as the portrait of Rajaraja I, the builder of the Big Temple (this was subsequently refuted by other scholars).
The published reports drew nationwide attention and brought scholars rushing to see the frescoes. K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, who wrote the magnum opus The Colas, the first part of which was published in 1935, was one of them. The noted historian of South India recalled two years later that he viewed the frescoes “very soon” after its discovery “together with” Govindaswami and agreed with him that they belonged to the 11th century, the same period as the construction of the temple (which was completed in 1010 CE).
Although the temple was listed as a ‘government monument’ as early as 1891, it was only after the discovery of the frescoes that serious efforts were made to protect it.
Unfortunately, Govindaswami did not live long to pursue his scholarly interests or revel in his fame. He died in Chidambaram at the age of 38. The Hindu, on June 24, 1941, published a brief obituary on the Annamalai University history lecturer. It referred to his recent tour of Ceylon to give “lectures on Tamil literature” and mentioned that he was survived by “two wives, two sons and one daughter.”
“I have not met him personally,” recalls M.S. Govindaswamy, retired professor of history who joined Annamalai University in 1957, “but have heard about him from Sadasiva Pandarattar who remembered him as a man of scholarship and intelligence.”
When S.K. Govindaswami died, his unfinished manuscript on Indiya Varalaru, a Tamil book on Indian history, stopped with the beginning of Rajaraja’s time – the period in which the Thanjavur frescoes were painted. The manuscript was posthumously edited by C.S. Srinivasachari and published by Annamalai University in 1943.
‘I found them with a Baby Petromax’
“Close upon the discovery of the Pallava paintings in the Kailasanathaswami Temple at Conjeevaram by the French savant, the indefatigable Prof. Jouveau Dubreuil it has been my great good fortune to bring to light the hitherto unknown frescoes of the Imperial Chola period, in the Brihadeswaraswami Temple, popularly known as ‘the Big Temple of Tanjore.’
“It was almost a year since I visited that noble fane [temple] one evening, in the company of my friend Mr.T.V.Umamaheshwaram Pillai, when in the dim religious light of a small oil lamp I felt, as it were, the existence of some kind of paintings on the walls on either side of a dark narrow circumambulatory passage around the sanctum sanctorum.
“But it was only yesterday I found it convenient to examine the place more thoroughly with the help of a ‘Baby Petromax’ whose bright light revealed paintings indeed but paintings of an undoubtedly very late and degenerate age, whose linear contortions and chromatic extravagances shattered in a moment all my wonderful dreams of discovering there the best and the only example of the art of Chola mural paintings.
“Still I chose a part of the western wall for close inspection and found the painted plastering there cracked all over and threatening to fall down. A gentle touch and the whole mass crumbled down, exposing underneath a fine series of frescoes palpitating with the life of other days.”
S.K. Govindaswami in The Hindu, April 11, 1931