Media awareness and workshops have helped in increasing the curiosity and market for the Tanjore and Mysore school of paintings

Even as abstract art is making its rounds in contemporary life, there still is a sizeable majority vouching for old-world charm for the antique or ethnic feel. Take the Tanjore and Mysore forms of painting, for instance. What are the outstanding features of this art that belonged more to the regal era? What are the intricacies involved in these creations?

It is a well-known fact that Tanjore and Mysore paintings originally catered to the opulent and princely lifestyles at palaces and were also a part of temples in South India.

Perhaps this glorious art could only be fostered by royal patronage as it wasn’t just limited to drawing and painting, but was encrusted with gem-stones and 22 carat gold sheets.

“Only artists with experience and skill can handle the myriad aspects of handwork in this form of painting,” says G.S. Kirran, owner of Tarang, the artefacts boutique at Jayanagar II Block. Kirran’s mother, Leela, is a Tanjore painting artist and Tarang has one big room splashed with Tanjore and Mysore paintings.

Growing market

“I have a growing market for Tanjore and Mysore paintings today and they are part of one’s collectibles, the investment angle not withstanding,” says Kirran.

Education and awareness have helped in increasing the curiosity and market for the royal art and without media exposure, reviving the art form would have been difficult after it nearly went into oblivion once the dynasty rule ended in several parts of India.

The history

The turbulent Middle Ages saw an exodus of artists and poets to the South. Visually alluring paintings were particularly encouraged by the discerning royal eye, and gradually over the years, three distinct schools of art developed — Deccani, Mysore and Tanjore. Stylised modelling of characters chosen from mythology mainly formed the subject matter. Encompassed in numerous epic tales, Lord Krishna has always remained every Tanjore and Mysore artist’s delight apart from other deities.

The art

Avoiding any kind of mixtures, Tanjore paintings, basically made on cloth, are clamped on to a wooden piece and are characterised by the use of primary colours. A special adhesive (Arabian gum and flour) that is used in raised levels for shading to suit the images of jewels, drapery and architectural elements like pillars and canopies, add special effect to the subject. This is then embedded with semi-precious Jaipur stones and occasionally pearls too, and covered with 24-carat gold leaf.

This is then etched out to expose the right aspects of embellishment and other details. It is this extra ornamental feature that gives the Tanjore style an edge over the Mysore style that differentiates itself with exclusive free-hand detailing and colouring.

At the K.R.M School of Arts in Chennai, a free gurukul run by Meena Muthiah, massive-sized Tanjore art pieces greet you, spontaneously drawing you closer to observe the miniscule detailing — be it the chubby Vittobha Krishna with hands resting on his hips or the microscopic distinction of features in Shiva-Parvati union in Ardhanarishwara form.

One of the pioneers of the revival-and-development movement of Tanjore paintings, Meena Muthiah says, “I learnt the art from an old man in Srirangam and the study made me realise that so much of artistic sensibilities and hard work determine the end-product.”

Boost for artists

It wasn’t just the art that got a fresh lease of life; economically poor artists from various parts of the country got an opportunity to enrol themselves for the three-year course at the gurukul started in 1974.

The art that adorned the walls and ceilings of Madurai Meenakshi Temple or the palaces of the Mysore Maharajas is now entering middle class homes because the subject matter involves deities in pristine form. In spite of the contemporary expressions in the artists’ imagination today, the art still maintains the bygone dignity and piety.

Newer perspectives, however, in dealing with the art have given scope for using modern material... from the age-old tamarind seeds for gumming to Arabian gum and from squirrel’s hair for brushes to speciality grass for getting finer lines, say the artists. The cost ranges from Rs.750 for a small piece to a whopping Rs. 2.5 lakh, depending on the size and adornment.

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