8th April 1931 was a momentous day. S. K. Govindaswami, a young lecturer of history at the Annamalai University, visiting the Brihadisvara temple, Thanjavur was walking around the dark passage encircling the sanctum. Much to his dismay he found the old paintings peeling off from the walls, but there was also a reason for him to get excited. Behind the peeling layer he found another layer of painting. He realized that the hidden paintings were from the Chola period and coeval with the construction of the temple.
Since then many attempts have been made to study the Chola murals, but they were not easy. Each panel is about fifteen feet; half of it is above the eyelevel. There is no natural light too. Photographers found it extremely difficult to photograph them since the space between the walls was only seven feet. These factors hindered any careful study by the scholars too.
However, the recent documentation by the Archaeological Survey of India had put an end to this situation by bringing the murals on to the desktops. A closer study of them has revealed that much more is in store than what was hitherto published.
Sivaramamurti, a doyen art historian, aptly summarized that there is a commingling of emotions in the Chola murals, which is true. Artistically, the Chola murals exhibit amazing mastery over the lines by the Chola artist. By a combination of flowing lines and appropriate colouring, they imparted expressions on the faces of divine and human figures. This is a characteristic feature of Chola murals. Even the gods were modelled with a vibrant and live expressions appropriate to the theme a unlike the serenity of sculptural and metal images.
The divine devotees are shown in all their mellowness, their face softly imbued with the great salvation they had attained. A variety of mortals are depicted, each with an expression, so commonly seen in us. Obviously, the artists had observed keenly and employed their accrued knowledge effectively. In a panel, the different expressions on the face of four monkeys at the sudden entry of a cobra in the banyan tree, where they were happily playing, is a defining moment of excellence of Chola painting.
What makes the murals stand apart is that they are executed in the true fresco method, to which one had to accept the chemical studies conducted so far. There is a differing view that none of the ancient Indian murals are executed in true fresco technique. The ancient Indian texts on paintings too describe only tempera technique. A conclusive chemical study is indeed welcome.
Studies so far have focused on the panels that depict Tripuranta or the ascent of Sundarar on the white mythical elephant and the like. The most popular panel has been the ones that identify two figures as Rajaraja and his preceptor. However studies show that they could be only two devotees witnessing the marriage of Siva and Parvati.
The documentation has helped in piecing a much damaged panel together to reinterpret it as the one depicting an great exposition by a saintly man, which was listened to by all including the guru of the Rajaraja, his son Rajendra, the principal queens, other daughters and sons of the king and the prince and officials. All the figures are interestingly seated in a hierarchical fashion. What does this panel signify? One can suggest that it probably depicts the singing of Thevaram after its classification by Nambi Andar Nambi, but this needs further analysis.
If one want to study the types of coiffure and dress of ancient India, then the Chola murals offers them the best graphic evidence. The intricate beaded decoration of hairdo of the queens of the king, the elaborate flower arrangements of others, variety of ornaments ( a long list is given in the inscriptions too), garments decorated with different patterns, and even an example of manicured nails are seen in the murals. Contrastingly, the men, particularly the king and his son are simple in attire.
The murals may lack that brilliant sense of depth seen at Ajanta but one have to take other factors in appreciating the Chola murals. The possible use of true fresco technique provided them with very little time to execute and finish the murals. The artists had to work in near dim conditions. They never had the distance to fall back to have look at the figures to check the relative proportion. But when we analysed the paintings digitally and in the large format reproductions, the proportion of individual figures and ensemble of figures is near perfect. While Ajanta evolved over several centuries, the murals of this temple were executed, in all probability, in few years! That makes the Chola murals stand next only to Ajanta.