Reopening after a gap of six years, the revamped gallery of the Tanjore and Mysore schools of paintings at National Museum has many high points

There is still a long way to go but all that debate about reinventing our museums as spaces of deeper engagement seems to have induced some change. At National Museum, a slick new website that is far more interactive than the earlier version, a newly launched volunteer guide programme called ‘Path Pradarshak’, and the renovated gallery of Tanjore and Mysore schools of paintings are perhaps part of the transformation that our museums are in urgent need of. It is after a gap of six long years that the treasure trove of Tanjore and Mysore schools of paintings has been re-revealed to visitors.

The gallery was closed for renovation, and paintings were undergoing restoration work, informs Vijay Kumar Mathur, Curator, Lecturing and Education, National Museum. “But now the gallery is back with 88 paintings, new additions to the collection, improved captions, lighting and display and text panels. There is no fixed timeline needed to overhaul a gallery. We just felt that the display had become dated and needed a new lease of life. The old system of lighting was damaging the work but with LED lighting the experience of viewing will be enhanced,” says Mathur, who has spearheaded the renovation programme of the gallery and is now working towards the overhauling of the decorative arts section. “The total number of miniature paintings at National Museum is 17,000, making it one of the largest collections of miniature paintings. Tanjore and Mysore paintings specifically constitute 150 paintings, out of which 88 paintings are exhibited in the revamped space which prior to closure exhibited 50 paintings.”

Painted in bottle green, the section boasts design elements that are congruous to the Tanjore and Mysore styles of painting. The restored life-size painting depicting the scene of the coronation ceremony of Rama at Ayodhya is a new addition to the lot and is placed in a groove in the wall. The elaborate caption describing the painting reads “The coronation of Rama at Ayodhya: Maratha Period, Tanjore style, cloth painted on wood”. Further detailing the scene it explains, “Rama with Sita seated on throne after his coronation ceremony accompanied by Lakshman, Bharata, Shatrughana, Hanuman and sages. He ruled for justice, truthfulness.” Mathur says that they realised short captions barely mentioning the title of the work weren’t enough, particularly for foreign visitors, and hence they went in for more detailed notes. An exhaustive booklet, and an elaborate text panel right at the entrance also work in the same direction.

Wooden walls erected within the section demarcate Vaishnavism from Shaivism. The enclosure created by the wooden walls comprises a series of Navneeta Krishna paintings. “Girija and Sita Kalyanam” is another beautiful addition to the space. Newly restored work rendered in the Mysore style is divided into two scenes — showing the marriage ceremony of Shiva and Parvati, and Sita and Rama. The artist had created this unique work (paper on cloth) at the end of the 18 Century.

Amongst the clutch of miniature art traditions, the Tanjore School has its own special place. Richly bejewelled, the surface bears religious iconography mainly drawn from Vaishnavism and Shaivism. The colour palette is bright, features are delicate, and they are mostly portraits. Missing earlier, now through a series of six paintings the process of executing a Tanjore style of painting is also revealed. Taking the sample of a parrot seated on a hand, it shows different stages of its making — from making a sketch with pencil to fixing the semi-precious stones and glass stones using the glue called ‘chin-hallu’ on to the surface to the execution of relief work.

Two new lithographs — the tomb of Haider Ali, Sultan of Mysore (company style, mid-19 Century), and the Brihadeeshwara temple, a centre of music, architecture and arts in Tanjore — portraits of Maratha ruler Serfoji II, who ruled Tanjore for 55 years, and a series of Baramasa poetry depicting different months are other highlights of the gallery.