Award-winning artist N. Manoharan has built his oeuvre on the Tanjore painting technique

Creating Tanjore paintings has been a way of life for N. Manoharan, whose home-office in the suburb of Edumalaipatti Pudur, Tiruchi, is filled to the brim with various works of art in the centuries-old technique.

“My father M. Natarajan was my first guru,” says Manoharan. “He worked as a full-time artist for the Collector’s office in Tiruchi, and I grew up seeing his creations. Naturally I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”

The vocation became a profession from 1985, when Manoharan, educated till the 10th Standard, decided to take up painting to support his family.

“Most of my art education has come through repeated practice,” he says, “and perhaps this is the best way to learn any skill.”

Heritage art

Tanjore (an Anglicised pronunciation of Thanjavur) painting blends many genres. Thought to have originated in the Maratha court of Thanjavur (1676-1855), and nurtured further by Chettiar merchants, Tanjore paintings usually showcase temple iconography and scenes from Hindu religious texts in styles drawn from the Deccan and Vijayanagara empires and even Europe. The Raju community of Thanjavur and Tiruchi and the Nayudus of Madurai (both originally Telugu-speaking groups from the region of Rayalseema) were traditionally employed as Tanjore painting artists.

“A genuine Tanjore painting will usually have either teak or jack wood (pala maram, Artocarpus heterophyllus) as the base,” says Manoharan. “These days people have started using plywood boards, but we stick to the old method.”

Canvas is stretched and glued to the board traditionally with a paste made from ground tamarind seeds. “If you are in a hurry, you can use any white craft glue,” says Manoharan.

Next, the canvas is coated with a mixture of white glue and chalk powder and buffed to create a tile-like smooth surface for the painting work. The figures are then pencilled on to the prepared canvas using a stencil or drawn from scratch.

Next comes the gesso (embossing technique) work, done by first layering ‘makku’ (limestone powder mixed with a binder) on selected areas to create finer details like flowers and clothing folds that are slightly raised from the background.

“We prefer to embed the glass/semi-precious stones first, as they add a little weight and make the rest of the canvas easier to handle,” says Manoharan. “To make the stone setting look more realistic, we first cover the required area with 24-carat gold foil and then use a small knife to reveal the stones underneath.”

The remaining portions of the drawing are painted using poster colours. As a final touch, a wooden frame saves the picture for posterity.

In the picture

Supplies for the craft are usually available in specialist stores in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai, says the artist. “We buy the gemstones in bulk, but usually wait for an order before buying the gold foil (sold in leaflets with an adhesive base). Like gold ornaments, the price of gold foil has been steadily rising,” he adds. “A book of 24 leaflets used to cost Rs.300 in the 1980s, now it’s gone up to Rs.3000.”

When asked about the challenges he faces, Manoharan specifies labour. “It’s not that we don’t get workers, but they don’t seem to want to do good quality work,” he says. As Manoharan demonstrates the art of embossing gold foil, one is struck by the finesse of his touch, and the fragility of the material he is working with.

On average, he completes five to six Tanjore paintings in a month. With each piece taking at least 10-15 days to complete, Manoharan is helped by his wife Rajeshwari and an associate to meet the deadlines at his art studio Sri Gokul Arts, established in 2000. “My paintings start from Rs.1000,” says Manoharan. “The most expensive one sold for Rs. 1 lakh.”

Manoharan’s talent was recognised by the Tamil Nadu government, which presented him with the Best Artist award in 2005-2006. He credits his mentor, the national-award winning artist T. Venkateswara Raju, for his success.