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Breathing life into the Tanjore

The traditional art of the Tanjore school of painting is making a come back. A workshop on it was held in the city last week. SUNANDA KHANNA meets the enthusiastic master and students who are devoted to this art

IT'S A family heirloom that has shifted base. From the sacred confines of the puja room where it had almost found a permanent niche, the priceless Tanjore painting has been brought into the living room for an open display. Almost as though from an idol it had become an artefact. Proud owners however concede that on certain religious occasions it goes back to the quarter where family members get together for their prayers. It was never meant to be a humble gift. Even as it accompanied the bride to her new home, along with other household articles, there was a piety that escorted the parcel containing the Tanjore. Very reverentially, it was unpacked and hung in its marked place.

"I feel a sense of total devotion when I am making this painting", says Tulsi, a young graduate and probably the youngest of the 16 women attending a Tanjore painting workshop which was on in the city recently. Conducted by the Indian School of Art, the master artist at the helm is R. Sugumar, who was here at the invitation of the school's director, K.K. Warrier.

Jealously guarded by those who have them and furiously envied by the rest, a Tanjore painting is unique both in technique and style. It developed as a combination of Maratha and Nayak style of painting. Sugumar and his students explain that making such a painting is both a laborious and an expensive venture. The base is a wooden plank over which a cotton cloth is spread and fixed. A mixture of natural gum, lime powder and raw limestone powder (before it goes to the kiln) is applied. It is left on for a couple of days to dry after which it is stone polished to get the required finish. The figures are now drawn, the composition set in place. Precious gems or glass pieces are studded for ornaments. A thick paste of stone powder and natural gum is again applied and left on for a day. The distinctive gold leaf or foil is now pasted and given that embossed look. Later it is given a black outline to make it stand out. Earlier organic colours were used, but now Sugumar relies on poster colours to lend a natural hue to his work. Lastly the body parts are filled in and the picture is completed. It could take almost 20 days from start to finish, say the students.

The change from a 10-year stint as a marketing manager to a painter came easy to Sugumar. A self taught artist, who honed his skills under Threethanarayanan Raja of Tanjore, Sugumar now undertakes contracts from hotels and private homes to do life-size Tanjore paintings amongst others. He runs a school of painting at Pollachi but is based in Madurai where he has his workshop. "There has been a revival of this style of painting since the last 3-4 years," explains Sudha Jayaram. "Suddenly they are available in the market", she adds. While agreeing with Jayaram that painting new themes would not go down well with the purists, Vinita Menon feels it would be interesting to increase the repertoire of themes but continue to paint them in the traditional style. Meanwhile Betty Tharakan, herself a well known artist is here to learn this technique "which is so different that unless it is shown to you, you can't learn it."

Every little aspect of Indian art seems to have a reason behind it. Originally the Tanjore painting was commissioned by kings to be placed in the temple shrines where the lighting was poor. It was here that the gold, reds, blues and the pure white would add to the brightness of the painting, making it visible to the devotee. Considering their imminent setting, the themes were purely religious, either from the Ramayana or any other epic. Later they were custom-made for palaces or even homes of the rich noblemen. The technique of this fine art was shrouded in mystery because the artists, mainly from Telegu speaking families (rajus), kept it a secret. But they were forced to relent when patronage from the kings declined and work was hard to find.

Twenty years ago, the government of Tamil Nadu gave this dying art a boost by starting schools where master craftsmen could teach and revive their tradition. In their hey days, the rajus had divided themselves into three groups with one group heading to Vuyaioor, the other to Mysore and the third staying on at Tanjore. The styles that developed are distinct in themselves. While the emphasis at Tanjore was on studded gems and gold leaf, at Vuyaioor it was on decorative garlands and in Mysore, where the artist used no gems, it was on intricate painting. Granted that making a Tanjore painting was more a craft than an art, most students at the workshop said they were willing to give their right arm to possess one.

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