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That touch of Tanjavur

Few art forms match the beauty and grace of Tanjore paintings.

Somalatha with her associates, Gangadhar and Janardhan

WELL BEFORE modern art found a place in the living rooms of the elite, religious paintings with a royal heritage adorned the walls of homes across the country in general, South India in particular. Thanjavur painting, popularly known as Tanjore painting, is an art form that evolved under the mighty Cholas, especially Raja Raja. The frescos in the Brihadeeshwara Temple at Tanjore in Tamil Nadu are the earliest known attempts at this style of painting. With the fall of the dynasty, the art form was all but forgotten until the 16th Century, when it was revived and flourished under the patronage of the Wadiyars and Marathas.

Tanjore paintings rank among India's greatest traditional art forms. Their themes are fundamentally mythological. "It was by sheer chance that I stumbled upon Tanjore painting," says C.K. Somalatha, artist, social worker, and philanthropist.

Starting her career as a sculptor 30 years ago, Somalatha perfected her skill in wood and stone carving under the guidance of Shilpi Parameshwara Acharya, recipient of several National Awards for Craftsmanship. Once she grasped the nuances of sculpting, the artist involved herself in fundraising activities for the Association of the Physically Disabled in Lingarajapuram.

"Though my sculptures were appreciated, there was a part of me which yearned for something more," reveals Somalatha. That elusive "something more" was fulfilled when she laid her eyes on a Tanjore painting for the first time in 1985. Amazed at the beauty of the art form, she decided right away to pursue the art form, albeit with a difference.

At the outset, she vowed to present the paintings using her creativity and innovation. "My style of painting is derived from Tanjore paintings no doubt, but more importantly, it has a strong base in traditional painting according to the shastras. And yes, my knowledge of sculpture came in very handy."

Subsequently, she worked with leading artists from the Regional Design and Technical Institute (RDTI) in Bangalore who taught her the finer aspects of sketching, the use of colour combinations, and embossing. "I have been constantly encouraged by the artists at RDTI over the years, without which I would not have reached this level," a grateful Somalatha says.

A painting of Lord Nataraja, one of the team's best works.

In 1992, she got her first major break when an exhibition of her work, sponsored by the Indian Tobacco Company (ITC), was held at the Sakshi Art Gallery in the City. It was a hit and the proceeds were donated for social causes. Encouraged by this, she set up the C.K. Somalatha and Associates (Tanjore Painting) at her residence, roping in two artists, Gangadhar and Janardhan. Gangadhar, once a signboard artist, says he has grown tremendously thanks to his association with his mentor. "She has a great eye for detail, always inspiring and encouraging us to deliver our best."

Tanjore paintings are time-consuming, requiring anywhere between five to eight hours of backbreaking work everyday. Some are so exacting and difficult to execute they may take a month or more to complete. "Ultimately what matters is dedication and sincerity in this field," says Janardhan.

The difference in the regular Tanjore paintings and those of Somalatha is that she does not use coloured stones. Instead, gold leaf is beautifully crafted to enhance the details over poster colours. When she started painting, Somalatha realised that the colours were not fungus resistant. This led her team to develop a unique method to treat the poster colours before applying them. Their aim, they say, is to reflect divinity through their work.

Somalatha has a grievance though. "Despite the hard work we put in, there is lack of recognition. There is no one to patronise this art form." Moreover, the public knows very little about these paintings.

Art lovers do come to purchase these paintings, but grumble about their high prices. Says Gangadhar: "The same people will gladly pay a hefty sum for a piece of modern art."

The range of the team's breathtaking craftsmanship is impressive. Paintings of deities like Venkateshwara, Krishna, Ganesha, Lakshmi, Rajarajeshwari, and that of Infant Jesus are but some of them. "The painting of Lord Nataraja has been our best work till date," says Somalatha. She can be contacted on 5483770 or 5483769.


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