WORKSHOP Chithannavasal painting, with its secular outlook, fascinates a group of artists and art enthusiasts
Indian traditional art is perceived to be focused on either gods and goddesses or kings and queens. But a recent study tracing the visual approach of the paintings in Chithannavasal and nearby areas such as Kudimiyan Malai and Naarthamalai found that Indian art is more about nature and its grandeur.
A team of professional artists and art enthusiasts led by G. Chandrasekaran, former principal, Chennai College of Fine Arts, conducted the study to get a clear understanding of the country’s art tradition. South Zone Cultural Centre, Thanjavur and Guruchandra Trust organised the programme.
Chithannavasal is a Jain monument near Pudukottai with rock-cut beds and a cave temple on the top. It has brilliant fresco paintings.
“Portrayal of a lotus pond at Chithannavasal is one of the oldest paintings in the State with a secular outlook,” says Chandrasekaran. “Similar themes are found in Ajantha and Ellora paintings. But there these themes are used to fill the corners. Here, they occupy the main space. Similar structures are also seen as bas-relief sculptures at the Thirukkurungudi in Nanguneri near Tirunelveli and at Idakkal in Ambassamudram.”
The purpose of the workshop was to study the paintings and understand the concept behind the motifs. “Reviving old concepts and adapting the techniques in our works of art are also part of our study,” he says. “The State’s two premier fine arts institutes, Chennai and Kumbakonam, follow European method of studies, which lay more significance on models for figurative paintings. But for us, aesthetics of nature is important than the person,” he explains.
A stone inscription at the Chithannavasal reads that the lotus pond painting was renovated around the 8th century during the early Pandiya period. “Through this portrayal, the painter is trying to communicate something to the world,” he says. “The gentle depiction of a person plucking a flower from the pond is ample proof of the painter’s approach to his work. The hand movements and the posture resemble a classical dancer,” he says.
Paintings are broadly dated as prehistoric, historic and modern. The perception that art reflects only religion had changed with the entry of modern painters.
Though religious bodies patronised art and helped artists to flourish, religion in itself is not the whole of art. Art is more than that. “We chose Chithannavasal to emphasise this fact, as we wanted a secular landscape to conduct our study,” says Chandrasekaran.
Chandrasekaran considers the depictions in Indian art to be "emotional outbursts of the inner feeling". As non-figurative, abstract motifs became prominent, that expression of feeling remained.
“As a teacher I have read about paintings on text, but only now I understand how the painter creates an art and its social implications,” says T. Muthulakshmi, Assistant Professor, M.D.T. Hindu College, Tirunelveli.
The team was also involved in studying the environment and recorded the presence of rare medicinal herbs in the area. “An art work is a statement,” says Chandrasekaran. “It declares your relation with your society. This workshop is also an exercise to spot some rare plant species in this place.”
“What I have learnt after this workshop is that you cannot dismiss even a blade of grass,” says K. Balashanmugam, a fashion illustrator from Coimbatore. “I have understood that there is a movement in every living thing. It is so attractive. From seed to plant and to bud and then to flower, there is a cycle. As artists we try to see the beauty in it.”