Striking gold with an ancient art

L Ramanujam has been making Thanjavur paintings since 1962. Photo: M. Srinath/THE HINDU  

Several aspiring artists are seated with their drawing boards on their laps in Sri Ranga Tanjore Art Gallery on Amma Mandapam Road in Srirangam, in an atmosphere redolent of a temple, elevated by the heady fragrance of lighted joss sticks.

Paintings are stacked up, in various stages of completion, while the fingerboard of a veena delicately inlaid with gold leaf is hung up near the door, yet to be united with its resonator.

The ceiling, decorated with coloured glass and mirrors, reflects the artistry below in fragments.

In all the panel paintings, the main figure, often of a Hindu male or female deity, is placed in the centre, framed in by architectural elements like a temple hall or stylised arch. White, green and red predominate, whether in paints or pre-cut stones and glass beads, and elaborate gesso work is covered with gold foil.

Art lovers know this style as Thanjavur painting. An ornate technique that traces its history to the Maratha dynasty which ruled Thanjavur from 1676 to 1855, it is a melange of drawing styles from Mysore, East India Company and folk arts.

Overseeing it all is 73-year-old L Ramanujam, an acclaimed practitioner and certified teacher of Thanjavur painting, and recipient of the Living Legend prize awarded by the Tamil Nadu government in 2014.

In its modern avatar, Thanjavur painting, which has its own Geographical Indication tag, has become a means of economic empowerment in Tamil Nadu. With panels priced between ₹1000 and upwards depending on their intricacy, artists stand to earn a decent living from Thanjavur painting.

Ramanujam reckons that more than 2000 students from the State and abroad may have graduated from his 50-class courses. “I always aim to make my students financially independent with this craft. So far, around 30% of those who have studied under me have become professional Thanjavur painting artists,” he says.

Historic links

Even though it was born in Thanjavur, the art form has flourished in the temple town of Srirangam. “Long ago, artists used to walk all the way from Thanjavur to Srirangam, to display and sell their work near Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple here,” says Ramanujam. “A studio known as AC Sudarshanam and Sons, known for its daylight photography, used to frame and market these paintings as well. Gradually, a small colony of Thanjavur painting artists came up in Sathara Street near the temple.”

The maestro learned Thanjavur painting and photography from A C Jayaram, one of the descendants of the family that ran the studio, in 1962, as an adolescent. “I set up my first shop with an investment of ₹100. Since then, I have always been self-employed,” he says.

Women in focus

Ramanujam began his certificate art course under the auspices of the District Industries Centre in 1980 in Srirangam, with a focus on training women. “There is an inherent beauty and skill in the way women do things, whether it is combing their hair or applying kolam or cutting vegetables, which makes them ideal candidates to learn Thanjavur painting,” says Ramanujam. “And since it can be easily fitted into the daily routine of a homemaker, this skill can help women of all ages to become financially independent as well.”

As we speak, a mother-daughter duo waits patiently for Ramanujam’s attention. They have brought a platter with fruits and betel leaves to be gifted to him, when the young woman begins her first lesson. “These are auspicious drawings, so people are particular about selecting days and times for starting classes and also collecting the finished artwork,” he explains. Besides briefing students on the Hindu scriptural and literary links behind the illustrations, Ramanujam also teaches students how to make Thanjavur paintings on Christian and Islamic themes.

A class in progress at the Sri Ranga Art Gallery in Srirangam. Photo: M. Srinath/THE HINDU

A class in progress at the Sri Ranga Art Gallery in Srirangam. Photo: M. Srinath/THE HINDU  

March of technology

These paintings, once meant solely for worship, and now considered valuable objects of art, are said to last for generations if preserved and displayed in the right conditions. But changes brought about technology are apparent in this handicraft as well.

Jackfruit and teak wood have been replaced by waterproof plywood. Ramanujam however prefers to retain the old method of sticking coarse cotton to the board with tamarind seed paste. Made by soaking tamarind seeds that are then ground and boiled down to a thick consistency, the paste is used in place of industrial fixatives.

Course details
  • Students start by learning how to prepare the drawing board (usually measuring 24 inches by 18 inches).
  • After cotton cloth is pasted on to the board with the help of tamarind seed paste, two or three coats of chalk powder mixed with Gum Arabic are applied to it and sanded down to get a smooth white working area.
  • “The first step is to trace out the figure on to the board. Then we set the stones, add decorative touches, cover that with gold foil, and finally, paint in the figures with fine-tip brushes,” says Ramanujam.
  • To create a three-dimensional effect, some parts of the painting are raised with the help of several layers of a thick mixture of chalk powder and adhesive and then embellished.

“The kernel of the tamarind seed, when soaked, acts as an adhesive. The husk helps to create a protective layer for the cloth and wood,” says the painter.

Modern machine-made brushes have taken over from the ethnic versions that had tiny bunches of squirrel fur threaded through the bony ends of pigeon and eagle feathers secured with bamboo flints. “Artists have also painted with Thazhampoo (screw pine flower) and the edges of bamboo fans,” he recounts.

Natural dyes and lamp-black (an oily pigment made from soot), have now been substituted by chemical paints.

And as we see a student trace out a drawing of the goddess Siruvachur Madurakaliamman that has been enlarged with the help of a computer, Ramanujam says that he has kept the technology to a minimum. “Drawing manually helps the hands and imagination to work in tandem, which is missing when one uses a photo-editing software,” he says. When asked about the ornate veena in his gallery, Ramanjuam reveals that he is hoping to dedicate it to Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple soon. “The Lord awakes and sleeps to the sound of the veena, and I felt this would be an ideal gift to Him,” he says.

Having trained his daughter Lavanya in Thanjavur painting, Ramanujam feels proud to have helped many women find a new purpose in life with the ancient art. “Many students gift me clothes when they graduate from my course. For the past 50-60 years, all the garments I have worn are from my pupils.”

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 2:09:51 AM |

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