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Richness in each frame

At work: Finishes touches to a Tanjavur painting. Photo: R.M. Rajarathinam

At work: Finishes touches to a Tanjavur painting. Photo: R.M. Rajarathinam   | Photo Credit: R_M_RAJARATHINAM

The traditional and ornate art of Thanjavur painting brings to you the talent and aesthetics of the artist.

In many homes in India, you might have seen pictures based on religious themes, covered in gold, and stones. These are called Thanjavur paintings. It is figured that these paintings originated in the middle of the 18 Century and were crafted up to the middle of the 19 Century. They were painted on wood, glass, mica, ivory and even on walls. The artists were Vaishnavites, (worshippers of Vishnu) so they painted images of Rama, Krishna, Lakshmi, Narasimha and so on. The Shaivites, worshippers of Shiva, introduced Ganesha, Nataraja, Muruga, Parvati and other deities. Historians credit the art of this ornate form of Thanjavur painting to Serfoji Maharaja of Thanjavur.

Complexity at its best

A Thanjavur painting is generally made on a canvas pasted over a thin plank of seasoned wood with Arabic gum. The canvas is then evenly coated with a paste of French chalk ( gopi) or powdered limestone and a binding medium and dried. The surface has to be perfectly smooth for further work. Tamarind paste is also used as an adhesive.

The artist then draws the outline on the prepared surface. Originally tamarind twigs were used to draw the outlines, by charring the ends. Today of course, modern drawing tools are available. Even ready stencils are available to make the work easier. Prepared bases, including pasted canvases with the drawing, reduce the work.

Only vegetable dyes, made from flowers, leaves, barks of trees were used. But since they are difficult to prepare, chemical dyes have replaced them. The colours were filled by using brushes made of squirrel’s hair!

A paste, made of limestone powder and a binding medium called  sukkan or  makku, is used for creating the Gesso work which means certain areas are padded to give a two dimensional effect. Gold leaf foil is also used and gems of varied hues were inlaid in selected areas like pillars, arches, thrones, dresses and so on. Finally, colours are applied on the sketch.

Stones are set in the jewellery worn by the deities, and even these were semi precious stones — rarely used today. Since so much of detailing goes into the making of a Thanjavur painting, it is priced high.

Sometimes you see the main deity being larger than the other figures in the painting. It is because the main deity is more important as in the paintings of Krishna which are popular. The courtiers are diminished in size as they are just accompanying the Lord.

The paintings disappeared for a time because of the rising costs, but later saw a great revival, and there are the descendants of the original artists who live in Thanjavur, Srirangam and Kumbakonam who carry on this traditional art.

Workshops and classes based on this art are advertised often, and it is worthwhile to learn this to incorporate this technique even in modern paintings.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 7:09:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/kids/richness-in-each-frame/article6744874.ece

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