A stickler for tradition in Tanjore painting

Enjoying her art: Radha Prabhu with some of her paintings. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

Enjoying her art: Radha Prabhu with some of her paintings. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao  

Her works speak louder than words, but then Radha Prabhu, a dedicated Tanjore painting artist, does make her point forcefully once she starts speaking.

A recipient of the Lalit Kala Akademi award in 2000, she believes that it is essential to preserve the art form that is steeped in tradition.

A native of Thanjavur, this lady with a gentle smile, much like the ones in her paintings, made a conscious decision to pursue her passion for art than chart out a career. Having graduated in BSc Physics, Radha enrolled in the art classes conducted by her friend's father. With her interest deepening, she learnt to sketch, draw and paint. “After a firm grounding in these, I began doing realistic painting and then started learning Tanjore painting. I spent nearly two years learning the art full time from my guru T.S. Venkataraman,” she acknowledges.

She says that the models for Tanjore painting are the temple wall paintings.

“The art form is dominated by the murals in temples. The features, colour, posture, costume and jewellery are all unique with a distinctive style. In Tanjore painting, the whole body features — including all the fingers and toes — will be visible, sometimes making them unrealistic. But then, that is the traditional art,” she emphasises.

Going into its history, Radha says Tanjore painting flourished during the 17-18 Centuries. “The influence of the Maratha period will be obvious from the round face, plump and short stature and the way the sari is worn, besides the ‘Nathu' and ‘Bulokku' (nose rings).” She says each idol has a colour in this art form and the natural colours are restricted. “For Ambal, the skin tone is whitish yellow, Parvati – green, Vishnu ivory blue, etc.”


There is a lot of surrealism in the painting. “In a portrait, the size of the main deity, such as baby Krishna, is bigger than that of his mother. In the Ramar Pattabishekam scene, Hanuman appears small. The horse, elephant and even the cavalry look very tiny.”

Tanjore painting was mainly intended for worshipping — as an alternative to idols — perhaps to overcome the difficulty in their maintenance, according to the artist. “A picture with iconic features was introduced with a mix of idol features and calendar pictures. These images were decorated with gold, pearls, precious stones and even diamonds. Diamonds, emeralds, rubies etc were used in uncut forms. The size of the pictures too was very big — 24''x20'' or 20'' x16''. The minimum size was 4''x3''. Besides, many characters were featured in a single drawing, such as Siva Kudumbam and Radha Kalyanam. For this, knowledge about the scriptures is essential,” she adds.

“Going by the present trend, there is a kind of dilution in the art form,” says Radha adding that students desirous of pursuing the art should first study the Tanjore paintings, observe a lot and see how it differs from calendar painting. “It is not enough if you learn just the essentials and the techniques.” She feels that short-term classes and camps to teach the art form are harmful in the long run. However, she says that improvisation is good for the art. “The paintings are all static now. We can create scenic pictures as in murals like Peria Puranam, Thiruvilaiyadal Puranam etc. Transfer the subject and convert it to Tanjore painting style.” She does not even agree with the term ‘Thanjavur' painting. “It is ‘Tanjore' painting,” she asserts.

Radha obtained a Fellowship in Tanjore painting from the Depart of Culture, Government of India. At the end of the two-year documentation programme, she submitted a thesis on Tanjore painting, tracing its history till the present scenario.

Several of her works have been bought by individuals, commercial establishments, banks and hospitals. Many hotels in her home town, Thanjavur, display her work. She gets several orders from abroad, including from England, France and Germany. Her other works include acrylic, oil and water colour painting. She does murals directly on the walls such as halls and children's rooms in residences.

Asked about the Lalit Kala Akademi award, she says that it was for her work on Lord Ganesha in 32 forms. “It is a slogan based representation of different forms of the Lord in different colours, dresses and attributes such as Vidya Ganapathy, Vijaya Ganapathy etc. She also does restoration work which includes restoration of a 120-year-old painting in a Mutt near Kumbakonam. She is presently working on a painting on a big scale with the Dasavadaram as the theme. Radha Prabhu resides at T- 3, Block 7, Vijayashanthi Apartments, No: 38, Perumal Koil First Street, Kottur. Phone: 98405 37958

She is a recipient of the Lalit Kala Akademi award.

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