This large size painting from Tanjore, in Karnataka, abounding in unique lustre and great magnificence, represents Saraswati, the goddess of learning, arts and music, playing on ‘vina’, a stringed musical instrument that combines a lyre and a drum. She is seated against a huge majestic bolster on a golden chowki raised over legs designed like peacocks under a tower topped by a flat dome with multiple finials. Incidentally peacock is Saraswati’s mount also, hence its symbolic dimension. The tower’s main dome is flanked by two subordinate cupolas. The total architecture resembles a Gopura in a South Indian temple. The main dome has carved under it a subdued Shrimukha motif, a characteristic feature of imagery in South India. The tower is carried over straight columns gilded with gold and inlaid with precious gems – rubies, emeralds, pearls, diamonds… The tower’s opening consists of shallow arches, the arch-recesses adorned with flowers-like styled decorative textiles. Conceived like a makeshift ‘vedika’ the entire tower-structure has been supported on base-legs.
With the right leg suspending down, and the left, stretched horizontally over the seat, goddess Saraswati is seated in ‘lalitasana’, a sitting posture revealing great aesthetic beauty. Her image has been conceived with a round face, slightly angular towards the chin, large eyes, well-defined nose, small cute lips, broad forehead and curling eye-brows. The goddess is fully absorbed in moving her fingers on her ‘vina’. Though she is putting on her sari in the style of Maharashtriyan ‘langad dhoti’ tightly wrapped on legs, its central part consisting of multiple folds lay stretched like a semi-circle, the sari’s border looking like a rainbow of gold. Richly bejeweled mainly in rubies, emerald, blue and yellow sapphires, diamonds … besides a garland of fresh lotuses, the four armed goddess is carrying in two of her hands the ‘vina’, and in other two, the book and a pen. Though a goddess in Vaishnava line her crown is a bit different from Vaishnava crown of South Indian style.
In Tanjore art tradition the four-armed Saraswati is also identified as Sharada, though while the Puranic vision of Sharada, widely followed in Kashmiri scriptures and visual traditions, is one of a goddess of war Tanjore Sharada is the same as goddess Saraswati except perhaps some variation in the seats they are made to sit on. In adherence to Puranas that prescribe for Saraswati ‘sweta padmasana’ the Tanjore artists conceived her image as lotus-seated revealing divinity and aesthetic beauty. Sharada, the goddess of war, abounded in as much majesty and royalty. The Tanjore artists hence attributed to her a realistic seat often made of gold and inlaid with precious stones. Thus, this form of Saraswati seated on a golden chowki against a huge bolster is the Tanjore artists’ vision of Saraswati in her manifestation as Sharada.
The goddess of battlefield or one of wisdom and intellect, Saraswati is a transform of the Rig-Vedic deity Vak, the goddess manifesting speech. The later Vedic scriptures saw in Vak the tool that defined and named all created things, even the void, and thus fixed each one’s distinct identity and in a way made them known and thus created them. Accordingly, the subsequent Vedic literature – Samhitas and Upanishads, saw in Saraswati the Brahma’s feminine counterpart he effected creation by. The Puranas went to the extent as to see in her Brahma’s consort and this gave rise to anthropomorphism that later characterized her perception. The Rig-Veda and later Vedic literature also tended to personify Saraswati but her anthropomorphic image was by and large the cult of Puranas. The Puranas perceived her not just with an anthropomorphic form but also as the Creator’s spouse assigned to her a definite role and the type of image though such image was not constant and kept changing.
From Initiation she was perceived as lotus-seated and four-armed carrying in one of them a rosary, in other two, lotuses, and in the fourth, a book : 'Asina kamala karairjjapabatim padmadhyam pustakam bivrana'. Saraswati’s four-armed form is constant till now; however both, the attributes she carried in these hands, as well as her seat, kept changing from time to time and also region-wise. Later there evolved in her iconography goose, and subsequently peacock, as her mount, and ‘vina’, as her more characteristic attribute, besides the ‘pustaka’ – book, and ‘japamala’ – rosary. In Tanjore art tradition Saraswati’s proper image was lotus-seated though in her transform as Sharada her seat was a royal throne. Tanjore image of Saraswati invariably carried in two her hands a ‘vina’ she played on, and the book but in the fourth hand rosary was alternated for a decorative pen. Book and rosary were attributes she shared with her spouse Brahma. The Tanjore artists curtailed one of them – rosary, and replaced it with pen, her own attribute as the goddess of learning as well as that of Lord Ganesha she held as affectionately as her son. After Saraswati emerged as the patron deity of arts, dance and music her image began incorporating features like ‘vina’ and peacock highly reputed as a dancing bird.