Tanjavur Paintings in Koviloor

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Item Code: NAN054
Author: C. Nachippan
Publisher: Kalakshetra Publications, Chennai
Language: English
Edition: 2004
Pages: 108 (Throughout Color Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 14.5 inch x 9.5 inch
Weight 730 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

The bejeweled paintings known as Tanjavur Painting have been more popular in Tamil Nadu than their birthplace, the land of the Marathas. These craft oriented paintings demand a high degree of precision and generally portray the Hindu pantheon of gods. This style of painting has become very popular in the recent years; nevertheless in most cases they are only copies of the ancient works.

The Koviloor Mutt near Karaikkudi in Sivganga District is the home excellent works of this genre depicting stories of the 63 Nayanars (Saivite Saints) and the 64 miracles of Lord Siva Known as Thiruvilayadal Puranam as also a few pictures of gods and goddesses. These were specially painted for the Mutt over 200 years ago.

The book contains photographic reproductions of the rich, colourful Tanjavur Paintings of Koviloor Mutt.

Culture and religion in South India have been always interconnected. A system of hierarchy customs, functions and festivities gave the society of the time a specific identity. The members of the royal families were the patrons and promoters of art and cultures. Many of them were also scholars and connoisseurs in the various fields or arts. Religious monasteries or ‘mutts’ also played a major role in promoting arts and cultures.

Thanjavur is known as the ‘cradle of culture’ keeping alive the tradition of creativity in music, dance, painting and sculpture besides literature and attracted talents from other regions, which also influenced the local styles and ideals. Being a principality of Vijaynagar, the Nayak influence was strong and later came that of the Marathas, intermingling with the then existing strong Tamil culture. Boasting of a great past historically as the capital of the Cholas and their architectural marvel Brahadeeswarar temple, the Marathas provided a fresh air of thought and influences acting as a channel for ideas and techniques to flow from further north, though they preferred to maintain the political and social conditions as a legacy from the Nayaks. The Vijaynagar culture was quite strong in the South and was a period of creative growth and the Nayak as representatives in Thanjavur made special efforts to preserve Hindu ways and culture.

During the Maratha period a certain style of painting obtained a characteristic form and became known as Thanjavur painting, though similar styles could be found in Andhra Pradesh and Mysore around the same time, This style formed a linkage of different art like painting, sculpture, jewellery and handicraft. Many motifs used as sacred representations of deities became part of the decorative element in this iconic style of painting.

The roots of this art can be traced to Tirupathi, where the temple was the meeting point of devotees from Andhra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, which has later evolved into the variations, of which Thanjavur was one. The deities painted in the gilded and gemset technique became part of sacred icons. This technique was practiced in the southern region, albeit under different regional names, between 1700 and 1900 AD.

These sacred paintings were quite large and were also framed and hung on walls. Somewhat heavy in style due to the distance and height from which the work was seen, in a darkened area, they obtained a glowing presence.

The central figure is represented in a symbolic and his/her most characteristic pose, surrounded by other figures like consorts, relatives etc. such as Krishna and Yasodha, or Krishna with Rukmini and Sathyabhama, Siva and Parvati, Sri Ramapattabhishekam in which Rama is accompanied by Sita, his brothers and Hanuman. The vahanas of the deities are also included in the imageries. On rare instances there can be found narratives with more than one figure. The composition is rather static and the figure/s are placed within a framework like a pavilion with arches, curtains and decorative borders.

There is absolutely no attempt at realism and the figures are drawn in a special rounded style, Which gives them a sense of massiveness, with very clear outlines. The plump figures follow certain iconographic formulae and comprehensive sketch books were handy for the artists. But the artists had the liberty to use their imaginations in secondary figures, which were smaller in size than the main figure. The picture space is often divided into smaller panels at the bottom or on the sides of even all around.

These is a mild sense of relief of these paintings, particularly with the use of gems and heavy gilding. The outlines of the jewellery and other ornamentation have been raised by applying putty, a mixture of natural gum and chalk powder. The colours used also were prepared from natural sources.

These paintings were done on wooden panels and were known in Tamil as “palagai padam”. First a sheet of cardboard was pasted on the panel with a gum made of tamarind seed. One or two layers of cloth were pasted over this and coatings of lime/ chalk powder was applied. The surface then was smoothened by rubbing it with a polished stone or shell. On this surface the drawing was done with brush with all the details. Where gems or gold had to be placed, a paste then known as “sukkan” made from a fine powder of unboiled limestone mixed with glue was applied; then the stones were embedded in it; more of the paste was applied around the stones raising the level. In the spaces in between, designs were drawn with the brush using the “sukkan”; then thin gold leaf was pasted with a stiff glue, allowing the embossings to be seen on the surface. Finally the rest of the areas were painted.

The application of gold an gems was not quite indigenous, but ideas borrowed from Mughal, Rajasthani and Deccani paintings. As expert craftsmen and jewelers the Thanjavur artist were able to refine and perfect the technique.

Though no light and shade effect was given, a little bit of modeling was done with light blue if the figure was in white or a darker tone of the body colour. Strong, bright colours such as red, blue and green were used to set off the figures in white, yellow, green and blue, depending upon with colour was prescribed for which deity. The colours were pure and flat and no mixed tints were attempted. The decorative structure was held together by the use of gold; though earlier it was limited, once the gems began to be set, the gold became over important, the whole painting assuming the character of a huge ornament.

These richly ornamented works became the icons of worship and almost replaced bronze images, whose production came down during that period. Limited in their objective , these paintings stressed sancity rather than artistic achievement and were sacred objects limited to the Pooja rooms.

But Portraits were not unknown, such as those of the rulers and courtesans.

Thanjavur paintings have obtained a lease of life in the recent past; young and old persons take keen interest in learning and practicing the art. Though the basic technique and style are maintained, chemical colours and glues have replaced the natural ones. Also these paintings have come out of the Pooja room to the living room. At least one Thanjavur painting is a must on the walls of the affluent.


Over a hundred year ago during the reign of Sri-la-Sri Veerasekara Gnanadesika Swami of Koviloor Mutt the costruction of the temple of Koviloor was successfully completed along with a temple tank with ‘Myya Mantapam’ (Pavilions in the middle of the tank), special vahanas for deities etc. He was a great architect of Koviloor, who executed many artistic projects to beautify the place. His sense of art and aesthetics pervaded the Mutt and its surroundings. During his time twelve beautiful vahanas were made exquisitely by Sri Sethurama Stapathi’s father of Karaikudi, which were considered masterpieces of that time. As the Swamis of the Mutt worshipped Lord Siva as a great Guru of Gurus, every Mutt of the Koviloor Adheenam is adorned with a beautiful pictures of Lord Nataraja.

Sri-La-Sri Veerasekara Gnanadesika Swami also ordered and acquired beautiful Thanjavur Paintings for the Mutt, which are housed even today in the Pooja room of the Matadipathis. They have been the treasured possessions of the Mutt ever since. Besides the depiction of the 64 stories of the ‘Thiruvilayadal Puranam’, there are also other paintings on Vaishnavite, Kaumara, Ganapathya and Saktha themes, as also a large, elegant Nataraja and one of Dattatreya; a rare depiction of a sanyasi, that is, Sri Narasimha Bharathi of Sringeri Mutt, also can be seen.

Not many get an opportunity to view these admirable creations. This book offers the opportunity to not only view them in the beautiful photographs but even to possess them.

We dedicate this book to Sri La Sri Thiruchi Gnana Desika Mahaswamigal of Kailasa Ashram Mahasamastan..

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