The Tanjore paintings are popularly known as Paladai Padam, which means painting on a wooden plank. The painting tradition developed when the Chola empire was at its zenith. It originated in Thanjavur, a small town about 300 kilometers from Chennai which gave it the name ‘Thanjavur paintings’, now popularly known as Tanjore paintings. The religious paintings of Thanjavur show that spirituality is the essence of all creative work. The art continued to flourish from the 16th to the 18th century under the patronage of successive rulers such as the Nayakas, Marathas, Rajus of Tanjore and Trichi, and Naidus of Madurai.
The themes of Tanjore painting are based on Hindu gods and goddesses. The most famous of the deities is Krishna, who is depicted in various styles and poses. Also prevalent are scenes from the puranas and other religious scriptures.
The characteristic feature of Tanjore paintings is a bright colour scheme, use of precious and semi-precious stone work, and real gold foil work which give a life to the paintings.
The Tanjore paintings focus on one central deity. They have a round and plump face, oval eyes, well-structured body. The main figures are enclosed within curtains, arches or other architectural structures.
Tanjore painting by Artist Sanjay Tandekar
The themes for Tanjore paintings are inspired from the classical dances, literature and other paintings of the region. The patronage of Nayakas encouraged the Hindu religious themes. Under them, the paintings began to be displayed in temples and other places of worship. After the fall of the Vijayanagara empire, the Marathas patronized the art form. The paintings were now done on palaces, buildings and other royal residencies. The paintings reached its peak under the reign of Serfoji Bhonsale II. After the Maratha empire, the Chettiar community continued to patronize the art form. The Chettiar community were Shaivites and there was an increase in the images of Shiva. Later the Britishers also continued to patronize the art form. Their influence can be seen in the depiction of seraphs and miniature angels. All the different patrons influenced the art form in different aspects.
The Tanjore paintings are sometimes confused with the Mysore paintings owing to their same origin. However, the difference between them lies in the relief work and materials used.
The Tanjore paintings are a beautiful amalgamation of art and craft. They can be best defined as ‘Religious paintings with a royal heritage’. Some of the 17th century Tanjore paintings can be found in the Saraswati Mahal Library in Thanjavur, a legacy of Maharaj Serfoji II. Other paintings can also be found at the Government Museum in Chennai and Thanjavur Art Gallery. The Government of India had provided the Geographical Indication tag to the Tanjore paintings in 2007. This provided a better scope for growth and preservation to the art form.