How to Authenticate a Tanjore Painting?

Authenticating a Thanjavur or Tanjore painting is an essential process in determining its value and preserving its cultural significance. With the increasing popularity of this art form, there has also been a rise in the production of counterfeit or imitation paintings. Distinguishing between an original and a replica can be challenging, but it is crucial to recognize the true value of these artworks, which lies in their authenticity and association with the skilled artisans from the specific geographic location. This article aims to delve into the process of authenticating a Tanjore painting and highlight the key elements to consider.


1. Know What's Real

To authenticate a Tanjore painting, it is crucial to verify the materials used. Normally, an authentic Tanjore painting is accompanied by a certificate that confirms the use of genuine gold and stones, as well as accurate identification of the artwork.


How to Authenticate a Tanjore Painting?

Snippet from MeMeraki's Tanjore Masterclass


If a certificate is absent, there is a higher likelihood that the painting could be counterfeit, employing synthetic gold foil or plastic stones. To authenticate the gold used in the artwork, a non-destructive method called Raman spectroscopy has emerged as a valuable technique. Researchers, such as Ramanathan from the Indian Institute of Technology in Varanasi, have employed this method to analyze the gold content without damaging the painting. Raman spectroscopy offers a precise way to determine the authenticity of the gold used in Tanjore paintings.


Snippet from MeMeraki's Tanjore Masterclass


In addition to gold, Tanjore paintings often feature precious and semi-precious stones. Authenticating these gemstones can be done by lightly scuffing them. If the stones remain unscathed, it indicates their authenticity. If unsure about this process, seeking guidance from an expert at a nearby gemstone market would be advisable. It is important to exercise caution and ensure the painting is handled with care during this process to avoid any damage.


2. Key Signifiers Revealed

Understanding the historical context and themes of Thanjavur paintings can serve as a visual guide and aid in authenticating a Tanjore artwork. By asking pointed questions based on this information, you can quickly assess the authenticity of the painting when interacting with a seller. Let's explore this further:

Thanjavur paintings have a rich cultural legacy, influenced by various artistic styles and traditions. The Vijayanagara murals, patronage of the Nayaks, Deccani paintings of Mysore and Tirupati, Maratha court paintings, wooden sculptures, and European art styles have all played a role in shaping the evolution of Thanjavur paintings.

Traditionally executed on canvas pasted on large wooden planks known as 'Palagai Padam,' Thanjavur paintings distinguish themselves from the miniature schools of painting found in northern Indian traditions. The early themes of Thanjavur paintings revolved around Hindu divinities, depicting characters from the Ramayana, Puranas, Bhagavad Gita, and various avatars of Vishnu, Lakshmi, and Krishna. These paintings often featured two-dimensional poses, with round faces, sharp eyes, and sleek figures. The backgrounds showcased elements like mandapams, pillars, arches, and borders, adorned with secondary subjects such as elephants, horses, cows, and lotuses.

During the Maratha rule, the subjects of Thanjavur paintings transformed into courtly portraitures of Maratha rulers. The influence of British colonial rule brought encounters with European art, leading to the incorporation of techniques like shading, lighting, and perspectives of architectural spaces. This resulted in the creation of album paintings.


Picture from MeMeraki's Tanjore Catalogue


Authentic Thanjavur paintings are characterized by distinctive palettes of natural mineral and vegetable dyes, including deep reds, bright greens, and chalk whites. The intricate use of gold foil adds a dazzling appeal to these artworks. The traditional technique involved pasting the canvas cloth on jackfruit wood frames using Arabic gum or tamarind seed. Artists employed chalk powder and gum to add depth, giving the paintings an embossed appearance. A layer of limestone powder called 'Sukkan or Makku' was used as gesso, selectively applied to areas like jewelry, dresses, and arches. This layer served as a base for the application of gold foil and encrustation of precious stones.

By familiarizing yourself with these historical themes and techniques, you can engage the seller with specific inquiries about the painting's subject matter, materials used, and artistic techniques. This approach will help you evaluate the authenticity of the Tanjore artwork and make an informed judgment.


3. The Base

The foundation of a Tanjore painting, known as the muckboard, is an essential component meticulously prepared by skilled Tanjore artists. Handmade with precision, this specialized base guarantees the durability and longevity of the artwork. Let's delve into the process:


  1. Choosing the Foundation: The process begins with selecting an appropriate thickness of MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) board, which serves as the sturdy foundation for the painting.
  2. Reinforcement with Manjer Pat: Layered on top of the MDF board is manjer pat, a cotton cloth that provides an additional level of reinforcement to the base.
  3. Achieving a Smooth Texture: To attain a smooth texture and enhance the painting's longevity, multiple layers of a mixture containing French chalk powder are meticulously applied. These layers not only contribute to the artwork's aesthetic appeal but also act as a protective barrier against insects.
  4. Layering for the Distinctive Effect: The layering process begins, where several layers of gold, silver, paint, and stones are added to create the characteristic three-dimensional effect of an authentic Tanjore painting. This meticulous layering technique is time-consuming and requires a significant amount of material, contributing to the relatively higher cost of the artwork.


How to Authenticate a Tanjore Painting?
Snippet from MeMeraki's Tanjore Masterclass


By examining an artwork closely, one can determine its authenticity. An inauthentic Tanjore painting may lack the intricate detailing and layering that is characteristic of a piece created by a traditional artist skilled in this art form. The absence of such meticulous craftsmanship can be an indication that the artwork is not genuine.

Recognizing the level of detail, intricacy, and layering present in a Tanjore painting can help identify its authenticity, ensuring the appreciation and preservation of this exquisite art form.


4. Seeking Expert Validation

To ensure the authenticity of a Tanjore painting, it is highly recommended to seek the opinion of an expert in South Indian art. Reputable art dealers or appraisers who specialize in this art form can provide invaluable assistance in authenticating Tanjore paintings. Consider the following steps:


  1. Find Established Art Dealers and Appraisers: Look for reputable art dealers or appraisers who have expertise in South Indian art, particularly Tanjore paintings. Their experience and knowledge make them well-equipped to identify the specific design elements, materials, and techniques used in creating original Tanjore paintings.
  2. Obtain a Certificate of Authenticity: These experts can provide a certificate of authenticity, which serves as a testament to the painting's genuineness and traces it back to the original artist. This certificate is a valuable documentation that adds credibility and value to the artwork.
  3. Government Platforms and Private Art Authentication Services: Utilize government platforms like the Ministry of Culture's Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, which offers a list of recognized authenticators and appraisers. Additionally, conducting a Google search can lead you to various private art authentication services available in India. Ensure that the chosen service has a solid reputation and expertise in Tanjore paintings.
  4. Seek Second Opinions: Given that a Tanjore painting's value is also influenced by the materials used, obtaining a second opinion can provide further assurance that you are acquiring an authentic artwork. Consulting multiple experts can help validate the authenticity of the painting and provide peace of mind.


How to Authenticate a Tanjore Painting?
Master Artist Sanjay Tandekar from MeMeraki's Tanjore Masterclass


By relying on the expertise of knowledgeable professionals and obtaining a certificate of authenticity, you can authenticate a Tanjore painting with confidence. Remember to prioritize reputable sources and seek multiple opinions to ensure the credibility and value of your acquisition.



Leave a comment