The Evolution of Thanjavur Paintings: Unraveling the Influences that Shaped Them

At the heart of Thanjavur paintings lies the concept of syncretism in art, the blending of different artistic styles, techniques, and traditions to create something new and unique. In modern-day, Thanjavur paintings, locally known as palagai padam (pictures on wooden planks), are globally recognized for their innovative style, vibrant colours, iconic compositions, and rich embellishments. Typically, these paintings depict deities from various religious iconography and mythology, with their hallmark being the embossed surfaces adorned with glittering gold foil, glass beads, and semi-precious gems and stones. But only a few people know that this distinctive painting style reached its pinnacle in Thanjavur through a fascinating interplay of influences from various dynasties, travellers, trade, and even wars. Over time, Thanjavur paintings, which trace their roots to the Chola empire, absorbed these diverse artistic techniques and cultural forms. With the creativity and innovations of artisans, this enduring painting tradition evolved into the modern syncretic idiom that we know and love today. 

The diversity of the historical influences in Thanjavur inevitably produced heterogeneous art and expression. Thus, Thanjavur art became a meeting ground for different cultural strands. It is important to note that the artists did not consciously or deliberately unite these strands. Instead these aspects were practiced in nearby regions and became useful in creating the art. Here are some key styles and techniques that found their way into the contemporary Thanjavur paintings:


1. Vijayanagara Murals 


Mural inside Virabhadra temple


During the golden age of the Vijayanagara empire (1336 A.D to 1646 A.D) flourishing in present-day Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, the Vijayanagara rulers were patrons of art and culture. Their patronage also extended to the pilgrim town of Thanjavur, where the Vijayanagara murals adorned the temples, palaces, doors, and walls of homes. The interior walls of the courts were a series of images portraying various events like a coronation, battle victories, and other achievements of the rulers. But the walls of temples and homes decorated with murals and paintings displayed themes and icons of Hindu deities. The remnants of these ancient wall paintings can still be observed on the walls of several temples, including the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi - the capital city of the Vijayanagara Empire, Varadaraja Temple, Kamakshi Temple in Kanchipuram, and the Lepakshi Temple in Andhra Pradesh. 

In the reign of Vijayanagara Rayas, the Nayaka governors administered the Thanjavur kingdom. The political boundaries between states were fluid due to the incessant warfare between Vijayanagara and the rising Deccani Sultanate. After the collapse of the Vijayanagara Empire, artisans, musicians, and philosophers migrated to Thanjavur and Madurai, seeking patronage under the Nayaka rulers. Raghunatha Nayaka established the school for Thanjavur art that evolved into the present-day painting style under Marathas. The Nayaka wall paintings influenced by Vijayanagara murals were one of the early schools of Thanjavur art that can still be found in the gopuram of the Brihadishvara Temple’s Periya Kovil in Thanjavur.

Moreover, art historian Jaya Appasamy in her book Thanjavur Painting of the Maratha Period, points out the similarities between the panel pattern compositions of Vijayanagara murals and Thanjavur paintings. The ceiling of the Virupaksha temple in Hampi is divided into distinct panels that feature Hindu icons enclosed in arched spaces, almost like a miniature Thanjavur painting. A broad border below the panel is also filled with smaller architectural units with subsidiary figures of musicians and dancers. A similar structure with subsidiary figures is also usual in the Thanjavur painting. While the Vijayanagara style was also formed of various elements of Chola and Chalukyan murals, their treatment of arranging figures all in one plane in a pattern composition, also found in Thanjavur art, is unique to the Deccani paintings, owing to the Islamic neighbours of the Vijayanagara empire. This is because painters travelled from court to court, imitating and learning from each other.’


2. Tirupati School of Paintings


Tirupati painting of Lord Venkateshwarar in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Tirupati paintings, produced in the sacred temple town, are also predecessors to the Iconic Thanjavur style. The religious site was a meeting point for Andhra, Kannada, and Tamil devotees, and its evolution of icons in religious paintings shares common characteristics with Thanjavur art. Descendant of Vijayanagara paintings, this school also used different media and techniques. The gilded terracotta relief slabs of the deity, framed and packaged in wooden boxes, were distributed as holy souvenirs to the pilgrim. The main deity, decked in gold with gem sets, possesses the mannerisms of Thanjavur paintings. 


3. The Gilded Deccani Paintings 


Carvan Serai Scene - Deccani miniature Painting from 20th Century


Though on the surface, Deccani paintings may look distinct from Thanjavur Paintings. But the static formal compositions, the Sultanate’s love for surface texture in art, the symbolic rather than realistic architectural backgrounds, and the painting’s embellishments of gold decorations are features that were not remarked in earlier South Indian paintings. There is a fondness for textural patterns that covers the ground in Deccani art, while the flat architecture in the background contrasts the symmetrical composition in the foreground. The gold work embossed with raised designs in architecture and costumes of the subjects is reminiscent of Thanjavur artwork and Rajasthani and Mughal paintings. The formal pattern composition and flat architecture are examples of Ahmednagar and Bijapur art. 

Many of these pictures also have borders, and the flat areas of floors or walls are filled with arabesques or designs. The genre of court painting and portraiture in Deccani Islamic states also influenced the forms in Thanjavur’s paintings. Traditionally, figures have primarily been small in South Indian art styles. With portraiture, figures occupied the entire page, eliminating the environment to show the static arrangement of the subjects. The pictorial interests of the subject in the center, as seated or standing in interior spaces, would also become a theme in Thanjavur portraiture. But the connection between Deccani’s courtly paintings and the iconic paintings of Thanjavur is very apparent. 

Further, embossing gold and gems as a technical innovation became a typical depiction of pearls and necklaces in northern Mughal and Deccani states. When this reached the South, the artisans who were experts in gem-setting and gliding also incorporated this in the grand iconic styles of their artworks. These paintings accentuated with decorative elements became more admired for their age as gold prolonged the life of these works rather than the art. 


4. Various Folk Arts


Folk Art at the Aadi Mahotsav 2021 at Delhi


The animism to icon painting characterizes the connections to folk art. Specific characteristics of Thanjavur paintings, like the plump figures, enlarged principal subjects, large heads (noticeable in Krishna icons), and large eyes that make the images lively, share qualities with the earthy animism of folk arts. The folk love of decoration in the repetition of lines, dots, and tassels can also be seen in the stylized patterns of Thanjavur art backgrounds. 

5. Maratha Court Portraitures


Shuja-ud-Daula, Nawab of Awadh


In 1676, Ekoji, the half-brother of Chatrapati Shivaji, captured Thanjavur from the Nayaks on behalf of Adil Shah of Bijapur and established Maratha rule in the region. During the reign of Serfoji II in Thanjavur, the Thanjavur painting style flourished into its current form. The Maratha culture in Thanjavur can be described as a satellite culture, as claimed by Jaya Appasamy. While the culture was distant from the place of origin and geography, the Marathas functioned as a bridge between ideas and techniques from farther north flowing southwards.

As noted above, portrait painting became the rising genre all over India, especially in the courts of rulers. The royal Maratha artisans induced innovation in traditional Thanjavur artworks by introducing portraiture and ornamentation using gesso work, gemstones and gold foil. They also introduced the reverse glass painting technique brought in by the Chinese influences.

The royal Maratha artisans induced innovation into the traditional Tanjore Painting style to make it more royal and astonishing. They introduced ornamentation of Tanjore Paintings using gesso work, glass beads, precious and semi-precious gems, and gold foil to bring out the glow. Maratha artisans also introduced the reverse glass painting technique into the Tanjore Painting style. Serfoji II’s reign was when Tanjore Painting and other art forms underwent innovation and greatly flourished.

Unlike Maratha’s portraiture, the figures and colours in Thanjavur Maratha’s portraits were vivid and robust. The subject towering on one plane and the environment, which was only suggested, depicted an interior space. Later pictures showed significant attention to the environment, an influence by European academic portraiture. 

Even in Early Modern Deccan, many traditional Indian artists were patronized by the Portuguese. Gradually, other Europeans commissioned local artisans to paint the so-called company style. The Company School of paintings has no distinctive character or technique. Still, it refers to the extensive collection of artworks created by Indian artists in an Indo-European style that appealed to the orientalist gaze of Europeans.


6. British Company Paintings 


Eight Gurkha men depicted in a British Indian painting, 1815


After the fall of the Maratha rule, the British East India Company patronized Thanjavur paintings. The introduction of light and perspective and interest in character to this art style arrived with the British. The British were avid collectors of souvenirs and mementoes of India, a hobby common in colonialist Europe and thus, Indian artists made souvenirs, attempting to adapt to their tastes.

During the 19th century, artists based in and around Thanjavur produced a standard set of album paintings, consisting of a collection of “native” or “Indian” subjects of interest that catered to English sensibilities and tastes. The subjects typically featured gods and goddesses, episodes from Hindu mythology, fairs, ceremonies, processions, festivals, castes and their occupations and attire, as well as Indian flora and fauna. The same Thanjavur artists executed the paintings in a style suited to Western tastes. They were typically created on European paper without gesso work or gold foil and without any glass or gem inlay. Additionally, the paintings would often feature a brief description that supported the colonialist gaze of the subjects in English. Some pictures were also created on cloth backed by wooden panels for English patrons.

While these paintings commissioned by the British fall under the Company style, they still embody the spirit of Tanjore. Created by the same group of traditional artists from Thanjavur and the surrounding Tamil region, these paintings feature distinct styles and characterizations that set them apart from the Company paintings of Calcutta or Lucknow.

These Thanjavur paintings were so captivating that they enlivened many English tea parties! Today, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum house an expansive collection of these artworks.


In the end, the unique blend of social, religious, and historical influences not only gave birth to Thanjavur paintings, but also paved the way for their enduring legacy. Today, this compelling art form stands as a testament to the power of syncretism, seamlessly blending new ideas with traditional Indian art to create a living legacy of an artistic evolution .



Leave a comment