Themes and Motifs of Thanjavur Art

Nestled amidst the lush Kaveri delta in the southern Indian peninsula rests the majestic ancient city of Thanjavur. Affectionately called “South India’s Cradle of Arts”, Thanjavur is a microcosm of the complexities and grandeur of Southern Indian arts and cultural traditions. 

At the heart of this cradle lies Thanjavur paintings, or palagai padam in Tamil (paintings done on wooden planks). Distinguished by their religious themes, embedded precious stonework, and glittering gold embellishments, this art form traces its ancestry to various historical influences, starting from the 1600s. This is because the region’s agricultural significance as the ‘Rice Bowl of Tamil Nadu drove many empires, from the Cholas to Vijayanagaras to the Deccani Sultanate and Marathas and finally, European powers to conquer the land. As a socio-political hub, the temple played a fundamental role in patronising music, dance, and art under many of these empires. In this scenario, Thanjavur paintings served as intermediaries between people and their gods. This is why the hallmark of this art is the representation of a single deity. 

The traditional Thanjavur paintings we know and admire today developed under the former Viyanagara governors, the Nayakas, when painters of the dissolved Vijayanagara Empire migrated to Thanjavur. Under the patronage of Thanjavur Nayaka rulers, the artworks illustrated Hindu iconography in static two-dimensional poses with oval faces, sharp round eyes, and sleek figures. The mandapams, pillars, drapes, arches, and other architectural elements enclosed the central deities. Sometimes the background also showcased secondary subjects like elephants, horses, cows, and lotuses

Vaishnavism (Vishnu worship), Shaivism (Shiva worship), Shaktism (worship of Shakti, the feminine energy), poems of saints and sages, and Hindu philosophies were all sources of inspiration in Thanjavur art. In the iconic genre of Thanjavur paintings, Lord Krishna, Vishnu, Ram, and Durga were revered primary themes. From the playful Balgopal (little Krishna) to the divine love of Radha-Krishna to the grand Ramapattabhisheka (Lord Rama’s coronation), the mythological tales of these deities come alive with the captivating depiction of jewellery, drapery, and clothes using gesso work. Gesso work is an extraordinary feature of this painting style. Gesso, a white paste made of chalk powder and gum, adds depth to artwork by creating a raised surface for sparkling gold leaf overlays, further enhancing the subjects’ divine aura.


(Image Courtesy: Three Dimensions of Divinity: Thanjavur Art Revealed, 2022 exhibition of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya [CSMVS])


The popularity of religious subjects from the epics in South India was mainly due to the Kathakalashepa tradition of storytelling. However, the Ramayana outshone the Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita in Thanjavur art themes. This resulted from the strong association of South Indian kings with Rama through the idea of divine kingship. During the Nayaka era, popularising the symbolism of the divine kingship of Rama allowed the Nayaka rulers, the former Vijayanagara governors who lacked ‘pure royal blood’, to establish their authority and win over public support. The above image of Ramapattabhisheka is a regal tableau of Rama and Sita on the throne surrounded by sages, nobles, and kings, with the loyal Hanuman humbly supporting Rama’s right foot in both his hands.

Further, the Bhakti movement peaked during the Early Modern era, and themes of poet-saints like Alwars (Vaishnavite saints) and Nayanamars (Shaivite saints) found their way into the glittering gold and vivid hues of Thanjavur paintings. The portrait paintings of Sikh saints also became a popular subject. With strokes inspired by musical notes, Thanjavur illustrations bring sacred themes to life, as artists drew from the pool of inspiration found in the kritis and bhajans of renowned musicians and saints.

Kuldeep Singh, Delhi-based architect and the owner of a collection of Thanjavur and Mysore Paintings, divides the genre of Thanjavur paintings into two streams, ‘puranic’ and ‘iconic’. According to him, “the puranic paintings are a counterpart to the superbly sculpted mythological stories depicted on the inner walls of temples, and the iconic paintings relate to the deity presiding in the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) of the temple.” He also remarks how in the later part of the 18th century, as Thanjavur paintings began to be customised under the Maratha rule, there was a popular demand for specific themes like Krishna and the Rama Pattabhisheka. He claims that “the artists would make several copies of each of these popular subjects, take them to the melas around the temples, where they would be sold to the visiting worshippers.” These iconic paintings raise a question about the nature of icons, used initially as worship symbols but later became representations of the deities themselves. In such iconology, intangible spiritual ideas take on a sensuous form, creating art dedicated to meaning and contemplation rather than personal expression. These paintings followed a ritualistic religious tradition and held powerful significance for people.  

The increased production led to enhanced public patronage, and as paintings became deities themselves, they became an integral part of pooja rooms. Since pooja rooms usually are dark and lit only by diyas, lamps, or traditional Kuthuvilakku (oil wick lamp), the glow of glittering gold paintings projected an aura of sanctity and divine light on the temple walls. The technical innovation of embossing gold and gems to depict pearls and necklaces was a hallmark of northern Mughal and Deccani states, eventually reaching the South through the Deccani Sultanate and Maratha rule of the Bhosle dynasty. It was incorporated into grand iconic styles by expert artisans in gem-setting and gilding called Vishwakarma from the Raja, Raju, and Naidu communities.  

During the 16th and 17th centuries, older Thanjavur paintings were characterised by excellent relief work but minimal gold embossing. These artworks boasted a colour palette of earth tones such as sikappu kavi (red oxide), manjal kavi (yellow oxide), villakkumai and kamai (lamp black and charcoal), pachai (terra verte) and mayilrahu neelam (lapis lazuli) with stylised modelling effects through contour shading. The Maratha period introduced precious stones, bejewelled glasses, and mirrors as part of the ornamentation, leading to a transformation into more ornate works against darker colours. Under the patronage of the Maratha Bhosle dynasty, Thanjavur paintings shifted towards portraiture inspired by European and Deccani styles, depicting kings, their daily lives, and court scenes.

While the traditional motifs are integral in the art form, they have also been influenced by various cultural and technical innovations. The conventional motifs include gilded temple arches with flowers, the ‘yali’, and the customary golden ‘kaasu malai’ (a chain of tiny gold coins). Yalis have been integral to this school of paintings since the 16h century. Yali is a composite animal, a mythical creature who protects the temple. The creature has a graceful catlike figure with a lion head, an elephant’s tusks, and a serpent’s tail. A circular motif with stones is seen chiefly in paintings of Ganesha. Durga paintings have more floral motifs. The Nayaka patronage introduced larger, centrally positioned figures adorned in heavy jewellery and standing under pavilions (influence of Deccani paintings). Stylised hands and round faces remained vital characteristics of this art form.

With the introduction of portraiture forms by Marathas, the Thanjavur art style took an interesting turn, incorporating new mediums like ivory and Chinese reverse glass paintings. The European influences brought attention to lighting, perspective, and secondary characters in the background. This resulted in the depiction of rulers, noblemen, and courtiers in formal settings, with curtain backdrops, tables, and chairs becoming the subject matter of Thanjavur art in the late 17th and 18th centuries. But these mediums and styles did not completely break away from traditional themes and iconography.


This says so much about the enduring traditional art of Thanjavur paintings and their ability to evolve with new forms and mediums while still retaining the essence of their themes and motifs. Through their intricate craftsmanship, each Thanjavur painting conveys a unique story and preserves the breathing legacy of South India’s Cradle of Arts.



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