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Tamil Nadu’s Multimedia Paintings from the 16th Century

By Mar. 7, 2014
A typical Tanjavur painting showing Balakrishna (Young Lord Krishna). A typical Tanjavur painting showing Balakrishna (Young Lord Krishna).

Get ready to read about an amazing art form of Tamil Nadu. Experience a wonderful world of rich, colorful paintings, adorned with golden foil and precious stones.Thanjavur paintings – also known as Tanjore paintings – reflect the heritage of India and are creations of one of the finest art forms in the world. This style of painting originated in the city of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, India. The paintings portray Hindu deities, and they reflect the beliefs of the era when the art was developed.

A classic Thanjavur painting depicts a major Hindu deity, painted in rounded lines with almond-shaped eyes. The image of the deity is bordered by an arch, pillars, or curtains. The gold leaf on the paintings embellishes the artwork, and the precious stones outlining the images are breathtaking.

Thanjavur paintings look divine when hung in prayer halls, they look elegant when displayed at home, and they are a credit to the giver when they are given as gifts.


Thanjavur painting is one of the major art forms of Tamil Nadu. The city of Thanjavur has a tremendous history. The three foremost kings who ruled South India were Chera (ruled the present Kerala state), Chola (ruled the northern area of Tamil Nadu with Thanjavur as its capital) and Pandya (ruled the southern area of Tamil Nadu). It was during the Chola period of the 16th century that the Thanjavur painting style is believed to have developed.

During the Chola dynasty, various forms of art flourished in Tamil Nadu. Many sculptors and painters belonging to the Raju and Naidu communities had immigrated to Thanjavur from Andhra Pradesh, seeking for patronage. These artists were encouraged and patronized by Maratha princes and the Nayakas from the 16th to 18th centuries. Most of the painters were Telugu-speaking people.

The art of Thanjavur painting reached its peak around the 18th century during the Gupta period. As the paintings are the artistic portrayals of religion and spirituality, they are placed in various historical places such as Thanjavur Periya kovil, the largest temple in India, and even in the Maratha’s palace.

Thanjavur paintings can be characterized according to the dynasties when they were created. The murals came into existence during the Chola period,. As the years passed, the Nayakas became rulers and they blended their aesthetic tradition of Vijayanagara art with the Thanjavur style. Lotus KrishnaThanjavur painting was once again revised during the Maratha period with the influence of the Mughal style, and the paintings with stones were primarily found on walls during this period. The art was later developed further by artists patronized by King Serfoji.

Primarily, the artists focused only on Lord Krishna, whose image can be found in most of the paintings. Later, they started painting other deities as well.


Thanjavur paintings are made on a canvas backed by a plank of wood. Historically, the wood of the jack fruit was used. The paintings were also made on materials such as wood, glass, or mica, and sometimes on ivory, frescoes, or manuscripts. Plywood is most commonly used today for a backing. A cloth wider than the plywood is pasted on the wood with Arabic gum. Then the cloth is coated with a paste containing limestone and binding material. The dried canvas is then ready for painting.

Amother beautiful example of Thanjavur painting.

Amother beautiful example of Thanjavur painting.

The artist next draws the subject on the canvas and decorates it with gold leaf and various gems. The early paintings were decorated with real diamonds and precious stones; later, the artists started using semi-precious stones, glass, or artificial stones. The shine of the golden coatings lasts forever.

Finally, colors are applied to the paintings. In earlier days, the artists used vegetable colors. Synthetic paints are being used these days, which have the advantage of enhancing the sharpness of the design. The paintings can be mounted in one of two types of frames – the wooden type made of plain wood or the Chettinad type that has an extra-ornate design.

The color brown is used for outlining the paintings. Red, the distinctive mark of Thanjavur paintings, is generally used as background. Sometimes, the color green color is also used. Lord Vishnu is always represented with blue, whereas the goddesses are denoted with yellow color and Lord Nataraja with chalk white. The traditional Thanjavur artists have a talent for adorning the figures with jewelry and ornate costumes.


Raja Ravivarma is one of the artists who contributed immensely to the Indian art of Thanjavur painting. Born in a small hamlet in Kerala in the mid-19th century, Ravivarma belonged to a family of scholars, poets, and artists. He took an interest in painting from childhood. His uncle, himself a Tanjore artist, not only gave the first drawing lessons to the boy, but also took a keen interest in his further training.

With the help of the ruling king, Ayilyam Thirunal, Ravivarma was sent to Thiruvananthapuram. The king took personal interest in training the upcoming artist and he exposed Ravivarma to Italian paintings. With his talent and devotion to the art, Ravivarma became known as the “God of Art” and remained at the top of his field for decades.


In Tamil Nadu, almost all homes have at least one piece of Thanjavur art inherited from ancestors or purchased from an art gallery.

A modern Thanjavur painting depicting Jesus.

A modern Thanjavur painting depicting Jesus.

The city of Chennai has a number of art galleries. Plan to allow time to stand and gaze at the different paintings. You can get a painting of your favorite deities, such as Krishna, Lakshmi, Saraswathi, and Ganesh. The price of a Thanjavur painting ranges from about 1200 rupees on up, depending upon the size of the picture.

Thanjavur paintings have worldwide popularity. They are renowned for their beauty. There are many companies in India that manufacture and sell the paintings within India and to other countries. Thanjavur paintings may be found in grand hotels, businesses, and private homes.


Some of the institutions offering training on the Thanjavur school of painting are as follows:

Ramana Arts & Crafts, Ekkaduthangal, Chennai.

Shri Thulasi Original Tanjore Paintings, Chennai

Institute for Craft and Art Learning, Royapettah, Chennai

Art Schools with Diploma Art Courses, Ponamallee, Chennai

Chitram School of Tanjore Painting, Mogappair, Chennai

Kumara Rajah Muthiah School of Traditional Arts and Crafts

AKR School Of Art, Bangalore

Sharmila Hobby Classes, Bangalore


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