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Tanjore paintings from Tanjore

unjal_krishnaThree years ago, when my friend Smita went to stay in Tanjore, a small little town in Tamil Nadu, southern India, she was despairing. A journalist married to an officer in the Indian Police Service (her husband was posted to the town, necessitating the move), she knew that work opportunities would be non-existent there. At best, she would be able to travel and experience the history and culture of the south—so different from what we have in northern India.

In Tanjore, she found another calling. Famous for its Brahadishwara temple, dediicated to Lord Shiva, and for its Chola bronzes, antiques and a style of paintings where 24 carat gold leaf is used for ornamentation, Tanjore is surprisingly not a place on the tourist map. A traveler may go to the neighbouring Kerala or Pondicherry or even Chennai—the capital of Tamil Nadu—for the lovely beaches, Ayurvedic massages, backwaters and lovely seafood, but not many would stray into Tanjore. But since Smita had to stay here for a year and more, she found ways to keep herself busy and interested. And one of these was through interactions with the traditional artisans of the temple town.

For thousands of years, the artisans have devoted themselves to a style of art that we now call, simply, as the Tanjore paintings. Traditionally, the subject of these are gods and religious motifs—Hindu deities such as Krishna and Ganesha, the god of auspicious beginnings, Vishnu and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and so forth are depicted in representations from their “lives”. The works are decorated with gold foil, all hand made, and sometimes with semi precious gem stones. Very few artisans are left in Tanjore, surprisingly because the demand for these paintings is so high within India and abroad, but possibly because the style of painting has now got adopted by hundreds of other practitioners not just within Tamil Nadu but in far off parts of India as well. Art galleries in New Delhi, for instance, are known to make a killing, paying paltry sums to local artists to make these paintings and then selling these as “antiques”  for huge sums.

It is easy to dub anything “antique”—give it that finish and pass of these pieces as that. But it is illegal. Antiques in India must be certified and you can’t buy these without government permission. But what Smita does is source the paintings directly from the original artists of Tanjore and their families so that the craft and style are at least authentic—even though the works are new. And she takes care to always keep prices affordable—so that we can all enjoy the beauty of this traditional craft—and benefit the craftsmen.

Check out Smita’s collection of Tanjore Paintings.

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