Master of arts

Charukesi Ramadurai | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on June 10, 2016
Tanjore Painting. Photo: Charukesi Ramadurai

Tanjore Painting. Photo: Charukesi Ramadurai

Threadbare: At the home of SN Ravi, whose family moved to Thanjavur from Saurashtra over 300 years ago

Threadbare: At the home of SN Ravi, whose family moved to Thanjavur from Saurashtra over 300 years ago

Thank you for the music: The workshop of third-generation veena makers. Photo: Charukesi Ramadurai

Thank you for the music: The workshop of third-generation veena makers. Photo: Charukesi Ramadurai

Thanjavur holds on to its traditions in music, handloom and painting

The most — and perhaps, only — famous thing about Thanjavur is the Chola king Raja Raja Cholan’s magnum opus, the Brihadeeswara temple, known to locals simply as ‘Periya Kovil’ (Big Temple). No surprise then that I don’t have high expectations when I make my way to the Art Gallery that is part of the royal palace complex. However, it turns out to be an absolute delight; over 300 Chola bronze and stone sculptures from the 9th century on, including an entire section devoted to the reigning deity, Shiva, in the form of Nataraja.

My personal favourite is the one of the Shiva-Parvati marriage, the bride’s hand given away in marriage by her brother Vishnu. The guide draws my attention to the more diminutive statue of Lakshmi by Parvati’s side; the 11th-century sculptor has perfectly captured a sly, satisfied smile on her face that this responsibility is now out of her hands. This apart, every single statue of Parvati in various corners of the gallery is striking — the features sharp, shape sensuous and demeanour confident.

One thing that stayed constant across the myriad dynasties that ruled over Thanjavur is their patronage of the arts and crafts, which made the region a hub of culture. Today, it still nurtures all manner of creative and performing arts, while being a haven for the ones that are floundering.

The most famous of them is the Tanjore painting, which has admirers in India and abroad (with local artists exporting their paintings to Europe and the US). Although the first patron of this school was King Raghunatha Nayak, in the early 17th century, the art form truly came of age under the Maratha ruler, Serfoji II, almost 200 years later.

When I visit their home, Babulal and his wife Narayani are busy at work on their latest rendition of the eight forms of the goddess (Ashtalakshmi) for a hotel client. This project will take over three months, but a typical painting, the kind that would hang in our homes, can be finished in a couple of weeks. However, it is still several hours of painstaking work; layers of powdered limestone and a binding medium like tamarind paste on a white cloth, then sketches with free hand, gems placed at strategic points and finally gold foil over embossed areas to give it that unique Tanjore touch.

It is apparent that they are upset about the profusion of artists in other parts of India who claim to be specialists in Tanjore painting; “They may use the same techniques, but the local families here are the ones doing it for over a hundred years in the original style,” Narayani rues.

My next halt is at the home of the four brothers who are third-generation veena makers. When I enter the small room on the top floor that doubles as workshop, two of them, Sampath and Jagadeesan are polishing bits of wood that have been chiselled for use as the main stem of the instruments. Just two decades ago, every other family on this arterial road was engaged in this profession, but hardly 20 individuals remain today. Jagadeesan attributes it to the rising cost of raw materials and lack of interest among the youngsters, who prefer city jobs.

However, there is a clear sense of pride in the way the brothers talk about their skills. “If you say veena, people think of Thanjavur, so our work is to carry on the music tradition of this city,” says Jagadeesan. Indeed, Thanjavur is the birthplace of the veena in use today, designed by Govinda Dikshitar, the court musician of Raghunatha Nayak.

Later in the day, I watch SN Ravi at his loom, his hands and feet moving with practised ease as he weaves an elegant blue-and-yellow sari. Ravi’s ancestors moved to Thanjavur from Saurashtra over 300 years ago, and became part of the weaving community of this city, called pattunoolkaran (silk thread-makers).

Boasting 40 years of experience in weaving, Ravi says in fluent Tamil, that the blessings of River Cauvery have kept his business afloat. For, problems are aplenty, including reduced demand for hand-woven saris (more expensive than those made with machine looms). A simple sari takes seven to 10 days to weave, and while it may sell for several thousands in the market, only a small fraction of the money reaches the weaver.

The Big Temple celebrated its 1,000th anniversary a few years ago and will certainly go on to see another such. An exploration of Thanjavur today gives rise to the hope that the region’s art forms will thrive in a similarly eternal vein.

Travel log

Getting there

Thanjavur is an ideal long-weekend destination from both Chennai and Bengaluru; take the overnight train or do the easy six-seven-hour drive on excellent roads.


Svatma (www.svatma.in) is a hundred-year-old home converted into a heritage hotel, providing guests with culinary and cultural experiences, including cooking lessons, and visits to the temple, museum and artisan residences.


Don’t leave without a taste of the famous ghee-soaked Ashoka halwa available at all sweet shops.

Charukesi Ramadurai is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer-photographer

Published on June 10, 2016

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