Tanjore or Thanjavur paintings take their name from their place of origin in Tamil Nadu. These paintings of Hindu deities with ornamentation in gold were traditionally used in worship. This iconic style has been practised for over 400 years. The most typical of these paintings use the gilded and/ or gemset technique(s), and are highly stylised and conventional. These paintings are usually large in size and framed, as they are meant to be hung on the wall. The composition is static and the main deity centrally placed, though some narrative and illustrative subjects are also painted. The deity is placed within a formal space, be it an arch, borders, pillars or other forms of enclosures. The deity is represented in a symbolic stance and may be surrounded by other votaries or devotees. The colours used are generally strong and vivid: deep green, blues, and reds are used in the background while figures are mainly depicted in white, yellow, green, and blue. The colours are applied in a flat brush stroke with variations, the final effect being derived from the use of gold and the setting of the gems. This embellishment gives the paintings an ornamental and rich look.
The term Tanjore painting row refers to a certain style that reached its peak in Thanjavur during Maratha domination in the 17th century. However, this style was also practised in Mysore and Andhra Pradesh contemporaneously. The Maratha rulers were orthodox Hindus and this style of painting and decorating images with jewels and precious stones also encouraged jewellers and goldsmiths. In the earlier examples of this art the gold gliding was restricted to the embellishment of the shrine or the deity and occupied only a small portion of the picture area. These paintings with their gilded and jewelled effects were used in worship or hung in puja (worship) rooms; the appearance in a darkened room lit by a diya (lamp) was that of a glowing presence. The painters of Thanjavur art were and are kshatriyas by caste and carry the name of Raja or Raju. The painters of these icons were guided primarily by their need to fulfil the needs of the community or patron and to work within inherited conventions. Originality was not emphasised upon. An offshoot of the Thanjavur painting was the Tirupati school of painting where the painting was enclosed in a highly embellished and painted wooden enclosure, meant to stand vertically. The structure had folding doors on which relief figures of Vishnu — with smaller renderings of Rama and Krishna — were portrayed, thus creating a portable shrine, which could be transported from one place to another.
The base of each Thanjavur painting was constructed layer upon layer. These paintings are generally rendered on wooden panels with a single sheet of wood from the jackfruit tree being preferred. A sheet of cardboard is pasted on to the wooden panels with a glue made of tamarind paste. Over the cardboard, one or more layers of unbleached cloth are pasted down carefully, ensuring that there are no wrinkles. The cloth is then coated with a combination of gum aratic, French chalk powder, and copper sulphate. After several coats are applied the surface is smoothened by rubbing with a smooth stone or shell. Once this base is prepared the artist is ready to start painting. The first stage is to outline the subject matter and to work out the place where the gold gilding and the gems are to be placed. The area which is to carry gems is coated with a sticky paste called sukkan, made of unboiled finely ground limestone, and mixed with glue. The gems or cut glass as the case may be are then embedded. A further application of sukkan raises the area around the gems so that they are held firmly. Decorations and mouldings to create a raised relief are also created before the actual painting begins. The gold areas are of two kinds — flat and embossed. Traditionally the gold work comprises two distinct varieties. The finer work entails the application of pure gold into very fine sheets, which are pasted on with gum and then rubbed with a smooth stone. The other variety is the embossed style where when the surface of the painting is raised in certain areas and gold-coloured paper is applied on it. This gilding can include the pasting of gems or coloured cut glass. The paper used is handmade rice paper coated with silver leaf. This paper is exposed to saffron smoke, which gives it a golden hue. This gilt paper is less expensive, and is used commonly. Traditionally all the colours are prepared by the painter. Colours of mineral origin are powdered in a mortar and mixed in water to obtain the paste required for painting. The use of plant-based colours supplemented the mineral colours used. Brushes made of squirrel hair are used for delicate work.
The religious deities portrayed in Thanjavur paintings are mainly Vaishnavite ones. The incarnations of Vishnu, Rama, and Krishna are the most common. The range of themes is vast, though the characterisation is almost always iconic. The Nataraja is also common. The composition is always figurative with the background being very limited as the main image and the companies cover the surface. The figures are always robust and the dress courtly. The jewellery is elaborate and detailed carefully. In the early part of 19th century, British influence led to the introduction of portraiture to the repertoire of the artist and paintings of royalty and saints were also executed.
This style of painting had declined owing to the time-consuming nature of the crafting and the prohibitive cost. It has, however, become popular again. Thanjavur paintings now hang in offices and homes, although their original religious purpose has been replaced by an ornamental one.