Frame of Gold, Gods on Plates, Dolls on Trance….
Tanjore or Thanjavur is old, busy, chaotic and endearing all at the same time. It is like a sudden riot of people, vans, flower vendors and temples thrown right on the face of a new and unsuspecting tourist. But then it starts growing on you. When we journeyed into this city through a beautiful highway, laced with big white windmills, from Nagercoil, we never assumed that we would be so pleasantly surprised and taken by this otherwise nondescript town. Tanjore is an old city. It has history and heritage dating back to thousands of years. One of the primary seats of the Chola dynasty, the city is known for its main temple and Palace and regarded as the birthplace of the highly valued Tanjore handicraft forms. This includes the Tanjore painting style, Tanjore art plates and dolls made of Papier Mache specific to this region. For any handicraft enthusiast like us the city is a heaven of sorts, with it’s teeming local artisan community and a general air of craft awareness within it’s local populace.
We reached in the evening and visited the “Big Temple” as it is locally referred to. The architecture of the stone temple dedicated to Shiva, the God of destruction and a part of the Tri-divinity order of Hinduism, absolutely mesmerized us with its detailing, intricacy, scale and proportions. The next day we started out our art quest in the city early in the morning, with the sun right up our head and then spent one of the busiest days of our journey meeting one fascinating artisan after another.
At first we met Usha Kannan. Usha has learnt the art of Tanjore painting from one of the old masters of the art belonging to one of the four family lines known to be the flag bearer of this painting style. Today, she runs a workshop and a school to teach the form to several others. She took us through the different stages of creating a Tanjore painting. We learnt the processes of cloth fixing to wood, covering the cloth base with a chalk powder paste and then the art of tracing the image on the canvas. She showed us the typical neem based gum which is mixed with chalk powder to create the plastering base for the embossing. Finally, she showed us what made Tanjore painting an absolute marvel – the gold leaf coverings! When she picked a thin gold foil and slowly pressed it down an embossed section of a canvas, for a moment it felt like the painting was lighting up. That is the magic here. The actual gold encrusted paintings have an unparalleled sheen and richness about them and the more we saw them around, the more we fell for the charm of this style.
Our next stop was the extremely affable A Thyagarajan’s home cum work shop. Thyagarajan is the son to the late national award winning artist Shri. D Arunachala Pather and traces his origin from a long line of Tanjore plate artisans. He took us under his able tutelage for a couple of hours and made sure we understood every bit of how the Tanjore Art plate was brought to life.
We saw master dyes and castes being made, front and back embossing being done, actual fixing of designs on the plates and the final polishing. The plates are normally made of brass and have silver and copper designs adorned over them (fixed with wax). The process though age-old is highly efficient and the product though old in origin has a lot of demand for various reasons in the regular consumer as well as the institutional markets. Thyagarajan and his wife Sarala, made sure we felt at home. From force feeding us like parents, to for the first time in this trip gifting us a plate with God Perumal on it, they did things that touched us in more ways than one. The thing that touched us the most however was the blank look and glint of sadness in Thyagarajan’s eyes when he told us proudly that his son is a part of the corporate world and daughter is well settled , but alternated with the slight sadness that none of his children are artisans anymore. He could see the family line taking a turn and somehow like any true artist he was not being to deal with the death of art. To interact with Thyagarajan was indeed a very uplifting experience.
Next we met Shanmugham and Poonkuzhali who have been running a self help group that creates paintings, plates, dolls and several other handicraft items. The meeting though brief was highly informative and also this was the first interaction we had with the Tanjore doll. Made of Papier Mache the dolls were built by loosely attaching individual parts and hence they show human like movements, in a very wobbly way when touched. I found the smiling dolls on an everlasting trance with their heads and waists on an overdrive of twists. Somehow the dolls faintly reminded me of my childhood, they do have a very timeless quality about them…just because of their simple and very basic design and appeal!
Our last stop was Poompuhar, the state government owned craft store. Here we met the manager Mr. Balakrishnan and the in-house head of production for the Tanjore Plate unit Mr. Palanivel. We understood a lot about the trade aspect of the forms by interacting with them. Before we called it a day, we dropped in to the city palace and museum. The museum has fallen to disrepair, the mansion is covered in wild grass and the displayed items often are covered in dust. However like any old and grand place the entire palace area does have a very transforming effect on a visitor. It takes you back thousands of years , to an era gone by. While walking through the narrow lanes and marveling at the stone carvings of ages gone by and the fresco style paintings that adorn the walls, ceilings, and pillars of the mansion there are those brief moment where you feel enchanted, as if history is being played out all around you and you are a part of the time gone by.
We always thought the trip to Tanjore would be very businesslike. We would come, get information, take interviews, exchange cards and be gone. What we did not imagine is that the city and its people would touch us so lightly yet so strongly that leaving would actually be difficult. Tanjore and it’s Gods grow on you. They hold you back, fascinate you and let you go only when you promise to come back. We were more than glad to do that, promise the city that we would be back!