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Fading colours

Print edition : Apr 08, 2011 T+T-

Pallava period: Parvathi mural at Panamalai, near Vellore.-PICTURES BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A book on paintings in Tamil Nadu demystifies the subject of temple architecture and art history.

SCULPTURES, both metal and stone, and architectural features have withstood centuries of exposure to the elements and have come down to us as heritage from a remarkable period of artistic achievement in Tamil Nadu, but most of the paintings, highly vulnerable to the ravages of time, have totally been lost. Dressed rock surfaces came to be used as support' for paintings only from the Pallava times, and the earlier works done in natural caverns and on brick mortar walls and fabrics have not weathered the centuries. Some fragments of murals of the medieval period survive precariously in rock-cut caves and temples.

The fact that monuments of the medieval period in Tamil Nadu are predominantly of granite has, unfortunately, resulted in the projection of a lopsided view of the artistic tradition of that period, a view that conjures up an image of a society full of sculptures and temples. While works of granite, both sculptures and buildings, have withstood the elements, paintings, though much more prevalent, have been lost. In fact, much of the sculptural features now seen in temples were once painted. In the 7th century, a treatise on painting, Dakshinachithra, was written, indicating the height to which this art had evolved.

For I. Job Thomas, art historian and Director of the South Asian Studies programme at Davidson College, South Carolina, the paintings of Tamil Nadu have been a passion ever since he started his career in the Madras museum. After taking his doctorate on Vijayanagar murals under the guidance of the legendary Walter Spink in the University of Michigan, Job Thomas kept up his study of paintings in the temples of Tamil Nadu during his annual visits to the State. He brings to bear all this scholarship in his recent book Paintings in Tamil Nadu. His earlier work, Tiruvenkadu Bronzes (1985, Cre-A, Chennai), reappraised some established views on the art of South Indian bronzes.

Relying on jargon minimally, Job Thomas demystifies the subject of temple architecture and art history by explaining the concepts and features in reader-friendly language. With great ease he brings art history to the non-specialist. The book is documented meticulously. In some of the end notes, he traces the history of a subject or explains with an example a point he has made in the main narrative. For instance, he says that certain features of a temple hardly receive any attention and cites the case of a temple in Anamalai near Pollachi where an electrician found a skeleton in the fourth floor of the tower. It was that of a man who had apparently committed suicide in 2005.

How close painting was to the life of people in the ancient period can be understood if literature is taken into consideration as a source of information. The extensive research that is being done on Sangam literature (300 B.C.- A.D. 300) and related works has facilitated such a beginning. The impression gained from these literary sources is that painting was practised more widely in a far more popular way than other plastic arts. The art of painting could be practised even by common people, while sculpture and architecture were a different proposition altogether.

Beginning from rock art, covering even recently discovered sites, the author goes on to the literary sources and then deals with the murals of the Pallava, Chola and Vijayanagar periods and of the Nayaks and the Marathas. Then he moves on to the (East India) Company paintings and ends with the modern period. The history of painting in Tamil Nadu is traced against the backdrop of the historical developments of the respective period. For instance, in the chapter on Chola paintings, he has reproduced a copy of the newspaper clipping of The Hindu dated April 11, 1931, announcing the dramatic discovery of Chola frescoes in the inner prakara of the temple. Similarly, he discusses the dynamics of Anglo-French trade in South India at the beginning of the chapter on Company paintings.

The subject of Company paintings has not received the scholarly attention it deserves. In fact, many of them are yet to be published. The author points out that during this period, the perception of Tamils about painting and painters underwent a change. The author points out the difference in the approach of Indian artists and the newly arrived British to art. When drawing a tree or a person, Indian artists approached the subject more on a philosophical than physical terms of mass, light, colour and likeness, he observes. From Company paintings he moves on to the modern period, touching upon the nationalist movement and the founding of the School of Arts in Madras (now Chennai). The influence of the Theosophical Society and Kalakshetra on the art scene is also discussed.

The book is profusely illustrated with colour and black-and-white photographs, line drawings and diagrams. Graphics are a strong aspect of this book, in which the latest technology of digital photography and colour separation has been used. The colour plates have been reproduced very well. I was particularly struck by the photograph of the Parvathi mural from the Dhalagiriswarar temple of Panamalai. It captures effectively the formal purity of Pallava lines and colours.

The Chola murals of Thanjavur are also sharp in their reproduction and radiate the artistic brilliance of that era. The line drawing, for which the author had commissioned artists, is a good technique to study and reproduce the Nayak period paintings, which have been done in comic strip style, often narrating mythological stories and the lives of saints. These drawings are valuable documents in themselves. The mural from the Pattiswaram temple depicting the story of Siva and Vishnu assuming the forms of Bhikshadana and Mohini respectively has been reproduced in line drawings in two pages. A similar technique of line drawings is used to illustrate the ceiling paintings from the Vardamana temple at Tiruparuthikunram, near Kancheepuram. Job Thomas does not stop with describing a painting but analyses it in depth, tracing influences and style.

In addition to providing scholarly analyses of the murals, the book documents them in the form of photographs. Priceless paintings, such as the Vijayanagar paintings at Tiruvellarai near Tiruchi, have disappeared in front of our eyes. The late-Chola painting showing the Sangama episode on the ceiling of the Tiruparuthikunram temple was lost when it was being restored a few years ago. The book carries a photograph of the original painting.

The murals face constant threat from man and nature. One never knows when these murals will disappear when someone in power gets enthusiastic about renovation. Recently, the local administration dug a lake near the Sithannavasal cave and introduced boating facilities to attract tourists. Vandalism had already taken a heavy toll on the frescoes in that cave.

With his mastery over the subject, Job Thomas is able to isolate major trends and discuss stylistic differences confidently. Instead of closing discussions on the subjects handled, this book will open new areas of study. It will inject new enthusiasm into the study of the art of Tamil Nadu. With meagre governmental funding, archaeology and art history have long been neglected as subjects.

The question of how historians can utilise pictorial representation as a source of historical information has not been examined by scholars. From the early days of historical research in India, the emphasis has been on words, such as inscriptions or despatches during the Raj. One has to bear in mind that these inscriptions are what the kings had ordered to be chiselled about what they did, and therefore these represented their point of view. Similarly, in the modern period, photographs of the 19th and 20th centuries are waiting to be studied. The neglect of film studies and the approach to cinema in literary terms are part of this continuum.

An important dimension of the sources of information, that is, visual material, has remained neglected. And this approach of Job Thomas to the subject of paintings is refreshing. The ceiling paintings of Vijayanagar vintage, from the Tenpurisvarar temple at Pattiswaram, are a good example of a source providing insights about a society. In the mural showing the Dharma Sarma episode, the river Kaveri is depicted: there are the archakas along with fisherfolk engaged in their work, and different kinds of fish, crabs and other forms of life are seen. There is a portrait of Madalavalli, a Devadasi, complete with her name written in Tamil. She lived in Pattiswaram and sang praises of Siva in the temple for several years. She is featured standing in front of the sanctum holding a veena.

The author presents his case eloquently and passionately. One monument that receives close examination is the Pandyan rock-cut cave at Sithannavasal and its frescoes. Among the monuments in Tamil Nadu, this site has received the most attention from art historians.

The author covers all the studies on the subject through a review of earlier research and comes out with his own insights on the pond scene painted on the ceiling of the outer hall. He begins with the observations of Vengataranga Nayudu of Pudukottai museum and discusses K.R. Srinivasan's arguments. He questions T.N. Ramachandran's identification of the pond scene as khatikabhumi. Relying on Tamil literary evidence, Job Thomas concludes that the scene shows devotees offering lotus flowers to the Tirthankaras in the morning. He also deals with the natural cavern on top of the hill. There is evidence to show that the interiors of these caverns, used as monasteries by Jain or Ajivika monks, also bore murals.

Along with Sithannavasal, the other two Jain temples, the Kundavi Jinalaya built by Raja Raja Chola's sister at Tirumalai and the Vardamana temple at Tiruparuthikunram, also receive close attention from the author. In Tirumalai, in addition to the constructed temple, there is a natural cavern, the interior of which has fragments of late Chola paintings. There are also murals of the Nayak period inside.

Thumbnail sketches

There is a very precious section of five pages of biographies in which Job Thomas provides thumbnail sketches of some forgotten doyens of Indian art history, including Jouveau Dubreuil, S.K. Govindaswami, S. Paramasivan, Stella Kramrisch, T.N. Ramachandran, C. Sivaramamurti and K.R. Srinivasan. Paramasivan, particularly, did significant work as an archaeological chemist in the preservation of paintings in Sithannavasal and Thanjavur and examined the technique of painting. These are the pioneers who took the glory of South Indian art to the outside world.

The exhaustive bibliography could open new areas of research and win converts to the fascinating field of art history. However, the absence of an index is intriguing. In this age of word processing and special tools to prepare an index, it would not have been a difficult job. An index increases the utility of a book of this nature manifold. While Chola bronzes are well known, very little is known about the murals of Tamil Nadu. Of course, one cannot put a mural in a box and ship it to New York for exhibition. So writings, photographs and drawings relating to the subject meet the need. Such books play the role of an archive of a kind also.

Without much activity the field of art history has been barren in South India. In fact, in the last few decades there have been very few studies. Basically, scholars have repeated the arguments of the Jouveau Dubreuil school of temple study. This stimulating study by Job Thomas can inject new enthusiasm into the study of the art history of Tamil Nadu.

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