Exploring the Radiant Art of Tanjore Paintings

Sep 10,2017

Traditional art has long captured the imagination of art enthusiasts and collectors everywhere. In India, traditional art pieces are virtually a piece of history. They hold great cultural, sentimental and historical value, and speak to a heritage of fine craftsmanship.

A traditional art form from South India, Tanjore paintings are easily recognisable by their distinctive gold leaf work and jewelled ornamentation. Eye-catching and elaborate, these paintings are today highly valued after by both art lovers and enthusiasts alike.
Krishna is a popular subject in Tanjore paintings. Image via

Tanjore paintings are named after their place of origin- the town of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu.  An art form that evolved in the 16th century under the patronage of the Nayakas, this style of painting was influenced by Vijayanagar, Maratha and Deccan schools of art. One can also spot European influences, due to the colonisation of India. Mysore paintings, which also involve gold leaf work, but on a less elaborate scale, are an offshoot of this style.


Tanjore paintings usually depict gods and goddesses, saints and scenes from stories of Indian mythology. Subjects are two dimensional in nature and are usually placed centrally, framed by arches, chariots or enclosures. Gold foil and precious stones are used to render clothing, architectural details, ornaments and other decorations in the painting. In the later years, works have also started featuring Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and Christian influences, such as angels and other religious figures.

Tanjore painting featuring Sikh gurus. Image via
The traditional Tanjore painting technique was detailed and meticulous. A piece of cloth was mounted onto a plank made of teak wood. The primary sketch was made on this base. A mixture of limestone, chalk powder and gum was spread in layers over the surface to allow adhesion of the gold foil and jewels. Gold leaf and precious stones were then pressed and embedded in the moulds. Colours were then added to complete the painting. 

Contemporary variations

Through the years, many artists have combined the representation techniques of different schools (like the Bengal style) with the gold leaf technique of Tanjore paintings.Thanks to efforts by various art schools and state governments, the art of making Tanjore paintings has been preserved and passed on. There are many contemporary artists today who still practice this art, with a few changes in technique and choice of material. Today, plywood is used instead of teak wood. Natural dyes have been replaced by synthetic colours which are more easily available. Some contemporary artists also encase their work in glass frames to protect the paintings. 
Things to keep in mind while buying Tanjore paintings
Tanjore painting of Nataraja. Image via ArtnIndia
Given their historical value and aesthetic appeal, Tanjore paintings are highly sought after by art collectors. The cost of a Tanjore painting is determined by the quality and amount of gold and precious stones used, as well as the aesthetic quality of the work. Colours, subject matter, size and age are also important considerations while deciding on the price. However, one needs to be careful while buying these paintings, since there are many poor quality works and fakes being sold at exorbitant prices.
- It's always best to do enough research and buy from a reputed seller who also provides a certificate of authenticity.

- Some paintings use synthetic gold foil in place of genuine gold foil. Synthetic foil usually has a more yellowish tinge as compared to 22 carat gold foil.

- Some varieties of imitation gold foils look very similar to 22 karat gold foil. However, these synthetic foils will also tend to tarnish and change colour noticeably over time.

- While buying an antique Tanjore, it’s a good idea to study several paintings of the particular period to get an understanding of the type of colours and representational styles followed during that period to make a comparison. Most fakes will display differences in colours, forms and finish.

- Authentic Tanjore antiques may be faded over time, but the gold leaf and jewel work will still retain some vibrancy and radiance. 

- By Archana Rajendra