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Legends across panels

NANDITHA KRISHNA looks at two books that are a valuable documentation of the Tamil heritage of painting. Both are one-of-a-kind collections of photographs that have made a contribution to our knowledge of Indian art, she says.

IT is not easy to see paintings in Tamil Nadu prior to those of the Vijayanagara period. Why? This is because they are either situated in remote places far from the tourist beat, (like Sittannavasal), or are in a terrible state of disrepair that very little is visible (like Pannamalai) or are locked up and visitors kept out (as in Thanjavur). Thus the two books photographed, designed and produced by C. Nachiappan (now Sri-la-Sri Nachiappa Swami of Koviloor Mutt) with assistance from the Rukmini Devi Foundation and published by Kalakshetra Publications, Chennai, are a valuable documentation of the great Tamil heritage of painting.

The first book records the paintings at Sittannavasal, Panamalai and Thanjavur, covering the early Pandya, the early Pallava and the early Chola periods respectively. These sites, which are not easy to visit, were photographed 50 years ago by the Koviloor Swamy. He used an ancient 5"x4" Linhof camera for the Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI) and sent the transparencies to Saraswathy Press in Calcutta for exposing. But they got burnt under powerful lights and were never printed. The Swami retained a set of transparencies that were enhanced by computer technology, recreating the colours that would have brightened up the temples once upon a time. The text is written by the eminent scholar Professor P.R. Srinivasan, although he has quoted extensively from earlier works.

Sittannavasal is an "elongated mass of granite", a remote village 15 km beyond Pudukottai town, not far from the early Chola temples of Narthamalai, consisting of the Eladipattam, a natural cave on top of the hill with beds and pillows cut into the stone floor for use by the monks, and Arivarkovil or the Temple of the (Jaina) Arihants. There is a First Century Tamil Brahmi inscription on a cave bed, and a Ninth Century inscription on a rock nearby informing us of the renovation of the temple. The cave temple has simple pillars and sculptures of Jaina Tirthankaras. The paintings currently visible probably belong to the Seventh Century, since they have Pallava features and are reminiscent of later Ajanta paintings.

The paintings include a dharmachakra on the ceiling, a lotus tank with frolicking animals, creepers and lotuses, young men collecting flowers, dancing apsaras and a barely-visible king and queen, bringing to life the Jaina philosophy of ahimsa and harmony in nature. One apsara, with her right hand in the pataka mudra and the left in the danda hasta, is reminiscent of the bronze figures of the dancing Balakrishna and Balasubrahmanya, while the other is performing the bhujangatrasita karana, associated with the dance of Shiva at Chidambaram. The base of the Sittannavasal paintings is well consolidated, firm yet thin lime plaster, also used for the binding. The painted stucco is made up of three layers: rough plaster, fine plaster and a covering layer of paint.

Little remains of these paintings today, making their appearance in the book a valuable contribution to South Indian art history. As a frequent visitor to Sittanavasal, I have seen the paintings gradually disappear, thanks to the pollution from the stone quarries, which is also probably weakening the hill. The lone watchman belies the archaeological importance of the site, surrounded by ancient dolmens and sacred groves with enormous and elaborately decorated terracotta horses.

The Talagirishvara Temple at Panamalai is rarely visited, but is notable for the single remnant painting of an exquisite female figure, her leg gently bent and resting against a wall, standing beneath a royal umbrella, wearing a tall bejewelled kirita and jewellery typical of the Pallava period. The figure has been shaded to make it appear three-dimensional. This single figure is one of the most beautiful paintings in India, reminiscent of the women of Ajanta, and the photograph brings out all her glory. She resembles Parvati of the Kailasanatha temple, Kanchipuram, and the Ajanta frescoes. There are traces of painting elsewhere in the temple, but nothing identifiable. The fresco secco method was used here as at Sittannavasal.

The best paintings are, of course, those found inside the vimana in the Brihadishvara temple at Thanjavur. The delicate nature of the paintings and the gradual erosion due to pollution have resulted in the ASI locking them up. Today they can only be seen by special permission. The paintings depict scenes from the Shiva Purana. But the elaborate tableaux of domestic, public and palace scenes are an excellent source of information about the Chola period and the court of Rajaraja, who commissioned them. The paintings are huge and animated, bringing alive the greatness of the Lord who destroys evil and ensures peace.

There is a barely-visible Dakshinamurti beneath a banyan tree on which monkeys are playing, while rishis and animals live together in the forest. There is a stillness of body and reverence on the face of the sages worshipping Dakshinamurti, in contrast to the vivacious animals. Flying apsaras and gandharvas complete the scene of palatial proportions.

The Sundaramurty Nayanar story depicts a magnificent Cheraman Perumal on a bejewelled white horse, while an angry Sundaramurti Nayanar wears a white coat! Shiva, in this scene, is an old man. A beautiful tableau is that of Rajaraja listening to his preceptor Karur Devar, the two faces a study of intense concentration.

In another panel, dancing apsaras — their faces a study of abhinaya — and Rajaraja and his wives watch in awe the magnificent ananda tandava, the dance of Nataraja performed in the golden mandapam of Chidambaram. Exquisite jewellery, jasmine-bedecked hairstyles, and beautifully featured people with eyebrows like a bow and compassionate eyes bring alive the massive compositions in bright colours.

The best painting is that of Tripurantaka, Shiva as the destroyer of the demon Tripura. With wide-open eyes and raised arms, Shiva prepares to slay the demon. An animated Durga seated on her roaring lion prepares to attack the demon's hordes with her raised sword. Brahma is a charioteer, while Shukracharya leads the asuras (demons).

What is significant about the Chola paintings of Thanjavur is that there is great emotion in all the faces, whether it is the compassion of the guru counselling Rajaraja, or a contemplative rishi, a devout queen, an animated dancer or an angry Shiva. The photos bring out the varied emotions on the many faces, a feature rarely seen in Indian art.

During the reign of king Vijayaraghava Nayak, the Chola paintings were covered with plaster and painted over, a happy circumstance that probably preserved the earlier Chola murals.

Apart from the paintings, 80 karanas of Bharatanatyam sculpted in granite are printed in black-and-white. Each karana is accompanied by the relevant verse from the Natya Shastra written in the Roman script, with a translation, description and remarks about the figure and the karana. This documentation is an important contribution to both art and dance.

The book includes photographs of the caves and the temples where the paintings are situated, along with some bronzes and sculptures found therein. The stone objects have been printed in black-and-white, thereby emphasising the granular content of the stone and providing a stark contrast to the colourful paintings.

The second book contains a documentation of the paintings in Thanjavur style in the collection of the Koviloor math. Over 100 years ago, a temple and tank were constructed in Koviloor by Sri-la-Sri Veerasekara Gnanadesika Swami of the Koviloor math. He was a great builder whose sense of aesthetics resulted in the construction of 12 beautiful vahanas and an extensive collection of Thanjavur paintings about his Lord Shiva, whose Thiruvilayadal Puranam is depicted in 64 paintings. The collection also includes paintings of Vaishnavite, Kaumara, Ganapatya and Sakta themes. Besides a large Nataraja and Dattatreya, there is also a rare depiction of Sri Narasimha Bharati, the much revered ascetic Shankaracharya of Sringeri Math who lived in the first half of the 20th Century. The paintings are not significant for their age: they are important in that they are a record of the religious preferences and iconographic developments at the beginning of the 20th Century. It is not often that one gets to see a private art collection: Swami Nachiappa has done a great service to art lovers by publishing this book.

Besides the paintings mentioned above, the collection includes the famous story of Kannappa Nayanar and several dynamic forms of Shiva, such as Nataraja, Gajasarmambeswarar and Veerabhadra. Harihara is represented as Sankaranarayana, while Ardhanarishvarar, Dakshinamoorthi and the other forms of Shiva display similar facial and decorative features.

Like all Thanjavur paintings, the central figures are much larger and generally white, plump and round-faced, while the subsidiary figures are relatively smaller, with smaller panels at the bottom or sides of the painting. The gesso relief work typical of Thanjavur paintings comes out in the borders and mandapams that frame the figures, while many are framed by oval cameos.

Like the Thanjavur paintings in the Sarasvati Mahal Palace collection, the paintings are very two-dimensional, with a gentle roundness and depth created by a range of shades from a light central colour to dark edges. While the first book is well written, the paintings in the second book do the talking: the Koviloor paintings are only labelled, with little description, leaving the reader time to study them in depth.

The books are well printed and bring out the riot of colours that characterise Indian painting. Both are one-of-a-kind collections of photographs that have made a great contribution to our knowledge of Indian art. They are essential additions to the library of a lover of Indian art.

Tanjavur Paintings in Koviloor

Sittannavasal Panamalai, Tanjavur Early Chola Paintings;

Photographed by C. Nachiappan (Koviloor Swamy), Kalakshetra Publications.

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