Category Archives: Art

Greek comedies, Sanskrit drama and Bollywood

This follows a discussion we (a bunch of old goats) had on the ancient drama forms , which led to the question why there are no well known Greek comedies and why there are not many “ Tragedies” in the Indian theatre.


1. The Greek tragedies are of course unsurpassed in their grandeur and in depiction of the failings of the mighty. They are the inspirations for countless works of merit in all other languages.

Before going into the their Dramas ; it appears to me that the ancient Greeks were a rather inward looking people and did not interact with other cultures in their (other’s) terms. You do not come across many instances of ancient Greeks learning the language of the Egyptians, Persians or the Indians. They preferred to look at the world through the Greek prism and turned everything around into a Greek term or a Greek name or Greek pronunciation.

Even, during the times (c.500BCE) when Greece was a part of the Persian Empire and when large number of Greeks served the Empire as its officials , it appears they transacted in Greek and  not in the language of Persia. For instance Ktesias who served the Persian king Artaxerxes Mnemon (404–358 B.C.) as his personal physician for eight years (405-397 B.C.) mentioned that he invariably wrote and transacted in Greek language. The two books he authored on the events in Persia (Persika), and the events in India (Indika) were in Greek. Similarly, Skylax of Karyanda who served as a naval commander in the army of the Persian Emperor Darius Hystargus (512–486 BCE) also managed in Greek.

Old comedies of Greece

2.1. The Greek tragedies are of course widely appreciated the world over. But, what is commonly not known is that the so-called “old comedy” was in fact the favorite entertainment of the common Greeks. It is not that the ancient Greeks loved only tragedies and nothing else. The Greek people witnessed the vicissitudes of life as any other people of those times; and loved all forms of drama. It is just that the Greek tragedies travelled abroad, in translations, and gained great fame.

2.2. The ‘old comedy’ was more popular among common Greeks. The comic plays were performed at the village festivals with jovial gaiety and jesting license in honor of Dionysus the god of wine and fertility. The comedies were    mostly vulgar ballets with male actors wearing masks and gaudy costumes enacting indecent farce and satire about phallic jokes. Sometimes, young fellows disguised grossly as beasts or birds broke out into riotous phallic dances.

2.3. It was however later during the times of Menander, the first of the great writers of Greek comedy, and Aristophanes (between about 456 BCE and 380 BCE) that Greek comedy gained some credibility. It is said that the comic playwrights produced their works for dramatic competitions at two festivals in honour of  Dionysus Lenaius held in the cities Dionysian (in March) and the Lenaea (in January), on the same stage as the tragedies.

Aristophanes and Menander
2.4. At these festivals, comedies were more important and popular than tragedies. It is said, at least five comedies entered the competition each year (except during the Peloponnesian war when only three comedies were performed).The comedies included singing and dancing performances of Dithyramb (hymns in honor of the god of wine Dionysus). It is not clear when these festivals were abandoned; but it is believed the competitions at Lenaea continued into the second century BCE.

Attic relief (4th century BCE) depicts a qulos player and his family standing before Dionysus and a female consort, with theatrical masks displayed above.

Aristophanes and the comedies

3.1. Aristophanes, I reckon was a sort of stand-up comedian of his times. His performances were packed with pungent political satire and abundance of sexual and vulgar innuendo. He was adept in stringing together several words into a long unpronounceable compound word that confounded the listeners .”In my opinion,” he said , “producing comedies is the hardest work of all.” ” How many are the things that vex my heart! Pleasures are few, so very few – just four -“

Aristophanes lampooned the most important personalities and institutions of his day. His ridicule was feared by influential contemporaries. Talking about the politicians of the day, he said “they looked like rascals when seen from the heavens and, seen up close, they look even worse”. And , when Amynias who had lost money in gambling was appointed ambassador, Aristophanes sang:

Way up there in Thessaly,

Home of the poor Penestes:
Happy to be where everyone
Is as penniless as he is.

3.2. Plato, as all know, was a studious philosopher. But his favourite dramatist was Aristophanes the writer of comedies. Plato, it is said, endorsed to his friends the comedies of Aristophanes. Plato in his symposium made Aristophanes deliver a discourse on love, which the latter explained in a sensual manner. Aristophanes in his work the clouds ridiculed Socrates and in his lyrical-burlesque the frogs he lampooned Euripides. Yet, Aristophanes was well regarded and his plays were very popular.

3.3. The ‘old comedy’ survives today in the form of about eleven plays of Aristophanes. The later historians described those plays as ‘the last of the great species of poetry Greece gave to the world’.

3.4. The philosopher Aristotle (c.335 BCE) was, however, not much amused by the antics of the ‘old comedies’. He wrote in his Poetics that those plays were representations of laughable people, their blunders and their ugliness. He softened the blow by adding that the comedies did not however cause pain or disaster.

3.5. If the Greek tragedies notably of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are better known and admired world over, it was because of their superior script, treatment of the subject and the conflict they depict between the human will and the Greek idea of fate. Had the conflict been between the will of two humans it would have turned the play into a social drama or even a comedy. [Perhaps, it is  here the genius of Shakespeare shines forth].

The ancient Sanskrit drama

4.1. The ancient Indians did not consider catharsis as a legitimate purpose of a play. The tragic plays did not flourish as they did in Greece or in England. The reasons for this are many.

4.2. The ancient Sanskrit drama does not recognize classification based on how the drama ended, on whether the characters lived happily ever after or whether the characters struggled in vain against almost impossible odds and eventually failed. There is no clear classification of happy or sad ending. For instance, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata end in a somber note; the evil undoubtedly was vanquished in the end, but the virtuous victors were neither jubilant nor at peace. It is not a tragic ending in the sense the evil did not triumph; and it is not a comic ending either because the heroes did not seem to have ‘lived happily ever after’. Rama, Krishna and Pandavas, all ended their earthly sojourn on a rather solemn note, and returned to their heavenly abode.

4.3. The struggle depicted in the ancient dramas based on the epics was not about a persons’ comfort, but it was about what they stood for and the values they represented. The pith of the story was in the manner the virtuous men and women faced their adversaries and adversities, within the frame work of Dharma and finally triumphed after sustained fighting. At the end, it was hailed as the triumph of the Dharma. The object of the play was to demonstrate the proper way to live, a way which the generations to come can follow and adopt as a benchmark or a norm of attitude and behavior while grappling with the conflicts confronting them in their lives.

4.4. It also had to do with the perception of life in general. Ones view of death is related to what he regards as life. One way of looking at death is as a dreaded terminator which irrevocably puts an end to ones relation with all existence. There are however beliefs that prefer to treat “life” not as an interval between two extremities but as a continuum in space and time; and that space could be elsewhere and not necessarily here on earth.

4.5. The life jivita on this earth, according to their beliefs, is a continuum propelled by causes and effects (karma) spread over several jivitas. The disappointments and misery that one has endured in this life can be put behind, and one can always look forward with hope. There is no “End “or”Finis” to life .Take for instance, Bana Bhatta’s classic novel Kadambari (c.seventh century) re-rendered by Ms. Kalpita Raj as Pun`ermilan…The reunion… ( Love-story From Ancient India) , a torturous love story filled with frustrations , disappointments and failures as each character passionately strives for love. The story spills into three re-births; and finally love triumphs. It is perhaps a way of saying that love defies death. In fact, it is the persistence of love through a series of re-births that holds the story together.


4.6. The ancient Sanskrit plays generally portray four categories of heroes: dhirodatta (ideal person like Rama); dhiralalitha (lover boy like Dushyantha); dhirashanta (calm and collected like Charudutta); and dhirodhhata (the tragic hero like Ravana, Duryodhana or Karna).

The tragic hero is endowed with all virtues such as good looks, wealth, strength and power but is afflicted with a single gnawing flaw in his character, which brings about his ruin. For instance, Ravana with lust; Duryodhana with greed and jealousy; Karna with embitterment were the classic examples. The tragic hero is all the while aware of his tragic flaw; he fights with himself and nevertheless embraces his fate, death and destruction in a strange mixture of detachment and bravado. He is heroic in most ways and he is very important to the play; but he is a counterpoint to the hero. And, In Sanskrit drama, the good always triumphs over the evil.

It was Bhasa the celebrated playwright (ca. 2nd century BCE to 2nd century AD) who in his plays uru-bhanga and karna-bhara treated Duryodhana and Karna with great sympathy and appreciation. Bhasa was the first to break away from the conventions of Natyasastra to show physical violence on the stage; and to end his plays in pathos and in the death of his heroes. In his prathima natakam he treats Kaikeyi, the deluded queen of the old king, with sympathy and understanding. Bhasa was the first significant Indian writer of tragic plays.



5.1. Though the Sanskrit plays are virtually dead in India, they live and thrive in the spirit of the Indian movies, popularly labelled as Bollywood movies.

5.2. In the structure of their plots, depiction, treatment and conclusion of the story , most Indian movies that have done well at the Box office follow , consciously or otherwise, the time-tested formula prescribed by the ancient Sanskrit theatre.

Just as in the Sanskrit plays, our movies too are stuffed with navarasas; embellished with virtous heroes having comic sidekicks; good –hearted loving mothers blessed with obedient sons; adorable heroines with plain-Jane friends; good-looking  and powerful villains toying  with vamps and sometimes providing comic relief ; loose script studded with chorus, songs and dances as also some fights; and the story always ends on a happy note with the good and love triumphing over the bad and loveless.

The initial scenes are always auspicious and happy –feeling (adi-mangala); and as the story unfolds , unbearable miseries are unjustly mounted by the crafty villain on the virtous hero or at times the unsuspecting good-hearted hero walks into a snare specially designed for him by the  dark-hearted bad guy. In the midst of all the heart wrenching misery, near about the mid-point of the story, inevitably, something good happens to the hero or his family (madhya-mangala); and after a bitter and suspenseful struggle in which the gentle heroine, for no fault of her, is somehow drawn in. Eventually the good and love triumphs; and all ends well (antya-mangala).

Somewhere in the second-half of the story when the hero is wedged in a tight spot, the usually inept, food and fun loving sidekick, the vidushaka  (immortalized by Rajendranath and tribe) comes handy and aids the struggling hero.


5.3. The Sanskrit plays are thus the forerunners of the Bollywood formula movies. Now, any film that deviates from that time-honored formula stands out as a sore thumb and acquires the unenviable title of an offbeat and what is even worse it might be dubbed an art film.

5.4. The song and dance “item-numbers” which are unique to Indian movies, also seem to be inspired by the ancient Sanskrit drama. Bharata, the author of Natyasastra and also a producer of plays, in the middle of one of his plays introduces a song and dance sequence that apparently had no relevance to the narration of the story. The learned among the audiences are promptly confused. They inquire Bharata “We can understand about acting which conveys definite meaning. But, this dance and this music you have brought in seem to have no meaning. What use are they?”

Bharata agrees that there is no meaning attached to those dances and songs; and goes on to explain calmly “yes, but it adds to the beauty of the presentation and common people naturally like it. And, as these are happy and auspicious songs people love it more; and they even  perform these dances and sing these songs at their homes on marriage and other happy occasions”(Natyasastra : 4.267-268)

5.5. And, finally what is remarkable about Bollywood is that it is notional or abstract; it exists only in the mind and has no physical location or existence. Yet, it is close to all. Its primary form exists in what used to be called Bombay; but it has no specific location and could be anywhere in India, since the outside world has come to know all branches of Indian cinema as Bollywood. Truly, Bollywood is closer to Indian concepts of abstraction and phenomenon, than anything else we know.


Posted by on September 30, 2012 in Art, General Interest


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra- Fifteen – Shri S Rajam – continued

[This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on the Art of Painting in Ancient India .

This is the concluding part of a series that attempted to trace the influence of Chitrasutra, the ancient text and its recommended practices, from the days of the Ajanta to the present period.

In the concluding part of this series we admire the sublime paintings of Shri S Rajam, perhaps the sole votary of Chitrasutra tradition in the modern times.

The part – One of this article briefly outlined Shri S Rajam’s achievements in the field of music and in the music related arts.

In this concluding article part let’s look at a few of the general principles of the Chitrasutra and Shri Rajam as an artist who brought to life the traditional art style of India.]

 Continued from S Rajam Part One

1.1. The Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara, an ancient text dated around sixth century AD, states that one needs to understand music to be a good painter. That might be because the rhythm, fluidity and grace of music have to be transported to painting, in order to make the painting come alive and open its heart to the viewer (sah-hrudaya). That ideal requirement found its fulfilment in Shri S Rajam an eminent musician who is also blessed with a unique gift of creating sublime art works. He practiced both the arts with devotion and dedication over long years of his fruitful life.

1.2. I mentioned earlier that Shri S Rajam has been a true exponent of the Chitrasutra tradition in the modern era. Let’s get to know a bit more about Shri S Rajam’s art, mostly through his own words and pictures; and about his inspiration and guidance..

2. The Early years

2.1. Rajam took to art quite early in his life. By the time he was about fifteen years of age (when he was in Eighth grade) he was sketching fairly well. His father, Sundaram Ayyar as also his friends and relatives who too were artists, encouraged Rajam to hone his skills. He thereafter discontinued formal schooling in his senior year in High school to join the Government School of Arts and Crafts in Madras (1935). He appears to have had a great time in the Art School. He not only had a brilliant academic career but also enjoyed the friendship and support of his friends and teachers.  The Principal was so impressed by Rajam’s talent, that he allowed the boy to complete the six-year course in just four years.

Later in his life, when he was in his eighties, Shri Rajam while talking about his technique of water-wash said, “I learnt it all from my teacher Shri V. Doraisamy Achari”. Rajam’s Art – school-mates included KCS Panicker, Dhanapal and Kodur Ramamurthy who also flowered into great artists.

3. The quest

3.1. The young Rajam’s visit to the caves of Ajanta was a turning point in his life; it had a profound effect on him; and changed his life and artistic career forever. The ancient art of Ajanta brought about a sea change in Rajam’s outlook of art; his style of depiction in painting; and his attitude to life in general. He realized, painting was not just a technique of putting paint over a surface; it was a way of understanding and expressing your emotions about the life around you; it was a way of looking beyond the forms and appearances that meet the eye; and above all,   it was about giving expression to a deeply spiritual experience that springs from the artists very inner being. The practice of art, he said, was a Sadhana, to be pursued with dedication and reverence.

3.2. The traditional style of the ancient murals at Ajanta so overwhelmed S Rajam    that he suspended his painting activity for a while and got immersed in search of a style of his own that would at once be creative, traditional and soulful. He did eventually, after years of practice, succeed in his search and came up with a unique style that answered his quest and prayer.

Mr. Lewis Thompson (1909-1949)  of England — a poet turned philosopher and Sanyasin  – was also instrumental in Rajam adopting the Oriental school approach in his painting techniques. “I owe it  to  Lewis Thompson who came to Sri Ramana Ashram, where I used to sing occasionally. He was an English poet, deeply interested in Indian philosophy, ten years my senior. He used to write his verses in tiny books. He was responsible for my development and growth in Indian art. He moulded me. He would say, “Art must represent nature, not reproduce it. That’s why you see that Akbar is bigger than the horse in the miniatures. Learn perspective but ignore it once you have mastered it.. The size of the figures depends on their relative importance. “

The following is a brief note on Mr. Thompson.

[ Lewis Levien Thompson was born on January 13, 1909 in Fulham, England. He received a good conventional education in private schools, despite the modest circumstances of his family.  He was a good singer and accomplished pianist. In his teens, Lewis developed a fascination for the scriptures of the East. He taught himself the Eastern classics, in translations. He also read extensively in anthropology and psychoanalysis. He was greatly influenced by the French poet of the symbolist school Rimbaud (1854-1891) and his wish to discover the soul and the truth.

Like many western intellectuals of the early twentieth century who travelled East in search of spiritual wisdom, Lewis Thompson too abandoned his attachments and allegiances; and plunged into the depths of Eastern philosophy and spirituality. He departed from England when he was 23 years young (July 26, 1932) and lived in India for the remaining seventeen years of his short life. While in India, he wandered the country living off of what others would give him in the form of food and lodging. Thompson was not interested in finding a guru; but he came into close contact with various luminaries, including Sri Ramana Maharishi, Anandamayi Ma, Aurobindo, and Krisha Prem.

During his wandering years in India, Thompson practiced severe self-discipline of an iterant monk and produced some hundred-odd poems; an endless stream of aphorisms; maintained journals over his life in India as a marga, a spiritual discipline; wrote a large number of letters, and various miscellanea.

On June 19, 1949, Lewis Thompson was found wandering dazed and penniless by the River Ganges. Taken to a small room, he languished for two days, writing the last entry in his journal and his last poem, Black Flower, before lapsing into a coma. He died alone in Benares on June 21, 1949.

His journal and a collection of his poems Black Sun were published posthumously during 2001, with an introduction by Richard Lannoy. Lewis Thompson’s work is deeply spiritual, lush with Hindu imagery; and is sensitive, mystical and erotic. He was later described as ‘one of the most original, brave, brilliant and prescient of the pioneers of our contemporary mystical Renaissance’; and,’ as one of the century’s most intrepid spiritual explorers and a ravishing mystical poet’ ]

3.3. It is said; the curious scratch the surface, and, it is only the resolute that overcome the obstacles and delve deeper into learning of enduring value. The quest is always more challenging than curiosity but it surely is rewarding. Shri Rajam’s quest for a unique idiom and a style of expression took him far and wide into ancient caves and temples spread across the country and into the study of varied forms of ancient art-creations, such as the murals, frescos, miniatures, Chola bronzes etc. He spent week after week in the caves of Ajanta, Ellora, Amaravathi, Sittannavasal and Sigiriya (Sri Lanka); as also in the ancient temples of South India and Orissa.

3.4. He took thousands of photographs of the sculptures and the bronzes. He was particularly fascinated by the three-dimensional comeliness and grace of the bronzes. He poured over his photographs and turned them into countless sketches and drawings, learning the art and skill of translating his observation into visual poetry; and coining fresh idioms, phrases and similes of art-expressions to stamp his individuality.

3.5.   He learnt to visualize his design clearly before giving it a form.  “I contemplate on the photograph for many days,” he says, “and form a clear picture in my mind. Then, much later, I transfer the image to the surface of the painting”.Thus, imagination, observation and the expressive force of rhythm became the essential features of his paintings. Through sustained practice,he learnt to make his pictures come alive withrhythm and expression.

In addition , he also studied the ancient texts on painting and sculpture such as the Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara, the Kashyapa shilpa sutra etc, along with the epics, puranans and countless dhyana-shlokas which describe precisely the form , appearance , countenance , proportions and the nature of each deity. These texts became his guiding influence; and helped to enhance the authenticity to his depictions.

He also read extensively on the contemporary art-historians and scholars such as Ananada Coomaraswamy, Stella Kramrisch, Gopinatha Rao and others. These helped Rajam as an artist to gain a broader perspective of Indian art.

4. An unusual Maverick

4.1. The initial years of Shri S Rajam’s art-career were stressful; and acceptance did not come easy. He was branded a maverick, perhaps in the sense that he painted like no one else did.  And, not many shared his philosophical perspective on art. He was criticized, mostly, for not belonging to a school of painting. But, that did not deter him in the least. He did not succumb to the trend of the day just for the whim of it. He was convinced that his style was authentic, creative and rooted in the tradition of our culture. He asserted he was not a ‘copier’, but one who painted in his own way. He said, “My art is in representing nature and not in reproducing it”.  It is our fortune Shri Rajam stood his ground. Since then, he has been composing his own one-of-a-kind masterpieces for more than six decades.  And, today his classical genius is not merely well accepted but revered as an icon of creativity and grace rich in tradition.

4.2. Even so, Shri Rajam is disappointed with the drift of the times. “Hindu heritage and tradition is ancient and priceless,” he laments, “but devotional art is dying in India and almost extinct. Unfortunately, we Indians ape the Westerners. This attitude wounds me a lot. In tradition, only good things should remain; the bad should be ignored and not continued. This is tradition. The art schools in India have failed to bring forward tradition…., Artistic creation is lacking in arts schools. The training imparted is purely technique oriented, and this by itself is not of much use.”

4.3. His message to the young and budding artists of India is this: “Study scriptures to improve your knowledge. Be modern; there is no problem with that. But know the beauty and elegance of your culture.”

5. Shri Rajam’s art and the Chitrasutra

5.1. Outlook

(i ). While talking about his approach to  art, Shri Rajam said,”  my art is not, nor was it ever meant to be, realistic or photo-like replicas of life, but rather intuitive perception  of life”. He asserts that in his paintings and line drawings, he attempts to imprison the important moments of the subject’s life to help the contemplative spirit of the observer.His pictures might depict the resemblance but, more importantly, as he said, they aim to bring out the essence or the soul of the subject.

(ii ) . When Shri Rajam said that, he was not merely making a statement but also was echoing the prescriptions of the Chitrasutra which stressed that the concern of the artist should not be to just faithfully reproduce the forms around him. The artist should try to look beyond the tangible world; and beyond the beauty of form that meets the eye. He should lift that veil and look within. The Chitrasutra suggested, the artist should look beyond “The phenomenal world of separated beings and objects that blind s the vision of the reality”.

(iii ). The Chitrasutra emphasizes that art expression is not about how the world appears to one and all, but how the artist would experience and visualize it. Art is an expression of his unique creative genius, imagination, enterprise and individuality as an artist. Its purpose is to present that which is within us; and to evoke an emotional response (the rasa) in the viewer’s heart.

(iv). Shri Rajam’s art creations are excellent illustrations of these principles of the Chitrasutra in the modern times. In his mission, Shri Rajam followed the approach of the classical Indian Art rather that of the west where art directly reproduces the nature and its physical form as it appears to one and all.

5.2. Abstract & Symbolism

(i ). While explaining the special features of traditional Indian art, Shri Rajam in his interviews and articles stresses the point that the traditional Indian art relies more on symbolism than on realism. He says, an artist’s power arises from observation translated into visual poetry through similes and suggestions. The eloquent expression of a painting, that is, its Bhava, according to him, consists in drawing out the inner world of the subject. It takes a combination of many factors to articulate the Bhava of a painting; say , through eyes, facial expression, stance , gestures by hands and limbs, surrounding nature, animals , birds and other human figures. Even the rocks, water places and plants (dead or dying or blooming or laden) can be employed to bring out the Bhava. These aspects gain greater importance in narrative paintings, which demand special skills to depict the dramatic effects and reactions of the characters, in its progression from frame to frame.

(ii ). The concept of the abstract and with it a whole set of symbols and symbolisms, that Shri Rajam was discussing, were also the concern of the Chitrasutra. The text suggested the means to render the absolute and the undefined into tangible visual forms.  It said, the objects in nature could be visualized or personified endowing each with a distinct personality in order to illustrate the essence of their character. Accordingly, in the traditional Indian art, the elements of natures like rivers, sun, moon etc   were personified, bringing out their virtues and powers through eloquent symbolisms.  Birds and flowers, trees and creepers too were depicted with a loving grace and tenderness. In certain cases, idyllic nature scenes were created just to convey a sense of joy and wonder.

Shri Rajam’s art abounds in such symbolisms.

5.3. The preparation

(i). Shri Rajam talks about the way he prepares before commencing on a painting. It is highly interesting. His approach is methodical, thorough and a classic example for others to follow. He studies eve ry available material about the subject, such as the epics, scriptures, the legends; and, archived documents, earlier paintings and photographs in case of personalities. He visualizes his design, contemplates on it and lets it sink into him. He explains “The subject should be visualized with absolutely clarity in the mind’s eye, before setting pencil to paper. I let the preliminary sketch ‘sit’ for a few days, then review, making corrections and changes. Initially I colour the background using a soft wash technique originating from the Santhiniketan School, a special feature in all my paintings. Then I define the main figure through light and shade, with highlights in white. I aim to bring out the grace of the human form and poses, for example tribhanga, with the drapery serving to accentuate form as exemplified in Buddhist sculpture.”

(ii ) . Even to this day, after nearly seventy years of painting, Shri Rajam visualizes his design after careful study and research into the subject; and only then attempts to draw. He says, “I form a clear picture in my mind. Then, much later, I transfer the image to the surface of the painting.”

5.4. Rekhas, the lines

(i) . The Chitrasutra regards the lines –Rekhas- that articulate the form of the figures as the real strength and virtue of a painting; and the ornamentation and colouring as its decorative aspects. Chitrasutra favours employing graceful, steady, smooth and free flowing  lines. The Chitrasutra does not favour straight or harsh or angular or uneven lines. Its masters valued the effects best captured by least number of lines. The economy of lines and simplicity of expression were regarded as the sign of the artist’s maturity.

 (ii) . These too are the characteristics of Shri Rajam’s paintings.  The first thing you notice in his works is the strength of the lines that defines precisely the form of the figure. He says, “The line is the life of a painting. I developed my own style, taking from the model of our ancient culture.” He explains that in the oriental traditions, the lines – the Rekhas- are of prime importance unlike in an oil painting. It is the lines that define the substance and form of an oriental painting. He describes his style as closest to Shantiniketan style, emphasizing the lasya – lyrical – aspects.

[The Shantiniketan School of art, sphere headed by the renowned artist Abanindranath Tagore, was a revivalist movement that was started by around 1905. It strived to revive the traditional Indian techniques of art and art styles, deriving inspiration, mainly, from the murals of Ajanta. Its style was, basically, a refined and harmonious blending of simple beauty of expression brought to life by graceful lines and an essential Indianness. The Shantiniketan art done mostly in watercolours depicted Indian religious, mythological, historical and literary subjects. Its style, endowed with the beauty and vigour of its lines, sense of proportion, grace and charm soon became an authentic idiom of Indian art expression.

Shri S Rajam derived inspiration from this tradition too. ]

(iii). The lasya – the lyrical – aspect which Shri Rajam was talking about refers to delineating beautiful figures and their delicate inner feelings through graceful, steady, smooth and free flowing lines that capture their essence. His line-drawings are full of grace and vitality. The delicate touches and intimate details that he deftly adds enliven his figures.

5.5. Simplicity which is natural and pleasing

(i). Shri Rajam says, he aims to infuse into his paintings a simplicity which is natural and pleasing. He stresses the economy of lines and simplicity of form as central to his approach. It is upon this background, he says, he is able to introduce “personal innovations” into his works. That is the reason; his paintings are a rare blend of traditional styles with his unique touch.

(ii). It is because of that approach you find a natural quality and grace in Shri Rajam’s paintings; they almost seem effortless. The vigor, the strength and the power of a heroic figure are brought to life by the vitality of its lines; not by his fat muscles or his sheer size. With use of shading different parts of the body, it produces three dimensional effects in the images.  Even the demons in his paintings are never muscular or excessively fat. The outlines are strong and very sure; and there is an easy and natural depiction of volume, evidencing a good understanding of the rhythm and the structure of the human body.

(iii). His figures are never rigid and static. Their stances are always suggestive of flowing movements of languid grace and charming rhythm. Their distinctive display of smooth motion and the sense of balance are lovely. The painted figures of the “heroes” present a profound sense of peace and joy even while placed amidst activities and contradictions of life.

Shri Rajam’s works are excellent illustrations of the principles and aspirations of Chitrasutra.

5.6. Colours

(i). Another distinctive feature of Shri Rajam’s works is the use of soft color schemes, uniquely decorated costumes; and delicate, deft cultural “touches” that lend authenticity to the context, period and the status / nature of the subject. He often lets elements drift partially off the canvas. But above all else, there is a flow of curve in all of his designs that projects a certain distinctive grace of smooth motion even in stillness.

(ii). The other is the use of proper colours:  soft and subdued, the lines firm and sinuous and the expressions true to life. The colours, at times contrasting and at times matching are artistically employed to create magical effects. That effect is enhanced by skilful shading of the body-parts; giving them a three dimensional appearance; and providing depth to the picture. These were precisely the principles that Chitrasutra too recommended.

(iii). The Chitrasutra aptly remarks, when a learned and skilled artist paints with golden colour, with articulate and yet very soft lines with distinct and well arranged garments; and graced with beauty, proportion, rhythm and inspiration, then the painting would truly be beautiful.

How very true that is in the case of Shri Rajam..!

5.6. Eyes

The Chitrasutra tradition regarded the eyes as the windows to the soul. And, it said, it is through their expressive eyes the figures in the painting open up their heart and speak eloquently to the viewer. It therefore accorded enormous importance to the delicate painting of the soulful and expressive eyes that pour out the essence of the subject. The lively sets of lustrous pools of eyes continue to influence generations of Indian artists; those eyes are, in fact, a hall mark of Indian art works.

One finds a vindication of these principles in Shri Rajam’s paintings.

5.7. Gods & Goddesses

(i). A lot of figures depicted by Shri S Rajam are of gods, goddesses, sages and demons; as also of the kings, queens and the composers of the bygone eras. His involvement in their creation was total; he not merely researched into their every available detail but also tried to get into their spirit. “Practically speaking, to paint the Gods and Goddesses, you must imagine them aggressively,” says Rajam “There are rigid rules of grammar regarding proportions. Yet, the artist has to assume the freedom to compose his picture according to his aesthetic sense. There may not be a physical resemblance to the subject; but one should surely try to bring out the essential nature of its character.”

(ii). You will, therefore, find in Shri Rajam’s paintings the virtues and powers of the gods and demons made explicit by employing varieties of forms, symbols and abstract visualizations. That artistic liberty, freedom and felicity of expression is a characteristic of classical Indian art, as also of Shri Rajam’s art.  He quotes the text (Chitrasutra) and says, “Rules do not make the painting; it is the artist with a soul and vision who creates the art expressions”.

(iii). Many of his creations have now turned into objects of worship; and adorn the walls of the temples and puja-rooms. That might be because, Shri Rajam’s art awakens the divine presence within us; and we respond to the sublime images brought to us in his art. When that happens, we are filled by grace and there is no space left for base desires and pain: we have become that deity.

Shri Rajam’s art has that magical quality, which brings out the essence of life and the grace that permeate the whole of existence.

5.8. Secular art

Even his secular art is rich in expressive realism, reminiscent of the paintings at Ajanta, Bagh and Sittannavasal. They testify to his love of naturalism – in the depiction of the human form and in the depiction of nature.  Yet, his pictures always seem to suggest to something beyond the obvious, stimulating the senses and igniting the imagination of the viewer.



6. The technique

(i). Shri Rajam says, he first paints the outlines , then colours and goes on to finish  with lines.

(ii). The medium used by Shri Rajam is watercolour on cured plywood, veneer, handmade paper and silk (not the mulberry silk but the tussar silk, the non- violent silk, at the suggestion of The Paramacharya of Kanchi). It is said that in his earlier days Shri Rajam made the paper himself. As regards silk, he says one has to be very careful while painting on silk, because mistakes and wrong lines cannot be corrected or erased easily.

(iii). Each painting of his will have about 25 layers of colour; and will be washed ten to twelve times before it is completed. His technique involves washing the paper by dipping the brush in plain water and dabbing it all over the painting. This he does every time after applying a couple of layers of colour. “Do you know why I do it,” he asks. “It is to remove the excess colours from the painting. Only the subtle brush strokes and effects remain and all that is garish is washed away. Do you know I lose more than 30 per cent of the paints this way? It is a loss. But my painting will survive without problems and its life will be as long as the medium on which I do it”.

(iv) . Shri Rajam calls this process “water-wash”, which according to him is an oriental technique, unique to Indian and Chinese painting. The Chinese method, he says, is also the same but the number of washes is not as many as in the Indian method.  He explains, “A wonderful quality of this oriental wash technique is that the painting can be washed in water and no colours will come off except the final touches of tempura colours “.

(v) . He says, such repeated washing –treatment helps the colour stay on the surface and last longer, because through the process, all the colours are absorbed by the handmade paper on which the pictures are painted.  Luckily, the handmade, rag paper etc. that he uses can withstand his water-wash treatment. Not only that, strangely the paintings do not smudge and they emerge all the more beautiful after being subjected to water- wash.

(vi). He uses transparent watercolour while building the layers, and applies opaque colours in the final stages of highlighting and finishing. As colours are applied from light to dark, it enables the undertones of previous colours to be visible. This gives, according to him, a misty and toned effect suitable to portray the imaginative subjects.

(vii). The process is laborious and takes nearly ten washes and about a week to ten days to finish a painting. But, he says, it worth doing it because the method ensures that colours last longer and stay bright. And, even in case the painting gets wet, the colours remain unaffected.

(viii). Shri Rajam recommends that the watercolours be preserved behind glass and ensured that no fungus develops between the painting and the glass.

7. Phenomenal output

(i). Considering the volume of study, research and work involved; and the time taken to complete a painting, the prodigious output of Shri Rajam is totally amazing. For this scholarly-painter phenomenon who has entered his nineties, his work is his worship. His zest for work is enormous; and says he is “just beginning”. Even at his age, he is as inspired and enthusiastic about his work as he was in 1940 when he took to painting seriously; and he is no less prolific. Shri Rajam now in his nineties paints for about three to four hours every day.  Art and music are his passions and they keep him young.

(ii). The paintings produced by him over the years, I reckon, run into a few thousands. I am not sure whether either Shri Rajam or anyone else has kept a count of his artistic output. I understand, there have also not been serious attempts to put together a sizable number of his paintings, save a volume of his 300 paintings brought out by Himalayan Academy, Hawaii (see

There have not been many formal exhibition of Sri. S. Rajam’s works either, except perhaps the one held in Los Alamos, NM, USA in 1981.

(iii). The arrays of subjects chosen by him are vast and diverse. They range from the gods, goddesses, demons, Vedic sages, characters from puranas, literature, history, planetary deities, music composers, Nayanmars , Thirthankaras  and Acharyas of various periods and inclinations  ; festivals , fine arts folk arts and so on and on.

(iv). His works are distributed over book- covers, countless magazines published in various languages, book illustrations, compilations, chronicles, life histories etc. Yet, he feels he has not done quite enough and could have done more; “There is so much more I can do” he rues even at ninety.

(v). Anyone,  even vaguely familiar with his paintings cannot help but wonder how a person, amidst his various interests , pursuits and preoccupations in life, could achieve so much in various other fields of his activities  and yet  produce countless  sublime and soulful precious works of  art .. And, all that in one life time…!

(vi). That was the genius called Acharya Shri S Rajam, the very incarnation of the Vedic seers he admired and adored.



Resources & References


S Rajam

An afternoon with S Rajam

Aesthetic and faithful depiction of character

Visual poetry

Ajanta Cave Paintings

All the pictures of Shri Rajam are from internet


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Legacy of Chitrasutra – Fourteen – Shri S Rajam

[This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on  the Art of Painting in Ancient India 

This is the concluding part of a series that attempted to trace the influence of Chitrasutra, the ancient text and its recommended practices, from the days of the Ajanta to the present period.

In this article we move on to the 20th and 21st century   and admire the sublime paintings of Shri S Rajam, perhaps the sole votary of Chitrasutra tradition in the modern times.

The present article briefly outlines Shri S Rajam’s achievements in the field of music and in the music related arts.

In the next part we shall look at Chitrasutra and Shri Rajam as an artist who brought to life the traditional art of India.]

Continued from  The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Thirteen – The Murals of Kerala (Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram Palaces)

1. Shri S Rajam

1.1 Sangita Kalacharya Vidvan Shri S Rajam is a many splendored jewel of Indian art and music. He is the musicians’ musician, held in very high esteem by the connoisseurs of Carnatic music; he is the creator of sublime art in the pristine and ancient tradition of Chitrasutra; he is an excellent photographer who produced outstanding photographs of temple architecture and sculptures; and in his youth a hero of early South Indian films who composed songs and sung them too. The most amazing aspect of his involvement in several branches of arts is that he excelled in each of them, created a unique niche of his own and yet remained unaffected by his success. And, above all he is a remarkable human being with a flame-like imagination and a teacher with an understanding heart. He is often, aptly, described as a simple man of singular achievements in a plurality of fields. It is hard to cite anyone, in the contemporary world, as comparable to Shri S Rajam. He is a rare gem; and like any precious gem he is away from public gaze.

1.2. Even as he was mellowing sweetly into his nineties, he retained  the sense of wonder and awe at the marvels of life. He continued  to work with zeal, regularly, at his art; and says with a child-like delight he is discovering and learning a few new things each day. As regarded music, his other passion in life, he was active as a teacher and as a guide; and  participated in academia and in the discussions at various Sabhas till his very last days.

[Shri Rajam passed away at the age  of 91 on 29 Jan 2010 .Please click  here ]

1.3. I have special regard, appreciation and reverence towards Shri S Rajam, because I view him as one of the few gifted artists of the twentieth century who breathed fresh life into the ancient tradition of Chitrasutra, not by talking or writing about the ancient art but by diligently practicing it with devotion and sincerity over a long period of more than sixty years. My admiration of him is heightened because he is perhaps the sole true representative and votary of the Chitrasutra in the modern era. To use a favorite phrase of Sri Sankara, Shri S Rajam is a Sampradaya-vit, the one who understands Sampradaya  the good tradition. Shri S Rajam pointed out, “Intradition, only good things should remain; the bad should be ignored and not continued. This is tradition”; and said, “Be modern in outlook; there is no problem with that. But learn to appreciate the beauty and elegance of your culture. Safeguard it, develop it and carry it forward for the benefit of the next generation “.  The present article aims, mainly, to talk about that aspect of Shri Rajam’s artistic genius.

But, before we resume discussion on Shri Rajam as an artist, let’s take a quick glance at a few facts and his other achievements.

2. Early years

2.1. S Rajam was born at Madurai on 10.02.1919 to Smt. Parvathiamma (also called Chellammal) and Sri V Sundaram Ayyar, a leading advocate of Madras. Sundaram Ayyar was a scholar, a person of culture and a lover of Carnatic music. He, a connoisseur and patron of music, wrote music reviews for ‘The Hindu’; and his views were respected by artistes such as Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar and others. S Rajam later in his life recalled, “In case my father felt that a particular sangati was out of place, Iyengar would drop it”.

It is said; at the suggestion of Sri Pudukkottai Dakshinamoorthi   Pillai (1875 – 1925), a noted mridangam and khanjira vidwan of those times, Sundaram Ayyar constructed a spacious hall on the first floor of his house at Mylapore in order to hold the concerts of the musicians he admired, such as Ariyakudi Ramanujam Iyengar, Madurai Mani, Ambi Deekshithar, Muthiah Bagavathar and Karaikudi Sambasivam. Sundaram Ayyar, it is said, supported and sponsored a young and talented musician Ramaiya who had come to Madras in search of a career in music. Ramaiya later flowered and flourished as a noted singer and a composer of great merit; and gained fame as Papanasanam Sivan (1890 – 1973).

2.2. Musicians, writers and scholars frequented Ayyar’s household which was a sort of cultural hub in Mylapore of those days. The atmosphere at home was conducive for nurturing love for art and culture in the young hearts of the children at home. Rajam’s younger brother, by about eight years, S Balachender (1927-1990) grew into a larger- than – life personality; a remarkable veena player with a unique style of his own; a forceful writer; an accomplished actor and an eminent director. Rajam’s two sisters: Jayalakshmi and Saraswathi too were very good singers. Shri Rajam had another younger bother S Gopalaswamy and another younger sister S Kalpakam Balakrishnan who was an accomplished veena player. These two were twins and were the youngest in the family,

2.3. Rajam had his music training at a very young age. Sundaram Ayyar had engaged Ramaiya (Papanasanam Sivan) to train Rajam and his sister Jayalakshmi. Rajam was thus the first disciple of Papanasanam Sivan. The talented disciple performed  as early as in his 13th year.

Rajam who was then in P.S. High School was an avid movie fan; he hardly missed a silent movie that ran in the tent cinema behind his school. Little did he realize then he himself would very soon be a movie star. The year 1934 proved to be a very important year for Rajam a handsome lad of fifteen years; and for his teacher Papanasam Sivan who in his mid-age (say about 44) was in search of a stable career in music. The year saw them launched into successful careers in films and music.

The noted film critique historian Madabhushi Rangadorai who gained fame under his pen-name Randor Guy has described the circumstances that led Papanasam Sivan as also Rajam and family into the world of films. Rajam’s first film was Seetha Kalyanam (1934), a Prabhat Talkies production directed by the well known Marathi and Hindi filmmaker of his day, Baburao Phendharkar. The strikingly handsome fifteen year lad Rajam  of  sharp features and slim figure played the leading role of Sri Rama, while his sister Jayalakshmi played the leading- lady Seetha. (That raised quite a few eyebrows). The film, in a way, was a family venture, as Rajam’s father Sundaram Ayyar played Janaka, while  Rajam’ s other sister  Saraswathi played Urmila and Rajam’s kid-brother Balachender played a child musician in the court of Demon King Ravana. The music was provided by Rajam’s teacher Papanasam Sivan.

[For more on the Seethakalyanam Film, please check the following link and the references listed on the page. ]

The film Seetha Kalyanam and its music was a huge success. It launched Rajam and his teacher Papanasam Sivan on their way to stardom. Some songs set to music by Papanasam Sivan and sung by Rajam became hits. To mention a couple of those:  ‘Nal vidai thaarum…’ (Raga Kalyani – based on Saint Thyagaraja’s ‘Amma Raavamaa…’); and, ‘Kaaranam ethu swami….’ (Raga Kaanada – based on Saint Purandaradasa’s composition ‘Sevaka kana ruchirey…).

Following that success, Rajam’s second film was Radha Kalyanam (1935), produced by Meenakshi Movies and directed by C. K. Sathasivan (better known as Saachi). Rajam played the lead role of Krishna while Radha was played by the beautiful looking star of those days M.R. Santhanalakshmi who perhaps was elder to the hero Rajam. The music to the film was provided by the noted singer-composer Sri Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar.

Rajam’s third film as hero was Rukmini Kalyanam (1936); and Rajam played Krishna again. The film was directed by the famous Marathi filmmaker, actor and Baburao Phendharkar’s brother Balji Phendharkar.

Of the three films in which Rajam played the leading role, it appears, the first film Seetha Kalyanam, was true success; the other two were not so successful. But, by then the handsome brothers S. Rajam (18) and Balachander (10) had gained fame as ‘Prabhat Prodigy Stars’ and ‘South Indian Prodigies’. They toured several cities in India and in Sri Lanka, performing duet-concerts. It is said, like the legendry Lav and Kush, the two handsome and talented young lads were the darlings of art-lovers and the cynosure of all eyes.

2.4. Shri Rajam played leading roles in three Tamil films Seetha-kalyanam, Radha-kalyanam and Rukmini-kalyanam; and also sang. By then Rajam was married and  his wife was not in favour of his acting in movies. Shri Rajam later humorously remarked, all his three films were Kalyanams and after his own Kalyanam   there could not be any more Kalyanams. Shri Rajam’s association with the world of films was relatively brief but it was highly successful.

In the years thereafter Shri Rajam   visited many temples in India and Sri Lanka; and stayed for a while in the 7th century temple of Sri Kailasanathar at Kanchipuram.

S. Jayalakshmi

Shri Rajam did however later in 1942 played a supporting triple role of Lord Muruga, the boy-Murga, and the hunter-Muruga in a hit movie Sivakavi in which the doyen of Tamil films Tyagaraja Bhagavathar the singer- actor played the lead role. Rajam’s sister Jayalakshmi played the leading lady in the film; while Rajam’s father Sundaram Ayyar played guru, the teacher of young Sivakavi.

Later in 1948, Shri Rajam composed music and also sang the song ‘Kaathal puyalthaniley thurumbupol…’ in V. Shantaram’s ‘Nam Nadu’ the Tamil remake of his Hindi film ‘Apna Desh’.

Shri S Rajam thus was a pioneer in the development of the Tamil films. Shri Rajam blessed with an agile mind and good health is today the senior-most living hero, the leading-man, of the Tamil film world. His contribution to Tamil films is recognized with pleasure and gratitude.

3. Music

3.1. Shri S Rajam is a well recognized, much admired and an honoured performing musician. In his home state, Tamil Nadu, he enjoys more fame in the world of music than in art. In one of the interviews to a music journal, Shri Rajam quietly remarked towards the end of the interview “Not many may know that I am a painter; and I do original classical paintings. I divide my time between painting and music.” Such is the humility of the grand-old man of Indian arts and music…!

3.2. Shri S  Rajam served for about 35 years as music supervisor and a Grade A artiste at the All India Radio (AIR), where he popularized Carnatic Music and also Thirukkural singing. He performed full duration kutcheris based on Tirukkural couplets.  During his tenure, he recorded rare compositions of the Vaggeyakars, produced many operas and musical plays.  He later mentioned that His most cherished program with AIR was the presentation of Silappadikaram as an opera with a huge orchestra. “Our culture is a very ancient one and we have the responsibility of passing it on to the next generation in its truest form. I shall strive to do my best in this regard and may even write a book”.

Between 1970 and 1982, while serving AIR, he led a team of artists on a music tour to Africa presenting a percussion ensemble; and toured USA performing 32 musical concerts in various cities. He also performed in Burma, Sri Lanka and Canada.

His lecture demonstration on rare Ragas and kritis, vivadi ragas, as also on the compositions of Koteeswara Iyer are admired by the connoisseurs. His special interest in vivadi ragas, as also Lakshana and Lakshya aspects of Carnatic music is well known.

[Please check the following for Shri S Rajam’s rendering of Dikshitar’s Navagraha kritis

Rajam S – Music India Online :   Album: Navagraha Krithis ]

Sri S Rajam was best known for very aesthetic renditions of ‘vivaadi ragas’, which need a balanced and delicate handling.  listen to his rendering  Sri Muttuswami Dikshitar‘s  composition ‘kalavati kamalasana yuvati’ in Raga kalavati, (One of the vivadi ragas). Please click on :

3.3. Shri Rajam continued to serve , till his last days ,  on the expert committee of the Music Academy at Chennai.  His simplicity and willingness to help anyone who approaches him on subjects related to art and music has endeared him to all and to the young in particular.

3.4. Over the years, many honours have been showered on Shri Rajam. Just to name some of those: He was awarded the title “Isai Kadal” (ocean of music) by the Tamil Sangham, Karikudi in 1988. He was accorded the Sangeetha Nataka Academy award in 1992; and the Kala Acharya in 1996.The only significant honour he received from the Madras Music Academy (to which he contributed so much) has been the title of Sangeetha Acharya. Probably the best way to describe him is: Acharya.

It is interesting that as early as 1947 when Shri Rajam was still a young man of about 28 years, the late K.V. Ramachandran (well known Art critic), wrote him: “You know I am not given to praising anyone, still less over praising. If it were in my gift to give a title, and if any one deserves it in India today, you deserve the name of Acharya — the master in painting. I don’t flatter. “Shri Ramachandran (1898-1956) , it is said , was in his day  regarded   the foremost music and art critic in the country  . He was not easily pleased; and a ‘good-word’ from him was considered a high reward even by merited artists. His high praise of Rajam signified the eminence that Shri Rajam enjoyed even as a young person.

I understand that at the 76th South Indian music conference and festival of Indian Fine Arts Society to be held in Chennai during Dec 18, 2008 to Jan 4th, 2009, Shri S Rajam would be honoured with the title, ‘Sangeetha Kalasikhamani’. No honour is too high for Vidvan Shri S Rajam.

3.5. While reminiscenceing his musical training, Sri Rajam fondly recalls how his father Sundaram Ayyar took him, while still a lad of ten, to the well known musician Ambi Dikshitar for music lessons. Talking about his Guru, Shri Rajam mentions that Ambi Dikshitar had a deep voice of low sruthi that could easily touch the panchama in the lower octave; and Ambi Dikshitar’s voice was well suited for rendering, with clarity, the grand and slow paced compositions of Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar. Rajam was amused that his teacher a descendant of the Mutthuswami Dikshitar lineage should commence his lessons with a composition of Sri Thyagaraja (enta nercina in shuddha dhanyaasi).It was a rare privilege, he remarked, and a great fortune. Later, of course, Ambi Dikshitar taught Rajam many compositions of Mutthuswami Dikshitar, most notable being the navagraha kritis.

3.6. He had the privilege of being trained in music by a galaxy of stalwarts. He recalls with gratitude and pleasure, “I have undergone training from many Gurus. I learnt Dikshitar kritis from Ambi Dikshitar. It is from Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar that I attained Pathantara suddham and perfection in singing fast tempo. I learnt depiction of vakra, varjya ragas; and swaraprastara from Madurai Mani Iyer. Papanasam Sivan though a composer himself taught me lots of Tyagaraja Kritis… Madurai Mani Iyer taught me Nagumomu withchatusruti dhaivata; while Papanasam Sivan taught me in suddhadhaivatam, the correct way…. Although I have learnt from many gurus, I crave to express what we have not heard from other musicians.”

One of the musicians he admired most in his youth was Smt. Veena Dhanammal (1867-1938) renowned for adherence to traditional values and profundity of music expression. He heard her in the latter years of her life. He spoke of her  from his heart “It was Dhanammal’s music that haunted me in my early years.  Dhanammal was Saraswati incarnate – she sang and played the veena alternately. I was fortunate to attend her Friday soirees some 40 times. I would sit very close to her; and when she sang Akshayalinga vibho, she shed tears while doing niravalon the line ‘padarivana’. Shouldn’t we have the same intensity of feeling while performing? How can you be a real singer if you are not a rasika yourself?”

3.7. S Rajam’s favourite composer is Koteeswara Iyer (January 1870 – October 21, 1936) popularly known as Kavi Kunjara Dasan. “I am deeply interested in Koteeswara Iyer’s compositions ” S Rajam said,” I do not compare any other composer with him, I find great pleasure in singing his compositions”. Koteeswara Iyer was the first composer, after Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar, who composed krithis in all 72 melakartha ragas. His monumental work, “kanda ganamudam” has songs, in praise of Lord Muruga, composed in all the 72 melams. The songs are in chaste Tamil.

3.8. Shri S. Rajam has the distinction of being the only musician to have sung all those 72 compositions; each krithi being accompanied by raga, neraval and kalpana-swaras. He said,” It is vital to understand the meaning and bhava of a composition to make an emotional presentation or render the song with insight “. His rendering of Koteeswara Iyer’s songs is recorded in a set of ten tapes / nine CDs.  S. Rajam has also published a book giving notations for all the 72 songs.

Listen to Shri S. Rajam singing the popular kriti, Sri Valli:

…and to Shri S. Rajam speak about Papanasanam Sivan and Natabhairavi:

4. Music & painting

4.1. Shri S Rajam is the golden link between music and art. He provided a visual identity and a tangible idiom of expression to Indian classical music through his paintings. For instance, just to mention a few, his series of paintings Origin & Classification of Swaras (inspired by Sangeetha Kalpadrumam of Harikesanallur Muthaiah Bhagavatar), illustrating the origins and charectestics of each of the seven notes of Indian music, explaining their nature and their relation to the Hindustani and Western music systems, is a remarkable work of great learning and sublime art. I have not come across a like of it anywhere.

Similarly, his series of twelve paintings illustrating Venkatamakhi’s melakartha scheme by classifying the 72 mela ragas into 12 chakras or segments; associating each chakra with a month of the year (from April- March) ; and illustrating them through soulful and imaginative paintings is a marvellous example of the delightful amalgam of innovation , scholarship and superb artistry. It is a unique piece of visual poetry and music. This series was also meant as a tribute to Venkatamakhi the great musician-musicologist (1635-1690).

And, his series of paintings illustrating the kritis and particularly the  Navagraha kritis of Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar are, of course, legendry; and have passed into the folklore of music, astrology, and tantra traditions and of classical school of painting.

Sri Ranganyakam kriti of Sri Dikshitar

4.2. In each case, he poured into puranas, epics and ancient texts searching for details and for the right idioms of expression. His involvement was complete; and he was totally absorbed into his work. While recalling his experience while painting the Navagraha series, he mentions, “Inexplicable incidents occurred, a reminder that Dikshitar’s compositions are invested with awesome power. While painting Surya, gusts of wind would snatch the paper from my hands. Embarking on Rahu, I found a snake skin hanging from a creeper and even a live snake coiled beneath the finished painting.”

4.3. His portraitures of the composers in the classical traditions of Indian music are benchmarks; and now, after his advent, one can scarcely visualize the hoary composers but through the eyes of Shri S Rajam. His portrait of the trinity of Carnatic music (Saint Thyagaraja, Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar and Sri Shyama Shastri) which he painted when he was barely twenty years of age is a true classic; it is a universally acclaimed archetype and one that is even worshipped.

4.4. Hallmarks of his portraits are their authenticity. He studied and researched into his subjects thoroughly, grasped the essence of their character and achievements. His portraits therefore bring out not mere the physical resemblance of the subjects but more importantly the essence of their very inner being.

4.5. There are some interesting stories associated with his portraitures of the Music Trinity. In the case of Saint Thyagaraja, the old drawings available at that time (before 1940) showed a weak, melancholic person with his chest bones protruding and having a rather sickly countenance. Shri S Rajam felt offended by the old portraits; and was hurt the saint was shown in a poor light causing injustice to his genius. Shri S Rajam strongly felt that the portrait should aptly project the character and greatness of the person, his achievements, his genius and his mellow glowing sattvic nature;   and not just his physical resemblance.

Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar was an Upasaka of Sri Chakra and the Devi; he was an advaitin in his outlook. There was always a certain serene detachment about him; and in his eyes. In Shri S Rajam’s portraits, Sri Dikshitar comes across as a calm, composed, handsome young person of lime-colour (golden hue) complexion. He always wears a green  (or a blue) shawl over his left shoulder, and sports rudraksha -mala around his neck. His veena is upturned; with the face of the yali looking up.

His portrait of Sri Shyama Shastri which eventually turned into an Indian postal stamp has an interesting story around it. Sri Shyama Shastri too was a Devi Upasaka, but charged with intense devotion and a poignant longing for the Mother. He was a deeply religious person who adhered to the prescriptions of the scriptures. He always had a dash of vermilion (Devi –prasada) right between his eye brows and stripes of Vibhuthiacross his forehead; he sported a tuft (Kudumi) and appeared with stubble on his chin because he shaved only once in a fortnight just as an orthodox Brahmin would do. Shyama Shastri – was a dark, handsome, serious looking person, rather absorbed in himself and with slight rotund around his waist. He was always dressed in a gold-laced (zari) dhoti and a red upper garment (uttariya). He was fond of chewing betel leaf (paan); his lips are depicted dark red (He is occasionally shown with a paan petti, a small box to hold leaves and nuts). Shyama Shastri’s tambura had a yali-mukham, not usually found in other tambura depictions.

Another interesting  incident came up  when Shri Rajam had to paint the picture of Venkatamakhin [1635-1690  , the great musicologist who devised the melakartha system of  classifying ragas in the Carnatic music] as an introductory painting for the Apr 2008-March 2009 calendar brought out by L&T, he had no earlier pictures of Venkatamakhin to guide him. His research into the archives of Kanci mutt led him to an interesting detail showing that Venkatamakhin who was also a skillful vainika wore his long hair in a coil such that it did not touch his body; he coiled it atop his head. Shri S Rajam then pictured Venkatamakhin with coiled locks of hair, rudraksha-mala; and surrounded by musical instruments such as veena, tambura etc. as also scrolls of ancient manuscripts, lending the picture an air scholarship and a spiritual aura.

4.6. It is said, nowhere is the bond between the arts stronger than that binding painting and music. As sister arts, music and painting share a common vocabulary. Both arts are often referred to as compositions; both talk in terms of tones and shades; and there is a certain rhythm and fluency in both. In the present Indian context, nowhere do both the arts find their fulfilment, in creative as well as traditional sense, in one person than in Vidvan Shri S Rajam.



Continued in part Fifteen

—Chitrasutra and Shri S Rajam

Resources & References

S Rajam

An afternoon with S Rajam

Aesthetic and faithful depiction of character

Visual poetry

Ajanta Cave Paintings

S. Rajam – a rare gem

All pictures are from Internet


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Thirteen – The Murals of Kerala (Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram Palaces)

[This Twelfth article in the series; and , it  follows the one on the murals of Kerala which talked, in general,  about some of the main features of the traditional mural art of Kerala, which has a unique style of drawing and depiction; and colour schemes.

The present article looks at the murals at Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram Palaces, as particular instances of traditional Kerala mural art..

This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on the Art of Painting in Ancient India ..

In the next article we shall move on to the 20th and 21st century   and admire the sublime paintings of Shri S Rajam, perhaps the sole votary of Chitrasutra tradition in the modern times. ]

Continued from the Legacy of Chitrasutra- Eleven- The Murals of Kerala



A. Mattanchery Palace

49.1. Mattanchery, in Cochin, had been the former capital of the erstwhile rulers of Kochi. It was a bustling sea port to where the Portuguese and the Dutch traders were drawn by the lure of the legendry spices of the East, especially the black pepper. They established business houses and built large warehouses, at Kochi.

49.2. It is said; the Portuguese traders, in order to seek favours, beguile or appease the then king of Kochi, Veera Kerala Varma Thampuran (1537-61), built for his use (in 1552/1555) a palace at Mattanchery and also gifted him a golden crown. The Dutch, who later arrived on the scene by 1663, promptly displaced the Portuguese and took over the spice trade. The Dutch,   for reasons similar to the ones that prompted the Portuguese, refurbished the king’s palace at Mattanchery. Since then, the Mattanchery palace has come to be known as the Dutch Palace. It had been the residence of the Kochi royal family for about two centuries.

49.2. There is a certain medieval charm and simplicity about the Mattanchery Palace .The palace is a blend of Portuguese architecture and Kerala style of construction,; a ‘Nettukettu’ (four buildings) with a shrine of Pazhayanur Bhagavathi, deity of the royal family, in the central courtyard. Its   interiors are made beautiful with rich wood work and exquisite flooring that looks like polished black granite; but it is actually made of a mixture of charcoal, burnt coconut shells, lime, plant juices and egg whites. The palace has within it two other temples, dedicated to Krishna and Shiva.

50. The Murals

50.1. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the walls in some rooms of the palace were painted with scenes from Ramayana, Mahabharata and other epic poems. Most of the murals are adorned with decorative textile design borders filled with figures of the flowers, creepers, birds, animals etc.

The paintings are massive and are spread over a total area of almost 1000 sq. ft.

50.2. The palace is a treasury of the 16th-17th century Kerala art. It is an artist’s delight. It is said; the late Amrita Sher Gill, the well known painter who visited the palace in 1937 was fascinated by these ‘perfectly marvellous old paintings’. In a letter to her sister, she said she was surprised by the technique and the amazing knowledge of form and the power of observation of the painters. According to her, the Mattanchery paintings were more powerful than the Ajanta frescoes; but the latter were superior from the painting and artistic aspects.

50.3. The earliest paintings of the 16th century are on the theme of Venugopala (Krishna as the divine flute player). These panels were, in later years, interspersed with paintings depicting episodes from the epic-poem the Ramayana. Some say that the Mattanchery palace Ramayana murals are the visual interpretations of the Adhyatma Ramayana of Ezhuthachan, the great Malayalam poet of the 15th century.


50.4. The Ramayana murals

The Ramayana murals of Mattanchery palace depict the story of Rama,  commencing from Dasharatha offering a yajna praying to gods to grant him sons; and it concludes with Rama returning, triumphantly , to Ayodhya , along with his beloved Sita and brother Lakshmana. The Rama-story is rendered in about 48 paintings covering nearly 300 sq ft (28 m2) of wall surface. Rama’s nobility, unsullied character and composure even while placed in adverse situations, comes through serenely.

The narration of the episodes flow smoothly, each panel theme lucidly leading to the next. The themes are separated from one another by decorative borders, unique to the Kerala mural tradition. Besides giving a subtle form of relief to the pictures, they seem to convey a sense of motion.

50.5. Besides the Ramayana paintings there are portrayals of Krishna holding aloft Govardhana hill, another of a flute-playing Krishna (Venugopala) in jewel-like green.

There is also a mural of Krishna in reclining posture, surrounded by gopis,. His languid pose belies the activity of his six hands and two feet, caressing his adoring admirers. Apparently, these panels were later additions.

50.6. The themes from the epic poem Kumara-sambhavam of the poet Kalidasa depict Shiva and Uma in their snow abode atop the Mount Kailas.

A painting on the walls of the Raja’s bedroom depicts Shiva and his consort Parvathi in embrace. They are surrounded by their son Ganapathi and other admirers. Interestingly, a guard wearing a Portuguese helmet and wielding a halberd, slaves and sages stand nearby. These paintings belong to a much later period than the Ramayana scenes; some of them to the beginning of the 18th and 19th centuries.

50.7. Among the depiction of Vishnu, his portrayal as Vaikuntanatha and Ananthasayanamurti are well known.

The seated Vishnu (Vaikuntanatha) under the canopy of five-hooded Anantha-naga is a rare depiction of Vishnu. It is said to be a replica of the deity at the Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple at Tripunithura, the family deity of the erstwhile Kochi dynasty. The Vishnu image at Tripunithura was, in turn, perhaps inspired by the Vishnu sculpture at the 6th century rock – cut temple of Badami.


There is also a composition of Lakshmi seated on a lotus. These are among the latest works in the palace.

50.8. According to the website of the Corporation of Cochin, many of these murals were painted in the traditional style by one Shri Govindan Embranthiri of Narayana- mangalam. No details are given.

51. True to the Kerala tradition

51.1. The beautiful and extensive murals of Mattanchery palace are fine examples of traditional Kerala mural art. Some of them are hailed for their style of depiction.

51.2. The murals are packed with details in gloriously rich colours; the style is never strictly true-to-life; the treatment of facial features is trimmed down to the simplest of lines for the mouths, and aquiline noses.

51.3. True to the Kerala tradition, the murals at Mattanchery are characterized by   the warmth and grandeur of rich colours, elaborate ornamentation, sumptuousness of the outline, depiction of volume through subtle shading, a crowding of space by divine or heroic figures;   a strong sense of design and well defined picturization.


B. Padmanabhapuram Palace

54. The palace

54.1. Padmanabhapuram palace, the exquisite wooden palace was constructed in the early years of the seventeenth century (say, around 1602) during the reign of by Iravipillai Iravivarma Kulasekhara Perumal who ruled Travancore State between 1592 and 1609 A.D. It is said to have been built upon an earlier mud palace in the Nalukettu style of architecture, constructed during the 14th Century.  The Padmanabhapuram palace is a splendid illustration of the traditional Kerala architectural style. it is unlike any other palace in India.

The palace complex which includes fourteen buildings surrounded by a 4 km-long stone fort is located virtually at the land’s-end. It served as the secure official residence to the Travancore Kings for about two hundred years from 1550 to 1750.

54.2. It is said, the reign of the King Marthanda Varma (1729-1758), was a glorious period in the history of Padmanabhapuram palace. He provided a serene and secure ambiance to the palace; and gave it its present name – Padmanabhapuram palace (c.1744) in honour of the State’s patron deity. Its earlier name was Kalkulam.

The Padmanabhapuram palace was the centre of political power during the years 1600 to 1790, that is till the time the state capital was shifted to Thiruvananthapuram (also known as Trivandrum).

55. The Murals

55.1. The splendid antique interiors are adorned with intricate rosewood carvings and sculptured décor; and the elegance of the palace is enhanced by some beautiful 17th and18th century murals


55.2. The walls of the chamber in the topmost floor (Upparika malika) of the palace are covered with beautiful murals painted in the traditional Kerala style; and, they resemble the paintings at the Sri Padmanabha Swami Temple of Thiruvananthapuram. About forty-five of those murals occupy almost 900 sq ft of wall surface, depicting Vaishnava themes, such as: Anantasayanan, Lakshminarayana, Krishna with Gopis, Sastha etc.

The depiction of the Krishna theme (Krishna – leela) is inspired by Sri Krishna Karnamrutham, a collection of divine verses charged with intense love of Krishna, attributed to Biva-mangala (c.1220-1300 AD).


55.3. Shri Benoy K Behl, the scholar and art historian, remarks,” Unlike the Mattanchery paintings, the gods (in the murals at Padmanabhapuram palace) are presented in their iconic forms and not in narrative situations. The paintings again reveal the close relationship between the styles of art in diverse regions of India. The beautiful textiles as well as some of the forms recall the paintings of Alchi in Ladakh.”



We shall move on to the 20th and 21st century   and admire the sublime paintings of Shri S Rajam, perhaps the sole votary of Chitrasutra tradition in the modern times.


References and sources

Murals of Kerala by M G Shashibhooshan, Dept. Of Public Relations, Kerala State.

 All pictures are from Internet


Posted by on September 26, 2012 in Art, Indian Painting, Legacy of Chitrasutra


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Twelve – The Murals of Kerala

[This is the Eleventh article in the series.

This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on the Art of Painting in Ancient India .

The traditional mural arts of Kerala are unique in their style of drawing and depiction; and in their colour schemes.

They are among the finest in India; and have unique idioms of depiction. These glorious paintings are easily recognizable with their characteristic warmth and grandeur of rich colours, elaborate ornamentation, sumptuousness of the outline, depiction of volume through subtle shading, a crowding of space by divine or heroic figures;   a strong sense of design and well defined picturing

In the next article we shall see as specific illustration of this art in the murals at the Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram Palaces.] 

Continued from: The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Eleven – Jaina Kanchi


45. The Tradition

45.1. Kerala has a rich and a long tradition in mural arts; and, it dates back to the seventh and eighth century AD. Kerala is the depository of the largest number of traditional murals in India, next only to Rajasthan. Its Temples, palaces, churches are adorned with profusion of very colourful mural paintings.

45.2. The oldest murals in the Kerala tradition are found in the rock cut cave temple of Thrunanadikkara (assigned to the period between 9th and 12th century AD),  which now is in the Kanya Kumari district of Tamil Nadu.  Among its oldest extant temple murals, the well-known are the 13th-14th century temple murals at Kanthaloor, Pisharikavu, Pardhivapuram, and Trivikramapuram in Tiruvananthapuram. These early murals were greatly influenced by the Pallava art, just as the Kerala architecture was influenced by the Pallava architecture.

45.3. The period between 14th-16th centuries was the golden-age of the traditional mural paintings in Kerala. It was a prolific period. But, more importantly, it produced the best in the Kerala mural art tradition. The Ramayana and Girija-kalyanam panels of Mattanchery Palace; and the paintings in the temples such as Vadakkumnatha, Thrissur; Siva temple, Chemmanthitta; Kudamaloor and at Thodeekkalam are regarded as the best illustrations   of the art of this period. The Kerala murals are largely known by these murals.

45.4. They were, at a later period, followed by the wall paintings at Panayannar Kavu, Thrichakrapuram, and   Kottakkal. Those in Padmanabhapuram palace (the Ananthashayi painting) and Krishnapuram palace (the Gajendramoksham panel) are considered the best of this period.

The 14th -17th century murals of Kerala represent the final phase in the history of development traditional mural paintings of India.

45.5. The traditional texts followed by the practitioners of Kerala mural art are the Tantra-samucchaya, the 15th Century treatise on temple architecture and art written by Narayana; and the Shilparatna, the 16th Century text by Sreekumara. The later is also a standard text on temple architecture; and it lays down, among other things, the tenets of painting including the proper colour schemes the skilful management of which provides stylized balance and rhythm to the painting. Shilparatna is the principal text in Dravida, particularly the Kerala, mural art.

46. The Characteristics

46.1. The Kerala murals blend harmoniously with their surrounding architecture, wood carvings and decorative art. Each art-form inspires the other.

The strong and voluminous figures of Kerala murals with their elaborate head dresses have a close association with the characters from the dance dramas of Kerala, such as Koodiyattam and Mohiniyattam; and the ancient dance ritual Theyyam. The Kerala mural art is also strongly related to the drawing of various mandalas (ritual designs) in vibrant colours and decorating them by sprinkling powders of different hues and shades, filling the spaces within the mandala.

46.2. Unlike the wall-paintings in the temples of Tamil Nadu which are exclusively either Shiva or Vishnu oriented, the Kerala murals present a more balanced treatment of its subjects. The Kerala temple-murals depict the legends of Shiva and Vishnu rather evenly. There are paintings of Shiva worshipping Vishnu; and Vishnu offering worship to Shiva. Further, Kerala adores the unique fusion of Shiva and Vishnu in the form of Hari-Hara; and in the form of the most popular deity Sastha.

46.3. As in the case of traditional murals in other parts of India, the murals of Kerala too are inspired by the legends, the episodes and characters from the Puranas, epics and folklore. But, generally, the depiction of the themes in the Kerala murals, in each case, is related to a classical text or an epic poem. The series of narrative panels on the walls of a temple or a palace, in a manner of speaking, could be viewed as illustrations of a particular classic text. For instance, it is said, the Ramayana panels of the Mattanchery palace follow the narration of the epic- story according to Ezhuthachan (c.15th -16th century) who is revered as the father of Malayalam literary tradition.  Similarly, the depiction of Girija-kalyanam (Shiva’s wedding with Girija) is based on the epic poem Kumara-sambhavam rendered by the great poet Kalidasa (c.4th century).

(From Shakuntalam of Kalidasa)

The scenes from the legend of Krishna – such as, Gajenda-moksha; Poothana-moksha; Kaliya-mardhanam, and Cheera-haranam etc—painted on the walls of Padmanabhapuram palace and Krishnapuram Palace are illustrations of episodes from Srimad Bhagavatham.

The iconic representation of gods and goddesses at the Padmanabhapuram palace are based on Dhyana-shlokas, which are not mere prayers or hymns. They are the word-pictures or verbal images of a deity. A Dhyana-shloka relating to a deity describes precisely, its form, its aspects, its countenance, the details of its physiognomy, its facial and bodily expressions; its posture, details of the number of arms, heads and eyes; and details of its ornaments, ayudhas (objects it holds in its hands) etc. It is said that there are more than 2,000 such Dhyana- shlokas.  These verses help the artist to visualize the form of the deity that he is about to paint.

46.4. The human and the godly figures depicted in Kerala murals are strong and voluminous, drawn in running, smooth curves and subtle darkening of colours. The exquisite shading depicts the fullness and roundedness of their form; resembling the paintings of Ajanta.

46.5. The figures in Kerala murals are highly stylized and rendered with elongated eyes, painted lips, exaggerated eye brows; and, explicit body and hand gestures (mudras). The figures are decorated with elaborate head dresses, exuberant and overflowing ornaments. The expression of the emotions too comes out rather strongly. As compared to these figures, the animals, the birds and the plants drawn in the pictures appear closer to life.

46.6. The wild and erotic scenes also are overtly shown without much reservation. The gods, humans and animals are shown in combat and lovemaking. The murals take a holistic approach to all existence; and almost obliterate the thin dividing line between the sublime and the mundane; and between religion and art .The Kerala murals is another instance in Indian tradition where the sacred and the profane are treated with equanimity in its arts.

46.7. The Kerala murals often look rather over-crowded with too many gods and celestial beings hovering around and filling up the painted surface. The paintings hardly have plain and clear spaces; as if the artist was keen to maximize the space -utilization. The paintings sometimes appear to be lacking in depth.

46.8. A unique feature of the Kerala murals is the deployment of a system for decorating the borders with relief- figures of animals, birds, flowers, creepers etc. It is called the Pancha-mala (five schemes or garlands), a system of five decorative reliefs. They are the Bhootha-mala (of goblins and dwarfs), Mruga-mala (of animals such as elephants, deer etc), Pakshi-mala (of rows of parrot like birds), Vana-mala (of floral motifs) and Chithra-mala (of decorative, artistic designs).

47. The Colours

47.1. Another noticeable feature of the Kerala murals is their rich, warm and loud colours. A traditional Kerala mural follows the Pancha-varna (five colours) colour scheme. The five colours employed in traditional Kerala mural paintings are; red, yellow, green, black and white.

The White, yellow, black, and red are the pure colours, according to Shilparatna. The Ochre yellow, Ochre red, white, bluish green and pure green are the more important colours in Kerala Murals.

The pigments are derived from natural materials, such as minerals and stones extracted from earth, oils, juices, roots, herbs etc.

47.2. There are varying versions regarding the materials used for preparing the pigments. One source mentions that the white is obtained from lime; the black is derived from soot of oil-lamps; red from vermilion (mercuric sulphide); deep red from lac and red lead ( it is also said; Red is derived from red laterite; yellow is derived from yellow laterite) ; yellow from realgar (arsenic sulphide); blue from plants like Neela Amari or Neelachedi  (Indigo ferra); and green from a local mineral called Eravikkara.

The quality of mural-colours depends upon on the preparation of pigments and the meticulous balancing of its various components.

The final treatment to a finished mural consists in applying a fine coating of resin on the painted surface, in order to give it a glossy look.

(For more on these subjects, please check: )

47.3. Wooden utensils are used for mixing the colours and the binding media is derived from a tender-coconut-water and extracts from the Neem tree (Azadiracta indica).

A type of grass called Eyyam Pullu, in the shape of an arrow, which grows in the riverbanks, is used for making brushes. The fully matured grass is boiled with paddy. Then the chaff or the weaker part is removed and fastened together. This brush is tied to a small bamboo stick. The thickness of the brush is adjusted according to needs.

The painting brushes used was of three types – flat, medium and fine. Flat brushes were made from the hair found on the ears of calves, medium from the hair on the goats belly and the fine brushes were made from delicate blades of grass.

The wall-surface- preparation too was a laborious and a time consuming process. Murals were painted over only after they were completely dry. Lemon juice was used to mellow the alkalinity of surface. The outlines of the murals were sketched by using sharpened bamboo pieces or charcoal or dung crayons (called Kittalekhini prepared by grinding a black stone and mixing it with cow dung).

47.3. The colour symbolisms are related to Trigunas – the natural attributes or disposition – of the characters.  For instance, green is employed for depicting the Sattva (balanced, pure or divine) characters (for instance, the jewel-like green colours of the flute playing Krishna); red or a mixture of red and yellow  for Rajas ( active , irascible); and white for Tamasa (inert or base).

48. Among the finest in India

48.1. The mural paintings of Kerala are among the finest in India; and have unique idioms of depiction. These glorious paintings are easily recognizable with their characteristic warmth and grandeur of rich colours, elaborate ornamentation, sumptuousness of the outline, depiction of volume through subtle shading, a crowding of space by divine or heroic figures;   a strong sense of design and well defined picturization.

48.2. The traditional murals of Kerala represent the last flourish of the graceful and vibrant tradition of Chitrasutra. Please click here for a list of Mural Paintings in Kerala temples.

[While  in the olden days the murals were drawn on walls , today any surface like paper, canvas, cardboard, plywood and terracotta  is used for reproducing / simulating the traditional style of  Kerala paintings . These innovations are to be understood as the necessities of the times in order to keep alive and to sustain   the interest in the ancient art form. ]

With this brief introduction let’s look at the mural paintings at the Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram palaces, the Mural Pagodas of Kerala, in the next article.


The mural paintings at Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram Palaces

 References and Sources

 All pictures are from Internet



Posted by on September 25, 2012 in Art, Legacy of Chitrasutra


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Eleven – Jaina Kanchi

[This is the Tenth article in the series.

This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on the Art of Painting in Ancient India .

The present article looks at the not-so-well-known Jain temple of Trailokya-natha-swami (Vardhamana) at Jaina Kanchi. It is one of the few surviving ancient Jain temples in Tamil Nadu.

This article presents the case of an overzealous and yet a wrong way of conserving the ancient murals. The Department of Archaeology of the State Government, in their wisdom, laid a fresh coat of paint over the sixteenth century murals drawn in Vijayanagar style, in order to keep the paintings fresh and bright. The art experts and art historians were shocked and angry; and described the action of the Government Department as thoughtless; and a disaster.

There surely must be a sensible way that falls somewhere between total neglect and overzealous reaction, which either way harms the ancient art-objects.

In the next article we shall look at the traditional mural paintings of Kerala. These 16th-17th century murals painted over the walls in temples and palaces have a unique style of depiction and colour schemes. ]

Continued from the Legacy of Chitrasutra – Ten – Lepakshi


40. Jainism in Tamil Nadu 

40.1. It is believed that Jainism entered Southern India in around fourth century BC, when Acharya Bhadrabahu (433 BC- 357 BC), along with about 1,200 of his disciples, migrated to the Sravanabelagola region, in Karnataka, as he feared a severe drought was about to hit the North India. And, soon thereafter, the monk Visakhacharya, at the behest of Acharya Bhadrabahu, moved over to the Chola and Pandya countries along with a group of sramanas (Jain monks), in order to propagate the faith of the Thirthankaras.

40.2. Some scholars argue that a sizable number of sravakas (Jain householders) were already present in the Madurai, Tirunelveli and Pudukottai regions; and they lent support and care to the emigrant monks. In any case, there is evidence to indicate that Jainism came into existence in Tamil Nadu, at least, by about fourth century BC. Thereafter it took roots in Tamil Nadu and flourished till about sixteenth century when it went into decline, due a combination of reasons. It is estimated there are now about 50,000 Tamil – Jains or Samanar who have a legacy that is more than 2,000 years old; and that most of them are engaged in farming in the North Arcot (Thondai-mandalam) region.

40.3. As regards Kanchipuram, the capital city of the Pallavas and a renowned centre of learning, the Jainism flourished there because of the recognition, acceptance and encouragement it gained from the ruling class, as also from common people. It is said; the Pallava King Mahendra-varman I (600 – 630 CE), in the early part of his life, caused the construction of two temples dedicated to Thirthankaras Vrishabdeva and Vardhamana.

40.4. The Jain scholar-monks such as Acharyas Sumantha-bhadra, Akalanka, Vamana-charya Pushpa-danta, Kunda- kunda and others, were highly regarded for their piety and scholarship. Under their guidance a number of Jain temples and educational institutions (samana-palli) were established in the Tamil country, especially in its Northern regions.

[Palli is a Prakrit term, which by extension came to mean, in the Tamil – Brahmi inscriptions, a Jaina monastery or a temple or a rock shelter where the Jaina monks stayed and studied  . Some say that the Tamil term for a school –“palli”- has its origin in the ancient samana-palli of the Jains].

40.5.The recognition accorded to Jainism is evidenced by the fact that a sector of Kanchipuram, along the banks of the Palar River, was named as Jaina Kanchi. It is now a hamlet (Tiruparuttikunram) on the southwest outskirt of the present-day – Kanchi, a little away from the Pillaiyaar Palayam suburb. Jaina Kanchi does not ordinarily attract many tourists.

40.6. Jaina Kanchi is now of interest mainly because of its two temples:  one dedicated to Chandra-prabha the eighth Thirthankara; and the other dedicated to Vardhamana the twenty-fourth Thirthankara who is also addressed as Trailokya-natha-swami. And, the other reason of interest is the ancient paintings in the Vardhamana temple.

The Chandra-prabha temple is the earlier and the smaller of the two. It was constructed during the reign of Parameswaravarman II, the Pallava king who came to throne in 728 AD.

According to Dr. T. N. Ramachandran, the Trailokya-natha-swami temple was built perhaps during the end of the Pallava period; that is, in the eighth-ninth century.

41. Trailokya-natha-swami (Vardhamana)

41.1. Trailokya-natha-swami temple enjoyed the patronage of Pallava kings as also of Chola emperors Rajendra I (c. 1014-44), Kulottunga I (c. 1070 – 1120), and Rajendra III (c. 216-46) during whose periods some improvements were made and a front pavilion (mukha mantapa) was added to the sanctum. The Vijayanagar kings too supported this Jain temple.

During the year 1387, Irugappa, a disciple of Jaina- muni Pushpasena; and a   minister of Vijayanagar King Harihara Raya II (1377-1404), expanded the temple by adding a larger pavilion- the Sangeetha mantapa.

Later additions were made by Bukka Raya II (in 1387-88) and Krishna Deva Raya (in 1518). It is also said; Krishna Deva Raya made a “land-grant” to the temple.

41.2. Trailokya-natha thus developed into a complex of three shrines: One for Vardhamana and Pushpadanta; the other for Padmaprabha and Vasupujya; and the third for Parshvanatha and Dharma Devi. Each shrine has its own sanctum, ardha-mantapa and mukha-mantapa. The temple is also a repository of a large number of icons.

During the 14th and 16th centuries, the ceiling of the sangeetha – mantapa were decorated with beautiful paintings, in Vijayanagar style.

It appears Jainism was active in the Kanchipuram region at least till around the 16th century.

42. The Paintings

42.1. The paintings drawn on the ceiling of the Sangeetha-mantapa during the period 14th and 16th centuries were in Vijayanagar style of painting; and they depicted the legends of the Thirthankaras, particularly those of Rishabha Deva and Vardhamana.

42.2. A narrative panel relates the story of Dharmendra, the serpent king, who offered his kingdom to the relatives of Rishabha Deva in exchange for their consent not to disturb the meditation of Rishabha Deva.

42.3. Such narratives were alternated with scenes depicting processions of elephants, horses, soldiers, standard bearers and musicians.

42.4. The sequence of the narratives and the court scenes was broken by depiction of Sama-vasarana the adorable heavenly pavilion where the eligible souls gather to receive divine discourse.

The term Sama-vasarana (Sama avasarana) means an assembly which provides equal opportunities for all who gather there. Samavasarana, in Jain literature denotes an assembly of Thirthankara.  At this assembly different beings – humans, animals and gods – are also present to behold the Thirthankara and hear his discourses. The common assembly, at which different beings are gathered for one purpose, treats all alike overriding the differences that might exist among them. A  Sama-vasarana is thus, a tirth, a revered place.

The Sama- vasarana is pictured in a very interesting fashion. Each panel is depicted with eight concentric rings having miniature figures, trees and shrines painted along their periphery. A Thirthankara is enshrined at the core of the Samava-sarana theme.

42.5. There are a few panels that resemble   the Krishna- Leela, the legends of Krishna. But, they in fact, depict life events of Neminatha, the twenty-second Jain Tirthankara. According to Jaina lore, Neminatha was the cousin of Krishna of Srimad Bhagavatha; and he is Krishna’s counterpart in the Jain tradition.


43. The other side of bad maintenance

43.1. The pictures posted above are not as they were painted by the artists of the 14th and 16th centuries.

A few years back, the State Archaeological Department of Tamil Nadu repainted the 14th-16th century murals on the ceilings of the Trailokya-natha-swami temple. A fresh coat of  paint was laid over the old murals. The repainting was done allegedly by untrained artists, who were not familiar with the techniques of conservation or restoration of ancient murals. As a result, the murals now dazzle in bright colors.

The pictures you just saw were those of the “re-painted” art works.

43.2. The art experts and art historians were aghast, pained and angry at the thoughtless action, in violation of conservation norms, by the very Department that was entrusted with the task of protecting and maintaining the ancient murals.

Dr. David Schulman, an Indologist, (currently the Professor, Department of Indian, Iranian, and Armenian Studies, Hebrew University, Jerusalem) who has studied mural paintings of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, said “The paintings of the Trilokyanatha temple at Tiruparuttikunram have been ruined by over- painting. This is quite a common thing in Tamil Nadu. If you repaint it instead of conserving it, the subtlety will be lost; the old colors will be lost. This is disaster. These paintings have to be preserved as they were at their height. The way people do it in Europe.”

The other experts too remarked that repainted murals resemble neither the Vijayanagar style nor the present style.

K.T. Gandhirajan, who has studied murals in 35 temples in Tamil Nadu over a period of six years, said “Only experts can do that. The State government should give up repainting the faded murals because there are not enough trained artists to do the work. Instead, it can use the resources to conserve them.”

43.3. At an international seminar titled “Painting Narratives: Mural Painting Traditions in the 13th-19th centuries”, held near Chennai during Jan, 2008, the participating experts expressed their shock and disappointment at the state of conservation of ancient art in India.

According to the experts, the ancient paintings in India are threatened with destruction through negligence and desecration both by the public and, unfortunately, by the very persons entrusted with the task of preserving them. To cite an example , in a major “renovation “ exercise at the Meenakshi temple of Madurai an important series of Nayak murals from the 16th century were covered with cement paint. The ancient paintings are lost forever.

The mural paintings  of Tamil Nadu have a long, rich and continuous tradition, ranging from the Pallava period to the Nayaka period. It was during the Vijayanagar and Nayaka periods that the art of painting in temples in Tamil Nadu flourished. Most of the murals in the State belong to the Vijayanagar and Nayaka periods. A few belong to the Maratha period of the 18th century.

Even in the temples where a few murals have survived, they have been whitewashed. In some cases, ignorance led to the neglect of the works of art. In many other cases, soot from oil lamps settled over the murals; electrical cables and switchboards were installed over them; or nothing was done to prevent cracked ceilings and sunlight endangering the murals.

44. And, now…

44.1.   I have tried to present in this post the other side of the bad conservation. There are countless cases where the ancient art works are ruined because of neglect or wilful harm. There are also cases, as in Jaina Kanchi, where either by ignorance or by over enthusiasm, the authenticity of the ancient works is degraded. Between these extremes, somewhere, there surely must be a sensible way of taking care of our heritage. As Dr. Schulman remarked, “These paintings have to be preserved as they were at their height. The way people do it in Europe”.

44.2. These mural paintings are not mere bunch of drawings; they are the repositories of our art, culture, history and heritage; they are a part of our very being. It is essential that the general public in India and also the trustees of our art works are educated of the value of our heritage and their historical importance.

44.3. Doubtless, there are problems in taking care of our ancient wall paintings, for want of proper conservation facilities; dearth of trained and qualified conservators; paucity of resources etc.  But what is more worrying is the absence of a  plan or  policy  in place; and lack of a  perspective  vision to conserve even those wall paintings that are under the  care and custody of the governments.

44.4. It is a task, which the government alone cannot handle well; several institutions, Universities as also traditional artists need to take part in this endeavour. I wish we had a sort of National Project for Conservation of Wall Paintings, which would comprehensively address the issues of research, training, creating special curriculums in art-schools, and mobilization of various sorts of resources; and above all an effective management and monitoring system.


The traditional mural paintings of Kerala

References and sources

Tiruparuttikunram and its Temples.–By T. N. Ramachandran, M.A

Bulletin of the Madras Government Museum,

Printed by the Superintendent, Government Press, Madras.

Seminar proceedings

Jainism in south India by  T. K. Tukol

Recent discoveries of Jaina cave inscriptions in Tamilnadu by Iravatham Mahadevan

Ravaged murals

Conservation problems of mural paintings in living temples by S. Subbaraman

Overview of the conservation status of   mural paintings in India

All pictures are from Internet


Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Art, Indian Painting, Legacy of Chitrasutra


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Ten – Lepakshi

 [This is the Ninth article in the series.

This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on the   Art of Painting in Ancient India  .

The present article looks at the paintings on the ceilings of the Veerabhadra temple in Lepakshi (AP).They represent some of the best of Vijayanagara art. This temple is one of the earliest constructed not by the Kings but by two brothers who were philanthropic noblemen.

The textile and fashion designs depicted in the Lepakshi paintings have influenced handicrafts, sari designs etc.

In the next article we shall look at the Paintings at another specimen of Vijayanagara art. It is the not-so-well-known Jain temple at Jaina Kanchi.]

Continued from The Legacy of Chitrasutra –Sri Pampa Virupaksha temple, Hampi


2.1. Lepakshi in Anantapur district, on the Andhra Pradesh –Karnataka border near the Pennar River, is a group of temples built, in the 16th century, on a single granite outcrop that is curved like the back of a tortoise.  And, the hill was aptly called Kurma-shila.

32.2. Lepakshi is an excellent display of the Vijayanagara School of architecture, sculpture and painting. It brings together magnificent sculptures carved with intricate designs; and a whole set of beautiful, narrative and innovative paintings on its ceilings. The temple is hailed as a delightful synthesis of architecture, sculpture and painting.

32.3. Lepakshi is regarded very important for its historical, archaeological and aesthetic value.  It houses some of the finest sculpture of the period; it has the earliest preserved cycle of mural paintings in the Vijayanagara style; and it also has inscriptions in old-Kannada dating back to many centuries. The Lepakshi temple is a source-material for the study of architecture, painting, iconography and the mythological presentations of the Vijayanagara period. It also offers a few lessons to the art historians and those interested in the preservation and restoration of traditional arts.

33. The Temple

33.1. The construction of the temples at Lepakshi is attributed to the initiative and enterprise of two brothers: Veeranna and Virupanna, noblemen and wealthy merchants of their time. It is said; Virupanna was the officer in charge of the state treasury of the local government with its seat in the Fort of Penukonda, administered by a governor appointed by Achyuta Deva Raya (1529-1547) the Vijayanagar King of   Tuluva dynasty.

33.2. Penukonda (meaning The Big Hill and mentioned as Ghana-giri in the inscriptions) was an important and an affluent province of the Vijayanagar Empire; and the rulers of Vijayanagar and Penukonda were also related by marriages. After the fall of Vijayanagar (1565), Penukonda served as its temporary capital providing a safe house to its vanquished rulers.

33.3. An ancient temple of Lord Veerabhadra – the ferocious and formidable aspect of Shiva- stood on the tortoise-hill (Kurma-shila). The Veerabhadra cult was quite popular during the Vijayanagar period and a number of temples were dedicated to that fearsome lord; the most prominent being the Uddane Veerabhadra, a larger than-life idol with four arms and armoured with sword, mace, axe, shield and bow ready to launch an attack on the enemy. Veerabhadra was the mascot, the war- cry and the inspiration of the armies and fighting forces of Vijayanagar. One of the brothers, Veeranna, was named after the warring deity. The brothers, perhaps, had a special affinity towards Lord Veerabhadra.

33.4. The brothers took upon themselves, as an act of devotion, to renovate and enlarge the ancient temple and to expand it into a temple complex. By around the year 1538, they did succeed in erecting exquisite temples of Veerabhadra, Shiva and Vishnu, between two asymmetrical enclosures, containing a central pavilion (mukha-mantapa), an intermediate hall (ardha-mantapa) and a pavilion for dance performances (ranga-mantapa).

34. Sculptures


34.1. The Lepakshi temple complex is a wonderful example of Vijayanagar architectural style. It is an exquisite shrine; rich with profusion of gopuras, vimanas, apsaras, half-relief carvings, sprawling structures with wide spaces and courtyards. The ranga-mantapa and the ardha-mantapa are adorned with splendid architecture. The sculptures here depict images of dancers, musicians; as also themes from puranas, like those of Anantha-shayana, Dattatreya, Bramha, Tumburu, Narada and Rambha etc.

34.2. A monolithic Naga-linga, a Shiva linga with a multi hooded Naga serpent over it; the huge and majestic looking Nandi Bull carved out of single granite; and an imposing Ganesha, are some of the other splendid architectural features.

34.3. Even with all that, the temple is incomplete. The sprawling kalyana-mantapa, meant as a sacred space for celebrating the wedding of Shiva with his beloved Girija, has splendid and richly carved massive pillars; but there is no roof over them. It looks like an unfinished saga in stone. The stories and legends that narrate how and why the builders’ dreams were aborted; and how the place acquired the name Lepakshi, abound. Yet, the unfinished kalyana-mantapa has about it a sort of haunted look.



35. The Paintings

35.1 The Lepakshi temple is also celebrated for its paintings; though some have vanished and the others are weathering with time. But, at one-time the paintings were covered under thick layer of soot. Thanks to the efforts of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a number of panels on the ceilings of the ranga-mantapa and the natya mantapa have been restored. Shri S. Subbaraman, who retired as Superintending Archaeological Chemist from the ASI says that he was thrilled when “A ten-handed, highly ornamented figure of Veerabhadra, 16 feet in length, all but invisible under the thick layer of soot, made a spectacular reappearance in all its details and bright colour”.

35.2. The ceiling of the natya-mantapa have eight panels depicting themes from mythology , such as the manifestations of Shiva- Shiva as Kiratha ( boar hunter), Dakshinamurthy and scenes from Shiva’s wedding with Girija; the scenes from Krishna’s childhood; and the legend of the compassionate King Manu-neethi-cholan who dispensed justice even to animals.


Girija kalyana theme

       Sages at the wedding

Women at the wedding

The Kiratha theme

35.3. The ardha-mantapa ceiling has bout fourteen panels again depicting the legends and manifestations of Shiva (Dakshinamurti, Chandesa Anugraha murthy, Bhikshatana, Harihara, Ardhanareeswara, Kalyanasundara, Tripurantaka, Nataraja, Gowriprasadaka, Lingodbhava, and Andaka- asuras-amhaara etc.)

35.4. In one corner, the brothers Viranna and Virupanna are shown worshipping Shiva and Parvathi in the company of other courtiers.

35.5. The paintings that have survived are some of the most outstanding murals in India. They are also the best among the Vijayanagara style of pictorial art.  The drawings are eloquent, natural and full of vitality. The sense of liveliness is enhanced by the depiction of the protruding eye, the angular features and by the peaked corners of clothes. The beauty of line and form; grace and movement too are delightful.

35.6. The narrative panels are framed and structured by bands and beams with textile patterns. They depict not merely the themes from the epics but also from the contemporary life, bringing to life a variety of costumes, textile patterns, jewellery, headgears etc..

35.7. The Lepakshi paintings have continued to influence generation of artists. It is practiced, even today, as a craft. The birds, beasts and foliage depicted in its paintings and sculptures have spawned a style that decorates the block-printed Indian textiles and rugs; popularly referred to as the Lepakshi motifs.

35.8. The paintings provide a glimpse of   the richness and colour of a cosmopolitan society; its styles and fashions. The costumes of men and women, colour and embroidered sarees, jewellery, hair styles , tall headwear (kulavi) etc. now  serve as a resource for the textile and fashion designers,  as they provide details of costumes etc of a distant past .

Men wearing Kulavis

[The conical –headgear of those times named Kulavi has an interesting sidelight. A lot has been written about Kulavis by the scholars in Indian history. For instance, there is a theory that the Pallavas who first established their kingdoms in the upper regions of the Krishna river during the third century and extended it up to Kanchipuram, further down south, by around fourth century  ; and ruled over large parts of south India till about ninth century , were immigrants from north.

It further puts forward the view: “the Pallavas of kañcipuram must have come originally from Persia, though the interval of time which must have elapsed since they left Persia must be several centuries. As the Persians are generally known to Indian poets under the name Parasika, the term Pahlavi or Pahlava or Pallava must denote the Arsacidan Parathions, as stated by Professor Weber”: venkayya, pp219–220

One of the arguments in support of that theory is the tall conical headgear worn by the early Pallava kings, which resembles the typical cylindrical Iranian head-dress.

Until the British took root (by 1857), the idiom of administration in India was Persian. The elite conversed and recited poetry in Persian; they dressed in Persian style; and the official language of the kings’ offices, courts etc. was Persian. A number of terms in present-day India’s revenue administration are derived from Persian.

The wealthy traders and   the officials of the king’s court during the vijayanagar times (16th century) too perhaps dressed in Persian style, as depicted in the Lepakshi murals.

Another interesting observation about the conical cap is that the most famous idol of Balaji (Sri Venkateshwara) atop  the  shrine at Tirumala – Tirupathi hills is adorned with an eighteen inch tall cylindrical crown . And, it is never taken out; the head-priest alone is authorized to change it and that too in strict privacy.

The crown of the Tirumala Balaji is unique; and no other ancient temple idol or a divinity in India has such a crown. It is said; the tall cylindrical crown is meant to cover the hair coiled into crown – shape (ushnisha –jata) atop the idols head. The tall crown, surely, was not chiselled into the stone image. It is not clearly known why or when or at what period the tall crown came to be regarded as an inseparable part of the idol. All these fuelled the debate on the nature of the Tirupathi idol.]

39. Fashion and Textile designs

39.1. Brigitte Khan Majlis, Cologne; has done a wonderful study of “the Fashion and Textile Design in the Murals of Lepakshi”. It is highly interesting; please  see  the view the accompanying pictures (plates).

39.2. She says, “The costumes worn by the figures in the paintings demonstrate that distinct costume pieces and headgear were worn according to gender and status. The textiles show a wide spectrum of patterns. Some of them bear a close similarity to extant cotton textiles, produced along the Coromandel Coast for export to Indonesia in the 17th and 18th century”.

Further, while researching into the textile fashion designs depicted in the Lepakshi paintings, Brigitte Khan Majlis says she was overwhelmed by the abundantly decorated textiles gracing the figures of the narrative panels. And,  was impressed by their display a wealth of garments, jewellery and accessories of fashion. She remarks that the textile patterns in the pictures seem to be sufficiently detailed to take them as examples of real textiles; and connect them with possible textile techniques.

Please take a look at a few of her presentations.

39.3. The women’s upper body is bare except for jewellery or in one case a breast band worn by Parvathi. Sometimes the upper part of the fabric is draped in such a way, that it conceals the bosom. The lower end of the fabric is pleated and tucked in at the waist. Like this it fans out in a “fishtail” manner and in fact this appearance has given this kind of sari wrap its name.

Most of the sari fabrics appear to be white with stripes or chequers as ornamentation or a band of blossoms along the borders. Some of the material is very fine displaying the outlines of the legs.

39.4. Even today, the chequers and stripes are a choice ornamentation of saris and other textiles in South India.

39.5. Male attire: The paintings reveal quite accurately how the pleated part of dhoti was pulled between the legs and tucked in at the back. The dhotis are usually rather plain, white with stripes, tiny dots or of a chequered material.

 A second more ornate hip cloth was worn atop of the dhoti, encircling the hips at least twice, with the ends flowing gracefully in the air or one part tucked in under one arm in a big loop.

A third cloth could be wrapped diagonally across the upper body or around the neck.

A third cloth could be wrapped diagonally across the upper body or around the neck.

39.6. However there are some personages among the paintings which represent actual people of political status.

Retinue in Muslim fashion



We shall look at another set of paintings of the Vijayanagar School:

 Jain temple at Jaina Kanchi


Sources and references

All pictures are from Internet


Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Art, Legacy of Chitrasutra


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