Category Archives: Indian Painting

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.

S Rajam at Mahabalipuram

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 with rhythm 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.

shiva skanda

In 1939, Rajam met Sri K.V.Jagannathan – the editor of “Kalaimagal”. Rajam’s first published work depicting a Guru and his disciple appeared in Kalaimagal the same year. It was the first of the many that would follow.

His illustrations on the themes based on literature, mythology and philosophy became a regular feature in Kalaimagal and other published works of Sri K.V. Jagannathan. It was a matter of time that his works were sought by other publications such as Dinamani, Kalki etc. The special issues like Deepavali Malar gave him ample space to explore his subjects in depth.

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 every 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 color 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.”

shiva nrtta2

(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.

(iii) Following the tradition of the Chitrasutra , Shri Rajam has depicted nature as in summer; Rainy season; Autumn ; early winter ; and, winter :


AutumnEarly WinterWinter

(iv) Shri Rajam has also sketched some rather ‘non-traditional’paintings :

Amorphous Man with Red CloudsTrimurthy

Moonlit Mountainscape with YogiSmall Temple in Himalayan Foothills


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.

His themes often required meticulous research. After research, he created the entire painting with the all details in his mind. He started off the paintings with a pencil outline depicting the central figure. The actual painting is done around this central figure thereby creating the required depth. 

(ii). The medium used by Shri Rajam is watercolor 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).He used layers of transparent colors. Each color is applied only to be washed away with water using a brush. Upon drying the next layer is applied and washed away. It is this series of washes and the combination of the colors that eventually gave the desired color scheming that was originally envisioned. After the application of the transparent colors, the opaque colors are applied over it. Finally, his characteristic ink outlines (rekhas) were done using a Fine liner pen.

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 watercolor 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.

Clearly, this technique requires immense patience and (depending on the size) each painting can take from a few weeks to a few months for completion. It was Rajam’s disciplined approach and incredible ability to multitask that allowed him to simultaneously work on several paintings. It was his capacity to quickly mentally switch from one theme to the other, as the paintings were drying, was the main reason for the volume of work he could produce.

(viii). Shri Rajam recommends that the watercolors 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). His art work has adorned several books .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.  Some of his works have also been compiled as books. Notable ones are the Chitra Periya Purana – depicting the legends of the 63 Nayanmars and the Thiruvilaiyadal Puranam – depicting the 64 divine plays of Shiva. Another book titled “Dancing with Shiva” published by the Himalayan Academy, Hawaii , USA has over 300 hundred works of Rajam reproduced with exemplary production value .

(Please see

It is said , the Himalayan Academy Publications has scanned 923 of Shri Rajam’s creations. Please click here for the web-page:

Apart from that, as I understand, there have not been serious attempts to put together a sizable number of his paintings. 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 is mellowing sweetly into his nineties, he retains  the sense of wonder and awe at the marvels of life. He continues  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 is active as a teacher and as a guide; and  participates in academia and in the discussions at various  Sabhas .

[ Sad to say that about two years after this article was posted, Shri Rajam passed away at the age  of 91 , on 29 Jan 2010 . Please click  here  .

But, prior to that , in January 2009 , Shri Rajam had seen this article; had it read it to him; and, had conveyed his appreciation through his disciple Smt. Vijayalakshmy Subramaniam (please see the comments section) . He had also made certain suggestions/corrections. I gratefully acknowledge  that as his approval and blessings.]

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 Shankara-bhagavatpada , Shri S Rajam is a Sampradaya-vit, the one who understands Sampradaya  the good tradition. Shri S Rajam pointed out, “In tradition, only good things should remain; the bad should be ignored and not continued. This is tradition”. And he also 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 of his life-events  and his  achievements.

2. Early years

S Rajam as babyA Rajam as adolecent01rajamS Rajam as young man

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, as 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  among the earliest disciples 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; as also 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 legendary 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 by one and all  with pleasure and gratitude.

Please click here for a video on Sri Rajam’s life and achievements

3. Music

3.1. Shri S Rajam is a well recognized, much admired and an honored 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 child-like candor and 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 , I 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, also 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.  Please 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 honors have been showered on Shri Rajam. Just to name a few 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 honor 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 honored with the title, ‘Sangeetha Kalasikhamani‘. No honor 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 Sri Ambi Dikshitar  (son of the renowned Sri Subbarama Dikshitar) for music lessons. Talking about his Guru, Shri Rajam mentions that Sri 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, Sri Ambi Dikshitar taught Rajam many compositions of Sri 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 Sri 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 with chatusruti 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 Sarasvathi 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 niraval on 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 Melas. 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 kriti being accompanied by raga-alapana, neraval and kalpana-svaras. 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.  Sri  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 (svarna setu) 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 Svaras (inspired by Sangeetha Kalpadrumam of Harikesanallur Muthaiah Bhagavatar), illustrating the origins and characteristics 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 else.

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 marvelous 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, legendary; and have passed into the folklore of music, astrology, and tantra traditions; and also have become idioms in  classical school of painting.


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 away from my hands.  while 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-color (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 Vibhuthi across 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. Sri Shyama Shastri – was a dark, handsome, serious looking person, rather absorbed in himself ; and , had a 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). Sri 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 (Svarna Sethu) . 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 fulfillment, 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 (Mattancherry 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. Mattancherry Palace

49.1. Mattancherry , 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 legendary 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 Mattancherry Palace .The palace is a blend of Portuguese architecture and Kerala style of construction,; a ‘Nettukettu’ (four buildings) with a shrine of Pazhayannur Bhagavathy, 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.

The Mattancherry Palace is  included in the ‘Tentative list of nominations‘  in India , under the World Heritage List of the UNESCO.

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. Replete with intricate wood carvings and ornate murals, the Palace is an exceptional example of indigenous building techniques and craftsmanship in wood; a style unparalleled in the world and based on historic building system, Taccusastra (the science of carpentry) unique to this region.

The 6.5 acres of the Padmanabhapuram Palace complex is set within a fort of 185 acres located strategically at the foot hills of Veli hills, Western Ghats. The palace complex, which includes fourteen function specific independent buildings surrounded by a 4 km-long stone fort, is located virtually at the land’s-end. The fourteen denoted structures include Kottarams (Palaces); Pura (House or structure); Malikas (Mansions); Vilasams (Mansions) and Mandapams (large Halls).

The Palace structure is constructed out of wood with laterite (locally available building stone) used very minimally for plinths and for a few select walls. The roof structure is constructed out of timber, covered with clay tiles.

54.2. The Palace served as the secure official residence to the Travancore Kings for about two hundred years from 1550 to 1750.

 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).

In 1993, a Museum building was set up in the Southwest corner of this Palace complex, and houses numerous invaluable stone inscriptions and copper plate inscriptions, sculptures in wood and stone, armoury, coins, paintings, and household objects pertaining to the history and heritage of the region.

Padmanabhapuram Palace is the oldest, largest and well preserved surviving example representative of the traditional wooden architecture in India. It is an testimony to the traditional architectural knowledge and skill of Kerala. It is , therefore, included in the ‘Tentative list of nominations‘  in India , under the World Heritage List of the UNESCO.

55. The Murals

55.1.One of the structures in the Palace is an outstanding example of the Mural art form. 

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 murals at Padmanabhapuram are exceptional. Besides the depiction of scenes and characters from Hindu mythologies, there are murals also on secular themes which reflect the socio political conditions, fashions and customs of the times.

The UppirikaMalika or the four-storeyed building, constructed in 1750 CE, includes the treasury chamber on the first floor, Maharaja’s resting room on the second floor, and the revered prayer room on the third floor the walls of which are replete with traditional Kerala mural art work.

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 murals at the Padmanabhapuram palace – executed in the traditional style invoking rich and vivid realism and infusing grace and beauty of the figures – are the best preserved in the State .

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


Tags: , , ,

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 Bhadrabahuswamin, the last Shrutakevalin (433 BC- 357 BC), along with a body of twelve thousand disciples, started on a grand exodus towards the South; migrated to the Sravanabelagola region, in Karnataka, as he feared a period of twelve years of severe drought was about to hit the North India. The Mauryan emperor, Chandragupta, abdicating his throne in favor of his son Simhasena (according to Jain work Rajavali-Kathe) took Diksha and joined Bhadrabahuswamin on his exodus. As foretold by Bhadrabahuswamin, a terrible famine  did brake out in the Northern country.

Some time after reaching Shravanabelagola, Bhadrabahuswamin felt that his end was approaching; and, he then initiated Visakhamuni into a higher order. The Sruta Kevalin Bhadrabahuswamin , thereafter, entrusted the rest of the disciples to the care of  Visakhamuni; and, instructed them all to move further South.

And, soon thereafter, the monk Visakhacharya, at the behest of Acharya Bhadrabahuswamin, 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.

It is said; Visakhamuni, in the course of his wanderings in the Chola and the Pandya countries, worshiped in the Jain Chaityas and preached to the Jains settled in those places. This would suggest that the Jains had already colonized the extreme south even before the Sallekhana of Bhadrabahuswamin, i.e., before 357 B.C.

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.

However, the exact origins of Jainism in Tamil Nadu are unclear.

Some scholars claim that Jain philosophy must have entered South India some time in the sixth century BCE; and, that Jains flourished in Tamil Nadu at least as early as the Sangam period.  

According to other scholars, Jainism must have existed in South India, at least,  well before the visit of Bhadrabhuswamin and Chandragupta. There are plenty of caves as old as the fourth century found with Jain inscriptions and Jain deities around Madurai, Tiruchirāppaḷḷi, Kanyakumari and Thanjavur.

The ancient Tamil history , culture and literature depict  a rich legacy of the Jains

[Some scholars believe that Tholkappiar the author of the celebrated earliest Tamil Grammar Tholkappiam (estimated to be written between the 3rd century BCE and the 5th century CE) was a Jain. And, Saint-poet, Thiruvalluvar, the author of  the celebrated Tirukkurral (dated variously from 300 BCE to 7th century CE), one of the finest collections of couplets on ethics, political and worldly-wisdom, and love, was also a Jain. Apart from these, the three other major works in Tamil of the ancient times – Silapaddikaram, Civaka Cintamani and Valayapathi – were written by Jain authors.

It is said, that in these texts, in the ancient Tamil regions, the Jain Thirthankaras   were addressed as Aruga or Nikkanthan.  And, the religion of Jains was called: Arugatha or Samanam.  The senior Jain monks were called as ‘Kuruvattikal‘ (Guru), Atikal (Yati), Periyar or ‘Patarar‘ (Tamil form of Bhattara) . The place where Jain monks lived was called as Aranthaanam and Aravor (Manimekalai. 3:86-112, 5:23); and, as Nikkanthak Kottam (Silappatikaram.9:63). The generous land donations made to the Jain monasteries  (Palli)  were  called Palliccantam ( however, the exact meaning of the term Cantam , is much debated). 

The more important cities where the Jains flourished in sizable numbers were said to be: Kaveripoompattinam (also known as Poompuhar or Puhar), Uraiyur, Madurai, Vanchi (also known as Karur or Karuvur) and  Kanchi (Kanchipuram).

They all had monasteries  (Vihara) which also functioned as schools (Samana palli) run by the Jain monks (the bigger Pallis were called Perumpalli) . Silappatikaram (11:1-9) mentions a Kanthan school and temple at Uraiyur as also in Madurai, the capital of Pandya kingdom. Even though Manimekalai was a Buddhist, she went to Jain monks at Vengi, the Chera capital; and, learnt about the Jain concepts of morality (Manimekalai 27:167-201).  And, Vengi was also the city where lived the celebrated Jain monk Ilango Adigal – the brother of King Cheran Chenguttuvan and the author of Silappatikaram, which is one of the five Epics of Tamil literature.

Sittanavasal Cave (Sit-tan-na-va-yil) – the abode of great saints – is a second -century  complex of caves in Pudukottai District of Tamil Nadu. It is a rock-cut monastery that was created by Jain monks. Its name indicates that it was the abode of the Siddha (the monk or monks).  It is also called Arivar Koil – the temple of the Arihants.  

The first century Tamil-Brahmi inscription, found therein,  names the place as ‘Chiru-posil’.  It records that Chirupochil Ilayar made the Atitnam (Adhittana, abode or a dwelling place) for Kavuti Itan who was born at Kumuthur in Eorumi-nadu.

[A fairly large number of stone-inscriptions, etched in Tamil-Brahmi , are found in several caves in Tamil Nadu. And, most of such inscriptions are around Madurai , the capital of the Pandyas.  The noted scholars like Iravatham Mahadevan and Ramachandran Nagaswamy, have made extensive studies of the early inscriptions. It is explained; the script of the inscriptions are named as ‘Tamil-Brahmi ‘, because it is , basically, Brahmi, but with slight modification to facilitate insertion of Tamil terms. For instance; in these inscriptions, the Prakrit term ‘Gani’ ( leader of a Gana , a group) becomes “Kani’; ‘Acharya’ becomes  ‘Acirikar’; names like ‘Nanti’ become ‘Nattai or Nattu’;  sacred images Prathima (Patima) be comes ‘tirumenai’; and,’Sranana’  ( a Jain monk) becomes ‘Amanan’.]

The Sittannavasal cave temple belonged to a period when Jainism flourished in Southern India. And, it  served as a shelter for Jain monks till about 8th century when Jainism began to fade away in the Tamil region.

Sittannavasal has the distinction of being the only monument where one can find, in one place, Tamil inscriptions dating back from 1st century BC to the 10th century AD. It is virtually a stone library in time  Sittanavasal is also renowned for remnants of its rare Jaina mural paintings

It appears there were Jain Nunneries too. Silappatikaram (10:34-45 ) mentions that when Kovalan and Kannagi went to Madurai,  on their  way, they secured the  blessings from Gownthiyadigal  , situated close to  Kaveripoompattinam, on the northern bank of the  river Kaveri.  It is said; Gownthiyadigal was a sort of Jain Nunnery. The Jain nuns, it appears, were variously called as Gownthi; Aariyanganai; Eyakkiyar; or Gurathiyar, the female Guru. It is also said , the Sanskrit term ‘Guru‘ and its plural form ‘ Guruvah‘  became in Tamil ‘kuru‘ and ‘Kuruvar‘.  Its polite form was Kuruttiyar or Kuruttikal ]

Some scholars believe that Jainism became dominant in Tamil Nadu in the fifth and sixth century CE, during a period known as the Kalabhra interregnum. And, after the fifth century A.D, Jainism became so very influential and powerful as to even become the state-creed of some of the Pandyan kings.

[ I think , it needs to be mentioned that religious affiliations , say during the fifth century, were rather fluid. For instance, in the Silappadikaram , you find  , sometimes, each member of a family followed her/his own favorite religion : Kovalan’s  father Masattuvan became a Buddhist; and,  Kannagi’s father Manyakan became an Ajivaka. And, while Appar , in the early part of his life, was attracted to Jainism and became a Jain monk  , his sister continued to be a staunch devotee of Shiva. Manimekhalai, the daughter of Madhavi, a dancer by profession (Parathiyar),  becomes a  Buddhist nun. And, Kovalan  and kannagi continued , till end, as Nagarathars – the merchant  community

It was only when the Bhakthi movement took hold , large numbers of families finally became Vaishnavas or Shaivas. Those that continued to adhere to Jainism were reduced into  small and a minor community of Jain laymen – Samaṇar, Nayiṉār (around 0.13% of the population of Tamil Nadu. ]

However, Jainism began to decline around the 8th century A.D., with many Tamil kings embracing Hindu religions, especially Shaivism. 

Thus, during the middle half of the seventh and the beginning of the eighth centuries A.D., the Jains sustained a series of reverses both in the Pallava and the Pandya country. The Chola kings did not encourage during this period the Jain religion, as they were devoted to the worship of Shiva


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 Vegavathi , a  tributary of the Palar River, was named as Jaina Kanchi. It is now a hamlet (Thiruparuthikundram) 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.  The Trailokya-natha-swami temple enjoyed the patronage of Pallava kings as also of Chola emperors Raja-raja chola II (reign ,c.1146–1173) ; Rajendra II (reign , c.1163 – c. 1178 CE) ; Kulottunga I (reign , 1178–1218 CE);  and Raja-raja III (reign , c.1216–1246 CE) 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.  The 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


Tags: , , ,

The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Nine –Sri Pampa Virupaksha temple at Hampi

[This is the Eighth 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 is about the murals painted on the high ceiling of the ranga-mantapa (the hall) at the Sri Pampa Virupaksha temple, Hampi (Karnataka).The 15-16th century art and architecture in Hampi represents the flowering of the Vijayanagara School.

In the next article we shall look at another set of Paintings at Lepakshi (AP), which represent a much advanced stage of the Vijayanagara art.]

Continued from the Legacy of Chitrasutra – Seven – Brihadeeshwara


28. Pampa-Hampe-Hampi

28.1. The temple of Sri Virupaksha at the foot of the Hemakuta hills, along the southern bank of the Tungabhadra, is the oldest shrine in Hampi; and it is still in active worship. It is a shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva who is addressed and worshiped here as Pampapathi and Virupaksha. Its  towering Gopura stands tall and alone amidst the ruins of Vijayanagar, the forgotten empire (1336-1565).

hampi aerial view 2

hampi arieal view

28.2. The earlier name of the river Tungabhadra that meanders through the rocky terrain of the ancient ruined city was the Pampa. And, the lake nearby was Pampa–sarovara; and the area surrounding the river was called Pampa-kshetra (the region of Pampa). The Lord of this kshetra, the sacred space, is Pampapathi. The Pampa is also identified with Parvathi. Thus,   Shiva, in either case, is Pampapathi the Lord of Pampa.

The area around the Pampa, surrounded by amazingly rugged massive boulders and craggy hills of Malyavantha, Matanga and Hemakuta, is identified as the Kishkindha, the capital of the Vanaras, of the Ramayana era. As if to justify its claim to that distinction, the hills are menacingly populated with ferocious long -tailed, dark- faced langur monkeys.


28.3. With the establishment of a Kingdom (c.1336) by the Sangama brothers – Harihara Raya (Hakka) and Bukka Raya (Bukka) – the rocky wilderness came to be known as Vijayanagar or Virupaksha-pura (after its presiding deity Lord Virupaksha, one of the many names of Shiva).

28. 4. Hampa is the archaic Kannada name for the Sanskrit term Pampa; and its later Kannada form is Hampe, which    eventually got anglicized into Hampi. But today, Hampi, in effect, is the Ruins of Hampi, a UNESCO protected world heritage site .Encased within the amphitheatre of tough and defiant rocky landscape, the imposing 160-foot spire of the Sri Pampa-Virupaksha shrine stands tall overlooking the ruins strewn around it; a magnificent -mute-witness to history, glory and the  ruin.

Vijayanagara, earliest example of imperial city


29. Sri Pampa Virupaksha

29.1. The Pampa-Virupaksha shrine predates the foundation of the empire over which it came to preside. It is said; the sanctum per se belongs to about seventh century. The inscriptions of 9th-10th centuries suggest that some additions were made to that structure during the late Chalukya and Hoysala periods. The Sangamas rulers (1336-1485) too effected other improvements to the temple. It was particularly during the reign of Deva Raya II (r. 1425–1446 CE)the greatest of the Sangama dynasty rulers that huge temple was built under the supervision of  the Nayaka or the chieftain Lakkana Dandesha.

It was, however,   during the reign of the Tuluva dynasty (1491 -1570:  a dynasty founded by the Tulu speaking Bunts hailing from coastal region of Karnataka) , the modest sized shrine was greatly extended and transformed into a sprawling major temple complex with many sub shrines, pillared halls, flag posts, lamp posts and towered gateways. A narrow channel of the Tungabhadra River   was diverted to flow along the temple’s terrace and then led into the temple-kitchen; and finally exited through the outer court.

29.2. The major improvements to the temple, such as the 50 m tall towering eastern gateway (Gopura) and the Ranga-mantapa were added around the year 1510, during the reign of Krishna Devaraya (1509-1529) the most celebrated of the Tuluva dynasty and of the entire line of the Vijayanagar rulers. Inscriptions on a stone plaque installed next to the pillared hall (mantapa) record his contributions to the temple.It is recorded that Krishna Devaraya commissioned this hall in 1510 AD to mark his accession. The Mantapa is in the Vijayanagara Style of architecture, with its exterior walls decorated with many bas-reliefs and with multi-petalled lotus motif.

The Kings of Vijayanagar promulgated State orders in the name of Lord Sri Virupaksha ; and , affixed signature to the documents as ‘Sri Virupaksha ‘.


30. Paintings on the high-ceiling

30.1. The high ceiling of the Rang-mantapa as also its supporting beams were, at onetime ( early 16th century)  , decorated with painted panels depicting themes from the epics as also from events of contemporary life. The Vijayanagara style of painting, as it came to be known later, was a combination of the Chalukya, Chola and Pandya styles. The characteristic features of the Vijayanagara art were the simplicity and vigour in their depiction. There was an attempt to capture the sense of movement and energy in the painted figures. They marked the flowering of Deccan art and culture.

30.2. The murals were arranged on the high-ceiling of the Ranga-matapa, within rectangular panels having richly decorated borders.  Sadly much of the painted panels have faded away or were destroyed. Only the panels on the central portion of the Ranga-mantapa are now visible; and they are the only few remains of the Vijayanagara mural art.

30.3. The story of the Vijayanagar Empire and its early kings is intertwined with stories of the Indian epic heroes. Both shared a deep religious belief and an ambition to establish a new and a just world order. The prime impulse for establishing and building Vijaynagara kingdom too was born out of a deep-rooted aspiration to protect and perpetuate the Hindu way of life and its values, the Dharma. The inspiration for that bold initiative was provided by the founders’ preceptor Guru Sage Sri Vidyaranya. He was the 12th Jagadguru who presided over Sri Sharada Peetham at Sringeri (Karnataka) from 1380 to 1386 A.D.

30.4. The glory, the virtues, the valour and the deeds of the gods and the epic heroes, naturally, formed the subject of Vijayanagar art. Those themes were depicted with pride, devotion and great skill in all Vijayanagara sculptures and paintings.

30 .5. The themes depicted in the paintings were mainly from the puranas and the epics. They include several of Shiva’s manifestations (Kamadahana-murti and Tripurari); Girija-kalyana (Girija’s wedding with Shiva); the ten incarnations (Dashavataras) of Vishnu; the figures of the Dikpalas (the protectors of all directions/regions); as also the classic scene of Arjuna shooting the fish device (matsya yantra) to win Draupadi’s hand in marriage.

30.6. Along with the epic themes, there is also a scene depicting Sri Vidyaranya the spiritual founder of Vijayanagar being taken in procession. Some scholars say, the founders of the Vijayanagara submitted the new- kingdom to their Guru, Sri Vidyaranya, of the monastery at Sringeri, as an act of intense devotion and gratitude. Sri Vidyaranya was thus the de-jure king ; and the State, in its early stages, was administered in his name. It is because of that tradition, it is said, the Gurus  of Sringeri are entitled to the royal prerogatives of a throne, sceptre and crown.It is in practice, even to this day.

30.7. The Sri Vidyaranya panel is one among few in traditional Indian art, which depict scenes from contemporary history. The panel extant on the temple ceiling has, sadly, become old and hazy. It depicts the scene of Sri Vidyaranya seated in a palanquin and taken in a procession. The sage is seated in a decorated palanquin with a backrest carried by four bearers ; followed by several men on foot  weaving chowries (fly-whisks) or carrying long knotted staves. The long procession is led and followed by decorated elephants. The tilt of the palanquin hinted movements negotiating the uneven ground-surface.

The portrayal is one of grace and rhythm; and there is an air of calm and respectful silence in reverence to the Guru.

There is another painting (dated around 15th century) which depicts Sri Vidyaranya seated in a palanquin (adda-pallaki) and carried in procession , with the Kings of Vijayanagar attending on their Guru.


 [ Please do visit the website of the “ Vijayanagara and post Vijayanagara Murals: A digital heritage project Centre for Cultural Heritage and Tourism Studies, IIACD; Supported by Department of Science and Technology, Government of India for a collection of the reproduction of the Vijayanagara Murals; and the lucid explanations provided by Ms. Vijayashree  C S ]

31. The Technique

31.1. As regards the technique adopted, it was seeco technique where a surface was prepared with three or four layer of plasters and finally with a crystal soft lime plaster or the paste of the conch shells. Then, sketches were made on the smooth surface of dried plaster. This method of preparation of the surface was much different from the one adopted by the artists of Ajanta, which was more elaborate and spread over a much longer stages of preparation.

31.2. The sketches were made in red ochre; and the colours of the paints used were delicate and sometimes soft and smoky. Only three or four colours were used; and they were mostly earthen and sometimes mixed with glue or any other vegetable binders. The background was usually in red and the figures were in lighter tones are blue.


[ The British Council has since taken up The Vijayanagara Research Project, which  aims to examine both the Visual Arts collection of material (prints, drawings and photographs) related to Hampi , Vijayanagara.

Please click here for the details :  ]



We shall look at the paintings at Lepakshi (Andhra Pradesh) which represent a much advanced stage of the Vijayanagara School of art.



References & Sources

Pictures are courtesy of internet


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Appendix to Seven – Brihadishvara – Part 8

 The Maratha Nayak paintings in Brihadishvara temple

The following is an appendix to Part seven.

1. During the reign of King Vijaya Raghava Nayak (1645-1673), the restoration and improvement works were undertaken in the Brihadishvara temple. Due to constant exposure to smoke and soot from the lamps and burning of camphor in the sanctum over a period of centuries, certain parts of the Chola paintings on the circumambulatory passage walls had been badly damaged. The artists of the Nayak period tried to set it right, as they thought it fit; and decided to replace the old paintings with paintings of their own. They went on to paint their pictures over the thousand year old Chola murals; covering the old murals completely.

The modern day scholars could not help remark that the artists of the Nayaks’ rather ham-handed and overdid their task.

2. The Department of Archaeology, during the 1980s, did a remarkable conservation of the 11th century Chola paintings, by scientific cleaning. And, they at the same time achieved to retain intact the upper layer on which the Nayak paintings were drawn.

3.  The Maratha Nayak paintings (18-19th century) can be seen on the ceiling of the adjoining great-hall (maha-mantapa); on the west and north walls of another pavilion (tiruchchurru-maaligai); as also on the walls of the mantapa in front of the Subramanian shrine.

4. Since the pictures of these beautiful paintings, looking fresh, could not be posted along with the Chola paintings, I am posting a few of them here as an Appendix to the main post. Please look at them.

All pictures are courtesy of internet.

Continued in Part Nine

Paintings on the ceilings of the Sri Pampa Virupaksha temple, Hampi (Vijayanagar )


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Seven – Brihadishvara

[This is the Seventh 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 surviving Chola murals (earlyeleventh -century) at the magnificenttemple of Brihadishvara, Thanjavur (Tamil Nadu.)  This temple is a jewel among the Indian temples; and is the best of the Chola temples.

A brief mention is also made of the paintings of the Nayak period (17th century)

In the next article we shall look at the Paintings at the historic temple of Pampa Virupaksha at Hampi (Karnataka) , which belongs to the Vijayanagara School of art. ]

Continued from the Legacy of Chitrasutra – Six – Sri Kailasanatha of Kanchipuram

23. The Big Temple

The greatest of Chola emperors Rajaraja-I (985 A.D – 1012 A.D) the son of Sundara Chola (Parantaka-II) and Vanavanmaha  Devi, built a magnificent temple dedicated to Lord Shiva at Rajarajeshwaram near the head of the Cauvery Delta; and called their Lord as Rajarajesvara udaiya Paramasami (The Great God who resides at Rajarajeshwaram). Rajaraja also affectionately addressed his god as Peruvudaiyar (the great lord or the great master); and, his temple as Peruvudaiyar-kovil. The epigraphic evidences suggest that Rajaraja commenced his temple building project in the 19th year of his reign and completed it successfully on the 257th day in the 25th year of his reign (c.1010 AD). 

In the early eighth century, the Rājasiheśvara (Kailāsanātha) temple at Kancipuram was probably the largest structural temple complex; with the highest Vimāna thus far built anywhere in India. It was successfully completed in just a matter of six years;  a remarkable feat; especially when you consider that   the hard granite stones that went into the construction of the huge temple were not found anywhere nears the project site.

Tanjore sketch

The central temple located in the western part of a large rectangular Prākāra (walled enclosure), which is encircled by more than 50 Devakulikās (subsidiary shrines).The surface of these sub shrines as well as the spaces between them are carved with hundreds of sculptures, all related to Śhaiva iconography, thus assembling the largest pantheon of Śhivamūrtis perhaps ever created in India. Also the temple’s main body (Vimāna) with originally at least seven Parivāra shrines built against its outer walls is carved all over with different forms of Shiva.

The layout of the temple follows a very precise and well-planned concept.  The outer walls of the two-storied vimāna, Ardhamatapa and Mukhamatapa are embellished with niches all containing Shiva-mūrtis; whereas the niches of the first storey show different forms of Shiva, with a Tripurāntaka placed in the northern niche inside the Ardhamatapa facing east. All the 32 niches of the second storey are exclusively filled with images of Tripurāntaka. Thus, there are, in all, 33 life-size standing stone sculptures of Tripurāntaka, the largest number of a single Mūrti   ever installed as niche figures on the walls of a single temple.

The whole central temple (Vimāna-chariot of the gods”) at Tanjavur with its overwhelming presence of Tripurāntaka images could be regarded as symbolically depicting Lord Tripurāntaka’s chariot.

23.2. The inscriptions at the temple indicate that Rajarajesvaram was exclusively a royal temple conceived, designed, and managed by the Emperor himself. The Big – Temple was, in a way, an expression of the devotion as well as the power and grandeur of Rajaraja Chola. It also became a benchmark in the south Indian architecture, highlighting the maturity and technical excellence achieved by the Chola architects and sculptures.


23.3. The crowning glory of the temple is the staggering cupola of the Vimana comprising two huge, sculpted, granite blocks weighing 40 tonnes each. The engineering skills and the expertise that mounted  these huge stones atop the fourteen story  high tower structure, standing  over 216 feet tall organized by pilasters that break up the facade of the base creating spaces for niches and windows in between,   must have been way ahead of their times. Legend says that the stone was brought from Sarapallam (scaffold-hollow), four miles north-east of the city, using a specially designed ramp. The basement of the structure which supports the tower is 96 feet square. The architects and engineers attribute the stability of the massive temple to its pyramidal structure, more robust than the complex curvilinear profiles of other styles.

Ornate Gopuram (tower) of the Main Entrance

23.4. In course of time (17th to 19th centuries) the territory came under the rule of the Maratha Nayak rulers .They added various shrines and Gopuras within the temple complex. During their time, the temple came to be known as Brihadisvaram; and its presiding deity as Brihadisvara. The temple-city came to be known as Thanjavur. In Tamil, the temple is the Thanjai Periya- kovil (the Big-temple of Thanjavur).

24. The Paintings

24.1. During the reign of King Vijaya Raghava Nayak (1645-1673), the restoration and improvement works were undertaken in the temple. Due to constant exposure to smoke and soot from the lamps and burning of camphor in the sanctum over a period of centuries, certain parts of the Chola paintings on the circumbulatory passage walls had been badly damaged. The artists of the Nayak period tried to set it right, as they thought it fit; and decided to replace the old paintings with paintings of their own. They went on to paint their pictures over the thousand year old Chola murals; covering the old murals completely. The modern day scholars could not help remark that the artists of the Nayaks’ rather overdid their task.

24.2. How the underlying Chola   murals again saw the light of the day after incarceration of about four hundred years, is an interesting story. It is said that, during the year 1930, while late Professor S.K. Govindasamy of Annamalai University was inspecting the walls of the six-foot wide dim lit  ambulatory (pradakshina patha) around the sanctum of the Brihadisvara, he noticed that the painted surfaces on the walls on either side of the ambulatory had,  at places, crumbled exposing some exquisite ancient paintings. He examined it further; and was thrilled when he discovered that the paintings hidden underneath the Nayak paintings were the thousand-year-old murals of the time of Rajaraja Chola. Professor S.K. Govindasamy published his findings in the Journal of the Annamalai University, Vol. II, 1933. Thereafter, attempts were made to bring to light the Chola murals; and at the same time to preserve the paintings of the Nayak period.

         The passage

24.3. The Department of Archaeology has done a remarkable conservation of scientifically cleaning the exposed portions revealing the excellence of the Chola paintings and at the same time retaining intact the upper layer on which the Nayak paintings are drawn. It is said that during the 1980s, the chemical branch of the ASI came out with a unique `de-stucco’ process to remove the upper layer of Nayak paintings and display the same on fiberglass boards. For a report on that, please check:

[ Incidentally, etched on the  Gopuram  of the Brihadeshvara temple , there is a figure of a man wearing a hat and a coat. There is no clear explanation about who this person was; and, how he came to be illustrated on the temple Gopuram. ]

Brihadesvara Tanjore man with a hat

25. The Chola panels

25.1. The magnificent temple of Brihadisvara at Thanjavur is a splendorous jewel of Indian temple art and architecture.

The original Chola paintings, so far brought to surface, are mainly in the corridors of the ambulatory around the sanctum. They are on the South, North and Western walls of the sanctum.

The Maratha Nayak paintings (18-19th century) are on the ceiling of the adjoining great-hall (maha-mantapa); on the west and north walls of another pavilion (tiruchchurru-maaligai); and on the walls of the mantapa in front of the Subramanian shrine.

( For the paintings of the Nayaks’ period : please see the Appendix posted as Part 8 )

25.2. The themes depicted in the panels so far exposed (1,200 sq ft) are : Shiva as Dakshinamurthy; the story of Sundarar; Rajaraja and his three queens worshipping Nataraja at Chidambaram; Tripurantaka; the marriage of Shiva and Parvathi; Rajaraja worshipping the Linga to be enshrined in the temple; and Ravana at Kailasa mountain.

Sadly, none of these is panels is complete. The figures too are not very clear; and it is difficult to make out the details. But for the efforts of ASI these ancient wall-paintings would have been totally lost.

Let’s take a brief look at some those panels.

25.3. The Dakshinamurthy panel

The Dakshinamurthi panel is rather huge and occupies almost the entire  space  on the southern wall. It is often cited as an example for lucidity and display of imagination in Chola paintings. It depicts Shiva as Dakshinamurthi under a banyan tree.

However, the figure of Dakshinamurthy is barely visible. The panel is very rich in details; it is populated with sages, Bhirava as dog, playful monkeys and birds such as peacocks, swans and owls.

There is a stillness of body and reverence on the face of the sages worshipping Dakshinamurthi, in contrast to the vivacious animals. Flying apsaras and gandharvas (celestial beings)complete the scene .But as a cobra enters the picture; there is a sudden change in the scenery. A monkey rushes away while another stares at the new entrant. Another, on a faraway branch, is not yet aware of the danger. A few sensitive swans flutter their wings in fear. The owls do not react as the whole thing happens in daylight. A peacock bends his long neck to watch. A squirrel, unmindful of all this, happily bites into a nut. Below the tree is a herd of elephants; one ferociously breaks a branch and another runs uphill with its trunk coiled around the branch. Another one calmly enjoys the peaceful surroundings.

The other panels are fragmentary but they, too, contain some marvellously drawn figures, bearing testimony to the skilful brushwork of the Chola artists.

25.4. There are also the graceful pictures of the Apsaras.

25.5. Saint Sundaramurti Nayanar

The panel on the west wall depicts the episodes in the life of Saint Sundaramurti Nayanar. In this panel the scenes of Sundara’s wedding are depicted in detail. These include scenes of Lord Shiva appearing in the guise of an old man clutching a document proving his claim over the bridegroom Sundara, an angry Sundara in a white coat , examination of the document by the villagers assembled there, and Sundara appealing to the mercy of Shiva etc.


25.6. The scene of Indra (the king of gods)   worshipping the Linga is on the opposite wall.

25.7. The next panel in northwest corner is the scene of four disciples who are now

identified as disciples (Kuravars: Sanka, Sananda, Sanathana, and Sanathkumara) of Sri Dakshinamurthy. Two figures among them were earlier assumed to be that of Rajaraja standing behind his Guru, Karuvurdevar, portraying a sense of humility. Now, the scholars seem to doubt that plausible explanation.

25.8. Tripuranthaka theme of Shiva raiding a chariot like a warrior, going into a war fully armed and wielding a bow, followed by an army of his supporters was a favourite of the Cholas. The Brihadisvara too has a panel dedicated to Tripurantaka. It must have once been a magnificent and awe inspiring painting, bringing to life the power, glory and the grandeur of the imperial Cholas and their Lord. It is said that Shiva in the mural had a twin expression: the ferociousness in the eye and the sweet smile on the lips. The daemons too have been depicted in detail. The panel, sadly, has not survived in its entirety.

The demon with his consort on the Tripurantaka panel.

25.9. There is a picture of Ravana at Kailasa the snow-abode of Shiva; labouring hard to destabilize mountain peak.

26.Prof. C. Sivaramamurthy , a scholar and art historian of great distinction, described the Chola frescoes of the Thanjavur Big Temple as a masterpiece of Chola art, distinguished by power, grandeur, rhythm and composition, and unparalleled by any other contemporary painting. What is significant about the Chola paintings of Thanjavur is that there is great emotion in all the faces, whether it is the compassion of the guru counselling Rajaraja, or a contemplative rishi, a devout queen, an animated dancer or an angry Shiva.

26.1. Those who have examined the Chola paintings closely have observed that even while depicting a sombre theme of devotion, the artist does not neglect the mundane aspects. The bedecked royal ladies continue to chatter among themselves, in spite of their being in a holy place. In contrast, the common ladies and elders seem absorbed in the performance.


26.2. According to Prof. C. Sivaramamurthy, “If expression has to be taken as the criterion, by which a great art has to be judged, it is here in abundance in these Chola paintings. The sentiment of heroism – vira rasa– is clearly seen in Tripurantaka’s face and form; the figures and attitude of the Rakshasas (demons) … wailing tear-stained faces of their women… suggest an emotion of pity – karuna– and terror – raudra; Siva as Dakshinamurthy… is the mirror of peace – shanta; the hands… of the dancer suggests the spirit of wonder – adbhuta… the ganas (Shiva’s followers) in comic attitude represent hasya. The commingling of emotions is complete in this which is a jumble ofvira, raudraand karuna” (Paintings of South India).


27. The Chola artists of the Brihadisvara murals were the inheritors of the hoary tradition of Chitrasutra. They preserved and practiced the concepts and the techniques of the Chitrasutra. The delineation of lines, use of colours and shades, arrangement of the figures on the canvass and treatment of the subject strongly resemble the murals of Ajanta. Its figures are alive with rhythm and movement.


The saints, kings and queens are celebrated in their idealized forms; the emphasis was on the ideal person behind the human lineaments rather than on their physical likeness. They figures of humans, animals, birds and vegetation always seem to suggest to something beyond the obvious. Its gods and goddesses too are full of virtue, vitality and grace; and have a universal appeal. They not merely stimulate the senses but also ignite the imagination of the viewer and set the viewer free from the confines of place, time and ego (self).The Chola murals of Brihadisvara have that magical quality, which brings out the essence of life and the grace that permeate the whole of existence.

[ I gratefully acknowledge the corrections and improvements suggested by Shri Vijay Kumar the creator of the delightfully articulate website on Shilpa and other related subjects : ] 

For the paintings of the Nayaks’ period : please see the Appendix posted as Part 8


The Vijayanagar period paintings on the ceilings of the Sri Pampa Virupaksha temple, Hampi (Karnataka)


References and Sources:

The Big Temple

The Great God of Rajarajeshwaram

Restoration of Chola paintings by ASI

A.A.S.A.I: Paintings Preservation

Legends across panels by Nandtha Krishna

The Swami as photographer

Tanjavur Paintings in Koviloor, Sittannavasal, Panamalai, Tanjavur Early Chola Paintings;

Photographed  by C. Nachiappan (Koviloor Swamy), Kalakshetra Publications. email_work_card=view-paper



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