Art in social context
There is a lot more to the murals that make the temples of Tamil Nadu so special.
ROYAL PATRONAGE: Sri Pundarikaksha Perumal temple at Tiruvellarai had several paintings obliterated later. Photo: M. Moorthy.
Where has the expertise of the Chola and Pallava artists gone? The Nayak paintings have moved away from the realism of the previous era and get a `folkish' appearance reminiscent of the Jain manuscript paintings style. They are in turn replaced by the calendar art of our times. Why was there this movement towards an emphasis on the apparel and accessories of the subject rather than on the human form and a "realistic" style? An interesting perspective to this question was given by Dr. Job Thomas, Director, South Asian Studies Program, Davidson College, in a recent lecture organised by the Prakrithi Foundation in Chennai.
The talk was an opportunity to see a selection of Dr. Thomas's collection of slides of paintings, many of which today have been painted over completely. Jain paintings of the Pallava dynasty in Sithanavasal - the detail of a lotus bud with one of its petals folded has a photographic quality. The artist has spent time detailing the delicate tints and hues of the petals.
The list was in a way a scroll of shame beautiful works obliterated forever by well meaning devotees. In this context should be mentioned the temples of Patteeswaram and Thiruvellarai whose painting have vanished. The professor, however, gave a social context to art.
The primary, if not sole, sponsors for art in the Pallava and Chola times was the King who saw no threat to his reign nor had the time to go into details. This meant artists had more time to display their expertise.
A painting of Pundarikaksha Perumal. PHOTO: R. M. RAJARATHINAM.
The Nayak times saw patrons becoming less royal and composed more of local chieftains who presumably wanted the artist to `get on with it quickly.'
This caused the style to serve the purpose of narration (most paintings have explanatory scripts) rather than reflect the artist's expertise of technique. Today's artist probably doubles up as a painter of politician cut-outs and his style, and that demanded by today's devotee is reflected in the garish calendar art temples have today.
Yes, we need to see art in the light of its social context but the slides of what we have lost will hopefully inspire future temple renovators to steer clear from `defacing' gopurams with enamel paint and painting over the few frescos we still have. The School of Art in Chennai has done some work in this area but much more needs to be done.
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