The Tanjore School of art was born on the banks of the river Kaveri in South India. The Tanjore style of painting is a peculiar, ancient, miniature type of painting. Tanjore painting is a key form of classical South Indian art native to the town of Thanjavur or Thanjavoor (Anglicized as Tanjore) in Tamil Nadu, India, about 300 Kms. from Madras (Chennai). The name Thanjavur comes from "Tanjan", a legendary asura. Tanjore was the capital of the Chola Kingdom, which has made significant contributions to Indian Art and Architecture. The art form dates back to the 16th century, during the reign of the Marathas, a period when the Nayakas of Thanjavur encouraged art. The Thanjavur Nayaks were the rulers of Thanjavur between the 16th and the 17th century.

Tanjore Paintings are known for their surface richness, vivid colors and compact composition. Essentially serving as devotional images, the themes of most of these paintings are gods, goddesses and saints. Tanjore paintings are in fact panel paintings (done on solid wood planks) and hence were also referred to as 'palagai padam' (pictures on a wooden plank). Tanjore paintings are rich in looks because of the 24 carat pure gold foil, Jaipur Glass, colored glass, valuable stones, the vibrant colors, the jewelry decoration, the subject (Gods or Goddesses in the painting) and the teak wood frame used in each painting. Other courtly and secular portraits were also created. Every Tanjore painting is worked on with a lot of patience, in order to give the best depiction of the subject.

Lord Krishna painted in the Tanjore style

The paintings
The Tanjore painting style is a beautiful miniature type of art. The Maratha princes were great admirers of that style. There are no written records as to who started that form of painting. However, there are evidences which support that the paintings evolved with the skill and talent of a few communities, which were not local to Thanjavur. Both the Rajus in Thanjavur and those in Trichy, near Thanjavur and also the Naidus in Madurai, practiced the art of making Tanjore paintings. These paintings were masterpieces and rooted in tradition. The art was sacrosanct for just a few master craftsmen who remained mostly anonymous.

Contemporary Tanjore painting

Antique Tanjore painting

Tanjore artwork is one of the many indigenous art forms for which India is noted. This form of art developed at the height of cultural evolvement, during the period of 
the Gupta Empire. It developed out of the Bhakti Movement. However it is to be noted that even the Vedas have a mention of ratna-jadita-citra or jewel encrusted paintings. Unfortunately no such examples are available, perhaps due to the fact that this art encrusted with jewels became the prey of thieves.

The Tanjore School flourished under the royal patronage of the Maratha kings and reached its pinnacle during the rule of Sarfoji Maharaja, a great patron of the arts. Later it fell on bad days during which the workmanship suffered. No longer serving the purpose of icons, the images were mass-produced with cheap materials.

Example of Tanjore art during this period.

History & Evolution 

Thanjavur Royal Palace was once ruled by the Cholas

The Maratha rule of Tanjore lasted for about 2 centuries from the late 16th century. The Tanjore school of painting evolved in a period full of political chaos in South India.

There are some examples of this art in the Saraswati Mahal Library in Tanjore set up and developed by Maharaja Sarfoji. This monarch, who reigned from 1798 to 1832, is the one to whom we owe the Ganesh shrine in the Tanjore Big Temple. He played an important part in the history of this art also.

Thanjavur paintings are found in great literatures such as the Sanskrit work Prabotha Chandrodayam that has a few pages of Thanjavur Paintings, Marathi translations of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavatam with the art works of the painter Madhava Swami dated 1824 A.D as well as paintings of gods & goddesses which occur in the wooden covers of every part of an edition of the Rig Veda made in Maharaja Sarfoji's time. 
Maratha princes, the Nayaks of the Vijayanagar dynasty, the Rajus communities of Tanjore and Trichi and the Naidus of Madurai patronized the art of Tanjore painting from the 16th to 18th centuries. Tanjore paintings are deeply rooted in tradition and still innovative within limits. This art is sacred and dedicated.

In October 1799, Raja Serfoji II, ceded the Tanjore district to the British East India Company in absolute sovereignty. The Raja retained only the capital and a small tract of surrounding country. He died in 1833 and was succeeded by his son Sivaji, who died in 1855 without an heir. With the extinction of this royal line, the golden age for the art of Tanjore paintings comes to an end. After that only cheap imitations were mass-produced for the enjoyment of the populace.

Tanjore painting triptyque (3 panels)

Radha Krishna in the traditional style of Tanjore

Scholars say that a red background is the distinctive mark of Tanjore paintings, but green is also sometimes used. Lord Vishnu, appropriately enough, is colored blue, and Lord Nataraja (Shiva) chalk white. Yellow was used for goddesses. The sky, of course, is blue, but black is employed only on occasions. There are conventions in regard to the use of embossing and bejeweling. But these do not appear to be followed very strictly anymore.

The following examples are traditional but not antique. However, the style of Tanjore painting is followed in the conventional way.