This late 19th century painting is on a two feet by one and a half feet board, prepared by sticking layers of newspapers together. The frame is of carved rosewood and the dark casing beautifully offsets the jade green and gold of the painting.
Kamlakshi, an art teacher involved in the task of documenting these old paintings, removes it from its frame, turns it upside down and points to the date on one of the newspaper pieces. It is 1882.
The painting belongs to what is now being called, the Mysore school of art—a very distinct art form which flourished between the 17th and the 19th centuries in south India, more specifically in the region now occupied by the state of Karnataka.
When the great Vijayanagar empire collapsed in the mid-16th century, there were many aspirants to its glory and heritages The Wodeyars of Mysore, who had managed to get the famed golden throne of the Vijayanagar kings in their possession, were now keen to don the garb of patrons of art and culture. So when the Vijayanagar artists started leaving for greener pastures, Raja Wodevar (1578-1617) invited them to settle down in his kingdom. He gave the—some land on the banks of the , veKaveri, 15 kilometres east of Mysore The place is called Srirangapatnarrsettled down in the Mysore kingdom, the others went to Tanjore and under the patronage of the kings there developed a style now called the Tanjore school.
Both of them picked theire Pics. But the Mysore artists chose from a wider range of gods and goddesses. Among the popular ones were Ganesha, Shiva and Parvati, Rama, baby Krishna, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Chamundeshwari, the adorning their paintings with beads, coloured glass and pieces of gold-covered silver foil. For the Mysore artists composition was paramount. Unlike their Tanjore counterparts who had only a single figure occupying the canvas, the Mysore artists often worked with two or more figures, the main one was shown larger than the others.
The Mysore artists excelled at the art of storytelling and even incorporated calligraphy in their work. There is one painting where the story of the Ramayana till the coronation of Lord Rama, is told in playing card-sized figures, attractively arranged on a three-foot by two-foot canvas.
These artists did not use the thick gold relief work of their Tanjore cousins, but developed a softer and a more refined style. They used white lead in low relief and then covered it with a very thin paper made of pure gold. This work, called ‘gesso, was used for depicting intricate designs on clothes, jewellery and architectural details on pillars and arches that usually framed the deities. The fine gold work is the hallmark of the Mysore school.
Each well-to-do household in the region possessed a couple of such paintings. These were commissioned and the artists began work after studying the planetary positions and picking on an auspicious time. The artist would work on one painting at a time and follow a strict routine till it was completed. He would have a pure vegetarian diet, abstain from sex and alcohol, in other words, live like a saint, to instil a spirit of “purity and godliness” in his work. The painting was completed on another auspicious day and was marked by a ritual called ‘netromilana’ meaning the opening of the eyes. The artist would paint the pupils of the deity in the presence of the patron who would then reward him with food and money.
The Mysore artist prepared his own canvas, brushes and colours. He usually worked on paper boards made by sticking layers of papers on a thin wooden plank. The topmost layer was covered with a mixture of white lead and gum arabic and then burnished with a stone. The brushes were made of squirrel and hog hair. The fine outlines were drawn with charcoal prepared by placing thin tamarind
Raja Krishnaraja Wodeyar III credited with establishing and patronising the Mysore School of painting, wigs in an iron tube which was qeated till the twigs charred. The colours were of mineral origin and were stored in a powdered form. These powders were mixed with gum and water and then applied to the canvas because of the excellent quality of the colours, the paintings retain their freshness and lustre even today. But by the late the influence of European art and took to oil paints.
The later works of the Mysore school therefore lack the richness of detail and the charm of the earlier paintings. Moreover, the icon-like figures became more realistic and that spelt the death knell of the school. Its very essence—figures of gods and goddesses that could be worshipped and so had to be very for and con-like—was lost. The artists lost patronage and took to other professions. Most of them in Srirangapatnam became goldsmiths and gave shaloe to the ornaments they had once drawn. A few of them kept in touch with their vocation and tried to pass it down to their sons. One artist who despite heavy odds stuck to painting is Subramanium Raju, now 90 years old. He has worked on the Vijayadashmi festival murals that adorn the Mysore palace. He has also trained a few persons, other than his son and grandson, in the stylee of pa inting. Kamlakshi is one of them. She now teaches it to a group of enthusiastic youngsters at the College of Art in Bangalore.
It is to Raju and a few others like him that we owe a special thanks. They kept alive an art form that faced sure death. And to people like Kamlakshi and her colleague Nanjunda Rao, who rescued manv of these priceless paintings from home, bhajan mandirs (prayer halls) and junk shops where they were collecting.
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