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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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Home > Culture & the Tamil Contribution to World Civilisation > Sathyam Art Gallery > The Art of Painting of the Tamils from the Sangam Age to the Age of Kamban - Trivikrama Narayan

The Art of Painting of the Tamils
from the Sangam Age to the Age of Kamban

Trivikrama Narayan
[paper presented at Second International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies,
Chennai, Tamil Nadu, January 1968]

Resume of Findings
Grouping of Subject Matter
Literary Evidence - Classical Period
Literary Evidence - Hymnal Period
Literary Evidence - Epic Period
Paintings in Inscriptions & Conclusion


Of all the arts painting has the least pretensions to immortality.

"Though nothing now remains of the paintings of the Greek artists Zeuxis and Apelles," observed the renowned British painter, Sir William Orpen, " We know not only from contemporary appreciation but by the later wall paintings of Pompeii and the memorial portraits of Alexandria that classical painting reached a high standard of realistic efficiency." (1)

The position of ancient Tamil painting was similar.

We have in the Tamil country a few examples of later days which came to light in the first half of this century. The great scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy deplored that no regular search had been made for paintings in the older parts and the more neglected surfaces of the southern temples.(2) His words gave the cue to three enthusiasts whose efforts proved the continuity of Tamil pictorial art from the seventh century onwards, namely T. A. Gopinatha Rao at Ciththamlavaacal, Jouveau-Dubreuil at Kaanjciipuram and S. K. Govindaswami at Thanjcaavuur.(3) It was V. Kanakasabhai Pillai who first drew attention ha his epoch-making book, The Tamils 1800 years ago to the " considerable degree of proficiency of the Tamils in the art of painting. "(4) But no systematic attempt was made to find out what evidence lay enshrined in literature. Such a study spread over a long period has yielded to me an appreciable number of valuable references to the practice of painting.

Resume of Findings

The collected references show that the poets held painters in great respect. The ordinary people seem to have lived and moved among pictures. They saw pictures almost everywhere - on the inner and outer walls of buildings, whether religious or secular, public or private, even inside the marble chambers of pleasure parks as at Pukaar, on palanquins, boards, scrolls, screens and toys. A picture stood for all that was lovely and even ordinary people were capable of estimating artistic merit. There were professional and amateur artists. There was once a manual in Tamil called Ooviya nhuul - a textbook for both painters and dancers. Sketching from memory as well as uncoloured line drawings are also alluded to. The texts praise the ideal loveliness of paintings, in fact the best trait of Greek art and the perfect art of the west until recent times. Caaththanaar said that painters were capable of depicting any thing in their art. In the old practice of Maral eetuthal, the portrait of the girl loved by the disappointed youth was painted. Paintings of attractive landscapes and city scenes imply a knowledge of the art concepts like composition, rhythm, balance, harmony and contrast. There is mention in the texts of brushes, boards, scrolls and parchments as well as pictures painted on walls.

Grouping of Subject Matter

The subject will be dealt with under the following headings:

(a) Literary evidence: (i) Classical period, (ii) Hymnal period, (iii) Epic period;
(b) Epigraphic evidence.

A survey of the material reveals that while references are numerous in the literature of the first (classical) period they are not so in the later periods. The first period - the age of the Sangam works - was really the Augustan age. It was the age of prolific poesy of men and women of diverse creeds and callings, of spartan heroism and of trade relations with one of the mightiest empires known to history. Little wonder, therefore, that literature was in a flourishing state and that it preserved vivid pictures of life of those days. The references to painting therein are remarkable indications of their creative impulse. Their paintings have depicted the fascinating scenes of love and war that are treated with such meticulous regard to the canons of classification peculiar to Tamil poetry.

Literary Evidence - Classical Period

It has to be mentioned at the outset that there is a significant and unique linguistic usage from the earliest times to the present day. It shows that the history of pictorial art must have commenced when they began to use pictorial symbols to record their spoken words. We still have the same word for both drawing a picture and writing - ezhuththu. It will be an amusing howler in any other language if it is expressed therein that so and so " wrote " a picture. But it is a pleasing idiom in Tamil.

The Tamil word ooviyam for painting stood for all that was lovely and excellent. So, it became a poetic formula for the description of anything beautiful - a charming girl, an attractive house or an arresting scene. The poet simply said that the sight was a beautiful as a painted picture.

About the attractiveness of a girl, we read he NhattiNai (146) thus::

" A beauty fit to be seen as that of a picture drawn by a master who has won the praise of a gathering of enthusiastic admirers. "

This indicates that ordinary people were able to assess artistic merit in those days. In the epic, MaNimeekalai (18-66), we see the love-lorn prince Uthayakumaran waiting in the pleasure park to see the maiden ascetic, MaNimeekalai. Observing his presence, she hurries in fright to the marble chamber in the park. He pursues her there and peeps into it. " Oh, here is some painted stuff of the marble chamber ", so saying the confounded prince withdraws, much to the relief of Maathavi's saintly daughter.

A poet of NhattiNai (177) spoke of a damsel's beautiful figure which had to be drawn again and again in regret by a painter. This may refer to regular sittings given by fashionable ladies for portraits as in the west. We feel that the expression oovaththanan (meaning as that of a painting) used by poets (Pathittuppaththu 61-68, Akam 98, NhattiNai 182, and Mathuraikkaanjoi 365) for the description of dwellings and city scenes was more significant than the well worn adjective ' picturesque ' in English.

The essentially imaginative character of painting is reflected in the common names by which painters are called. In Kaliththokai (Paalai 22) they are spoken of as PulanuTai-maanthir, i.e., people with insight. Another common name was KaNNulh-vinainjar in Mathuraikkaanjci (517-519). According to the commentator it meant ' those that present their work before the spectator's eye'. The commentator belonged to the later days when art ceased to be a vital force. The meaning intended by the ancient poets who must have lived with painters must be ' those with the inner eye or mind's eye'. The meaning is clear from the context in which the painters are mentioned. The lines run thus:

" Those who imitate any kind of object, who possess keen insight and penetrating perception, those who work with their inner eye " (Mathuraikkaanjci 517-519).

The same meaning is emphasised in a line of MaNimeekalai (5-7) which speaks of " what the painter thought in his mind to depict". The epic gives an interesting description of a scene of picture-gazing by wayfarers. While going to the pleasure park to gather flowers, MaNimeekalai and her companion Cuthamathi saw " those who were looking at bewitching paintings executed by artists on white plaster over the walls of high mansions raised in burnt brick, depicting torms flora the gods of heaven down to every kind of living being" (3; 127-131). The name iththakar meaning 'the able ones' has been used in these lines to denote the painters. In a list of city craftsmen the epic enumerates (28; 34-38) potters, coppersmiths, bell-metal workers, goldsmiths, carpenters, clay-sculptors and the painter folk, painting through their boon (of inspiration). The poets of Paripaara/ (21) and NhatfiNai (146) even called the painter a valloon or powerful one.

We need not be sceptical about the extraordinary abilities claimed for painters. The mystic painter-poet of 19th century England, William Blake, famous for his originality and spirituality, had never seen the ocean. But he painted the picture of the ocean from his imagination. A modern critic could not find any previous master who had equalled
in truth and impressive majesty, Blake's vision of the ocean. " There is nothing like it in art. It is purely imaginative, but in realism it surpasses all realistic art. It is the veritable triumph of imagination." So observed William Sharp.(5) In his third discourse at the Royal Academy Sir Joshua Reynolds emphasized the essentiality of imagination for artists and recalled the example of a Greek artist thus: " Having a perfect idea of beauty fixed in his mind, he steadily contemplated and to the imitation of this, all his skill and labour were directed. "

Tamil culture once had a manual of painting called Ooviya 7111UUI which, the author of MaNimeekalai said, was well-designed for the dancing women (2: 30 31). The commentary on Cilappathikaaram (8: 23-26) has drawn attention to the Ooviya nhuul where the poses and postures in dance have been prescribed. The work is, however, stated to have been lost even before the time of the commentator. There is an allusion to the work in Perungkathai (35 47). it seems natural that a common treatise on the human figure in motion was in use for both painters and dancers. It seems that besides this old manual there was a later work in Tamil called Cithithira caaththiram. A few years ago (1962) I was thrilled to notice that name in the list of old palm-leaf manuscripts in the Tamil Sangam at Mathurai. To my utter disappointment the manuscript could not be traced. It was apparently lost in a fire that occurred there once or was eaten by white ants later.

In the lost seaport capital, Pukaar, there were bright temples displaying varied paintings (PaTTinappaalai 49-50). ParipaaTal (19: 53-57) describes thus a crowd of visitors busy admiring the frescoed walls of the Tirupparankuntam temple. " Near the abode of Maanmaruka (at Parankuntam) amid the bamboos and rocks are halls with diverse paintings where visitors gather and pointing to the pictures learn their story." Things wonderful are sometimes attributed to divine authorship. The KutunJztllokai (89) mentions " a delicate little girl like the damsel drawn by the large-eyed deity on the western side of the dread Kolli hill of the Chera king". A similar description is found in the NaDttiNai (185) also.

This Kolli figure reappears in the devotional poetry of Thirumangkai Aazhvaar. The PaanTiya king NheTumaaran is stated to have died in a painted chamber (Pt/tAl7l 59). we learn from from the CitupaaNNaattuppaTai (20--22) that its hero, NalliyakkoTan belonged to the group called Ooviyar. This probably shows that there was once a distinct professional class of painters. He is also referred to in a poem of Putaz1l (176). There was also a poet named Perum-Ciththiranaar. He had perhaps something to do with painting. There is a seeming allusion to painting and the brush in couplet 1285 of Thirukural. The early commentator Parithiyaar has given this interpretation while the later commentators have said that the application of collyrium is spoken of therein. We may hold the earlier commentary to be correct.

Sundry objects and articles such as the following were beautified by pictures, drawings and ornamental designs: banners and curtains (Putam 56, Thirumuruku 151, Cilam 3-95, 6-109. Perwzgkathai 4-14), palanquins (Perungkathai 1-38), toys (NhattiNai 58) and the ceiling of the bed chamber (NheTunhalvaaTai 159-162). The figures of damsels mentioned in the following texts were evidently painted ones: Mathuraikkaandsi 723, Akanl 369, MaNimeekalai 7-295, 21-115. A portrait was painted in the quaint old Tamil practice of self-torture called maTaleetuthal performed by a disappointed lover. The desperate young man paints or gets the picture of the girl he loves (KutunAthokai 286). The black and white works which came into prominence in the last century in the west are described in the texts. MaNimeekalai states (22-88) that the heroine entered a house and stood like a punaiyaaooviyam, explained in the commentary as a picture drawn only in lines, without the use of colours.

The word is met with in NheTunhalvaaTai also (147). The Tamil painter evidently knew the great secret of the graphic art that the bold strokes of a rapid sketch gave more life to it than meticulous finishing with all minor shades and details and colours. This can be easily verified by having before us a photograph and a well-drawn sketch of the same figure made up of only a few lines. A few suggestive lines make a greater demand on the play of imagination than a finished picture and the truth is that the spectators mind is a far better painter than the painter's hand. To adapt Keats' famous lines, " seen sights are lovely, but those unseen are lovelier still." Even in the caseof finished pictures, Reynolds said in his discourse cited above that a firm and determined outline is one of the characteristics of great style. The painting of groups and panoramic views as already stated would be successful only by the subtle effects of composition. A knowledge of these qualities was probably acquired by the ancient Tamil painters after long experience, by trial and error. Though detailed accounts of secular painting, of frescoed chambers of courtesans and of portraits of beauty queens and of painting materials are met with the CiivakacinhthaamaNi and Perungkathai, it is not proposed to notice them here as they do not strictly pertain to the Tamil country.

Literary Evidence - Hymnal Period

This was the age of Hindu revival, when reformed Hinduism copied the example of Buddhism and Jainism in appealing to the masses in their own language. But the latter's love of painting does not seem to have been copied. The lack of interest in pictorial art is indicated by the paucity of literary references.

Yet the inborn aesthetic feelings unwittingly crept into the devotional pieces. " Neither colour nor shape could be seen by me", regretted Appar at Thirukkazhippaalai. " on the canvas of my mind was thy figure drawn", he observed at Thiruvaaruur. A similar statement was made by Periyaalzhvaar (in Tl1irl/mozAi 5-4) who sang: " on the walls ol my heart I have drawn for myself all thy acts of prowess without exception." He describes that the divine child (Krishna) walked thus: (1~8-6) '* when he walked, the footprints left here and there resembled pairs of feet drawn with the conch in one and the discus in the other." His description of the music of Krishna's flute is superb. 'L Towards the sound of his flute herds of deer gazed. They forgot their grazing; the grass slipped from their month. Without moving either side, without changing their position, they stood like a painted picture" (3-6-9). The beauty of ATTapuyakara thirumaal at Kacci stole the heart of not only his own devotee, Thirumangkai Aazhvaar but also of Siva's devotee, Cunhtharar. The former asked: " who is this so full of loveliness with lotus eyes and beauteous body like a portrait drawn by a master-painter?" Cunhtharar refers to the deity in his hymn on Anhekathangkaavatham.

Literary Evidence - Epic Period

Kampar's references are numerous and only a few will be noticed here. He spoke of a face that resembled a red lotus which had bloomed in a painting. (CuntharakaaNTam KaaTcippaTalam 20). Ciithai's loveliness and brilliance were those of a very painting (KitkinAthaakaaNTam KaarkaalappaTalam 1). Vaali appreciated the fine figure of even his opponent. " oh, one who is handsome like a painting ", so he addressed Raama (KiT-VaalivathaippaTalam 127). Anhumaan was pained to see Ciithai in the Acooka-vanam " like a painting that had absorbed smoke" (CunAthara-KaaTcippaTalam 11). Kampar had obviously seen such damaged paintings. We have in the Cunhttharah-kaaNTam a small interlude which is not found in Vaalmiiki's text. Since the coming of Ciithai, RaavaNan neglected his former favourites. " What use is weeping now," they sigh, '' can we not at least draw the portrait of our master? " (Cunhtharar-UurtheeTupaTalam 172). Sketching from memory was probably in vogue in those days and that by women.

In the time of Ceekkizhaar there must have been mural pictures as described in his PeriyapuraaNam (Campanhthar 1173). The hagiographer said that Paravayaar was so beautiful that the painting of her picture was the despair of the creator (ThaTuththaaTkoNTapuraaNam, 141) In the Tamil grammar of the Jain saint PavaNanhthi we read that picturcs are essential to mansions as towers to cities and jewels to the dancers (Nhannuul 55).

Paintings in Inscriptions & Conclusion

The Pallava king Makecnhthira Varman I has called himself a tiger among painters, Ciththirakkaarapptulli, in two inscriptions, one at Kacci (6) and the other at Pallaavaram.(7) This title does not seem to have been a vain one, as another epigraph of his, at MaamaNTuur has recorded that he wrote a commentary called 'Southern Painting' based on ancient texts.(8) A Chola inscription has referred to the existence of a painted hall at Thanjcaavuur.(9) This must have perished.

The entire subject of Tamil painting in all its aspects deserves to be dealt with in a comprehensive and well-illustrated monograph.


1. SIR WILLIAM ORPEN, Outline of Art, p. 8.
2 DR. ANANDA COOMARASWAMY, Introduction to Indian Art.
3. Indian Antiquary, Vol. 52, p. 45; Journ of the Annamalai University, II (1933), p. 34.
4. V. KANAKASABHAI PILLAI, The Tamils 1800 Years Ago, 2nd, ed., Madras, 1956, p. 129.
5. WILLIAM SHARP, Progress of Art in the Nineteenth Century, p. 95.
6. JOUVEAU-DUBREUIL'S Pamphlet, Conjeeveram Inscription of Mahendra Varman I.
7. Madras Epipraphist's Report, 1909, pt. II, pp.74,75.
8. South Indian Inscriptions, Vol. IV, pp.127 ff.
9 South Indian Inscriptions, Vol.III, pp. 9, 17.


GOVINDASWAMI, S. K., " Paintings of the Great Temple, Tanjore ", Journal of the Annamalai University, It (1933).
JOUVEAU-DUBREUIL, " Pallava Painting at Sittanavasal' Indian Antiquary, Vol. 52.
MINAKSHI, C., Administration and Social Life under the Pallava. RAMACHANDRA, T. N., " Pallava Painting ", Ojha Commemoration Volume. --, " The Royal Artist ", Indian History Congress, 1931.
SASTRI, K A. N., The Colas.
TRIVIKRAMA NARAYANAN, The Sculpture and Painting of the Sangam Age, Swadesamitran Weekly, Yuva, Chittirai 8.
---, "Tamil Painting ", Archaeological Society of South India, 22 Jan.1945.
---, "Early Tamil Painting ", Silpi, 1948.
---, "Painting of Ancient Tamils ", All India Radio, 29 March 1960.
---, " The Fine Arts of the Sangam Age, " Tiruvalluvar KaZllagam~ Madurai, 23 Nov.1961.

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