Art and Culture in Tamil Nadu

The heart of Tamilaham, the home of the Tamils or Tamil Nadu, lies around and south of the curve of the Eastern Ghats as it goes to merge with the Western Ghats in the Nilgiris. Some of the oldest prehistoric settlements of India have been found in this area, which has also been the cradle of ancient arts and crafts and industries, a land of innumerable, incomparable temples.

The development of the region has been attested by several writers of olden times. Pliny the Younger of Rome and others have written of the Tamil country in the 1st and 2nd century AD as being a source of silk, fine muslin, ivory work and diamonds, rubies, pearls and tortoise shell. Even earlier, Kautilya (circa 300 BC) referred to pearls of the Taamraparni River in Pandyan country and cotton fabrics from Madurai and sandalwood carvings.

The earliest monuments in stone belong to the Pallava period AD 550 to 912. Of these, cave sculptures, rathas or chariots and other sculptures of Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram are outstanding. It may be noted that the Pallavas inscribed their epigraphs in Sanskrit. Simultaneously, the Pandyas, who ruled from 590 to 920 AD, left cave temples around Tiruchirappalli and Namakkal. Their period is known for the Jain cave paintings of Sittannavasal in Pudukottai district.

But the classical age of Tamil culture belongs to the period of the Cholas, who ruled from AD 850 to 1279. The famous bronzes of Tamil Nadu reached their acme of development and the greatest Natarajas appeared at this time. The other arts, including dance, music, theatre and literature, attained their zenith.

In 1370, Madurai was taken over by the Vijayanagar kings, who consolidated their supremacy all over Tamil Nadu. This was a period of frenzied artistic activity and the seeds were sown for the heavy stylization of various art forms. Much of today's art is derived from the love of the baroque developed during this period.

After the terrible battle of Talikota in 1564 and the rout of the Vijayanagar army, Tamil Nadu was carved up by local chieftains. The most important of these were the Nayaks, of whom Thirumala Nayak was a great patron of the arts. The various city-states were engaged in wars with each other and frequently changed hands, going from local chieftains to the Marathas and the Musilms, till they all finally fell to the British. After the Nayaks, the arts had little or no patronoge and rapid degeneration set in.

Through all the turbulent political upheavals, religion remained a major motivating force in Tamil Nadu. The temple was the focus of activity, with the shops and houses planned around it. There could be no village without at least one temple -- in fact, a village without a temple is likened to man without a soul. The role of religion was so important that most crafts had been adapted to serve religious needs - from the bronzes depicting the gods to simple basketry, where even the designs and weave may have cosmic connotations. The deep, strong roots of religion provided a binding force and a major role for the arts.

Because classical culture had been a strong, uninterrupted influence and religion deep-rooted, the dividing line between art and folk crafts faded over time - the village terracottas became the great bronzes, the woodcarvings became great monuments in stone. Thus, it is very difficult to tell an art form apart from a craft. The basic insularity of the culture protected it from extraneous influences, which could have changed its form, as happened elsewhere in India. Instead, the creative genius of the people and their love for the fine arts strengthened the styles from within. Indeed, it may even be said that stylization and regression of art in Tamil Nadu commenced only after the introduction of outside elements during the Vijayanagar period.

Although the whole state shares a common language and culture, various parts developed their own distinct styles. If the metalware and woodwork of Chettinad are notable for their design, the work in Thondaimandalam, the area surrounding Kanchipuram, is known for its unique shape and elegant simplicity. Textiles have their own variation in weave and colour.

Post Independence has seen a big effort to revive several languishing crafts and today handicrafts have become a big industry, with major sales all over India and abroad. But expansion has not necessarily been beneficial, and indiscriminate commercialization, in many cases, has marred the beauty of ancient craft forms. However, strong traditions die hard and the major role of religion, with which most crafts are linked, has ensured the preservation of much of the tradition and great beauty.


Post a Comment


Knowledge Kings Copyright © 2009