If you have discovered the joys of India’s traditional arts and crafts, chances are you would have come across Thanjavur Art Plates. Native to the religious town of Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, Thanjavur Art Plates are exclusively made here, with the city holding special privileges over the artform. Take a stroll through the cultural section of Thanjavur, and you’ll likely spot a few goldsmiths chipping and embossing their way through metal sheets of various sizes, sometimes even vessels! So what makes these handicrafts so unique?
The curious case of the Art Plates stems right from its origin. The plate, or plaque, was first created in the 18th century, giving rise to the long history of the craftsmanship as a whole when the then ruler of Thanjavur, Rajah Serfoji, requested a gift item to be created by the local artisans of his kingdom. Another exciting facet of the Thanjavur Art Plates is that the pieces are crafted solely by the Vishwakarma community. The art has been passed on by generations and is a matter of pride for the community. It denotes priceless Vishwakarma inheritance and is a way of life for both their ancestors and the current generation.
Interesting fact: The craft is limited to only the men of the household.
Protection Under The Geographical Indication Act 1999 of The Government of India
The artwork has been recognised as historical and registered for protection under the Geographical indication of the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. It is listed at item 63 as “Thanjavur Art Plate” of the GI Act 1999 of the Government of India, and the production of the items are heavily regulated. Only the article’s size is permitted to be different while other metal compositions and particularisation have to remain the same as per GI approval. This makes the Thanjavur Art Plates crafting a very niche business and holds more emotional and historical value than monetary.
Thanjavur Art Plates: The Origins
The plaques are a unique blend of three different metals that bring the aesthetic aura and significance to each item. The Thanjavur art plates are made using silver, copper and brass with one metal showing prominence over the others depending on the design and requirement. The art form began as an elaborate way of goldsmiths preparing each plaque. The arrangements were meticulously made with intricate loops and leaves and much more adorning the metal sheets. Designs range from gods and goddesses to floral patterns, geometric sequences and even prominent figures such as sages and sometimes even animals.
Thanjavur Art Plates: Manufacturing and Composition
The Plates consists of 3 major parts; the base plate, the primary circular plate, called the primary relief and additional sheets called secondary relief. Artisans use lead for creating design moulds to emboss the 3D designs onto the metal sheets. The base plate is hammered onto a sticky board, either made of asphalt or wax, to fix it while work is done on it. The base plate is almost always made of brass and forms the crux of the Plate. Once the base plate is firmly attached to the board, the craftsmen begin by attaching the primary relief. These can be centrepieces, rings, outer loops or emblems made of silver or copper. Various bow-shapes, curved strips, coin-sized designs, forming the secondary relief are then attached around the primary relief to complete the Art Plate.
Despite it sounding like a tiny scale operation, the manufacturing of each Plate passes through multiple stages. Each Plate requires a blacksmith, a goldsmith, a designer and even jewellers. The blacksmith is responsible for creating the base plate and the moulds using heavy metals. The designer is tasked with creating the ornamental designs on the reliefs using sketches, moulds and other means at their disposal. The goldsmith then takes the metal parts and plans and starts embossing the patterns onto the sheets. Sometimes, the reliefs are also crafted by the goldsmiths and jewellers, who later handle the encrusting of reliefs and fix them to the base plate. Once all the above steps are completed, the Plate can then be sent for a thorough polishing and a quality check.
Source: The Hindu
Examples and the Present Day Conditions of the Craft
Generally speaking, the base plate is often covered by motifs while floral patterns have their place on the reliefs. Other designs similar to patterns and sequences are also found on the reliefs. For example, a plaque made in the 20th century was displayed at the Government Museum in Thanjavur a decade ago. The plaque had various relief images of Nataraja, the sage Patanjali and goddess Sivakami in a standing posture over a lotus, as the Plate’s centrepiece. The Thanjavur Art Plates are marketed within the country and exported through a chain of authorised showrooms and permitted exporters.
Sadly, what once was a thriving craft sector has started dwindling in numbers. Just over a decade ago, more than 200 craftsmen were employing their trade, making these Plates. Today, the number sits at 60 personnel. There are many reasons for the abandonment, including cutthroat competition from other handicrafts, less demand, the one-dimensional aspect and much more. Several artisans were forced to focus on the Art Plates and stop utilising the art style on vessels and other items; Thanjavur Art Pots are also a significant item alongside Plates. With increasing competition and difficulties keeping the art form alive, Thanjavur Art Plates are approaching a rare and coveted status. We must ensure their survival while simultaneously preserving their heritage.
To shop for vintage Thanjavur Art Plates, click here.