The gilding technique uses raw gold foil, delicate as a baby’s breath, crumbling even under the slightest of touch.

Radha Prabhu a Thanjavur painting artist working on a big canvas
Features Art Friday, February 12, 2021 - 17:06

There’s an alluring grandeur to Thanjavur paintings, a style that has its roots in Tamil Nadu’s present-day Thanjavur district. What’s most appealing in Thanjavur art is the ornate beauty that comes with the sheen of gold covering the canvas, studded with pearls and semi-precious stones, highlighted only by the stark contrast of reds, blues and greens of the rest of the image.

This traditional art form took shape during the Maratha rule in Thanjavur between 16th and 19th century and today enjoys Geographical Indication by the Government of India. Usually portraying Indian gods, the Thanjavur painting is a must have in the collection of art connoisseurs. And here’s an artist from Thanjavur, now living in Chennai, who is reviving an old technique, only to make what is already a flamboyant art form even more exquisite. The gilding technique that uses raw gold foil/leaf, delicate as a baby’s breath, crumbling even under the slightest of touch.

The practice, artist Radha Prabhu tells us, was perhaps abandoned by contemporary Thanjavur artists, for the difficulty in implementing the technique. “Working with raw gold foil that’s extremely fragile, is quite the task. It takes immense patience and skill of the hand. Artists today work with gold foil that’s so much thicker in comparison. But the difference between the two finished works is one that’s obvious to the viewer. I’ll show you,” she says.

Radha Prabhu, who was honoured with the Tamil Nadu Ovia Nun Kalai Kuzhu Award in 1999 by the State Lalit Kala Akademi, has been a Thanjavur painting artist for close to 25 years. Ironically, the native of Thanjavur took up the art form only by chance. “I always showed an inclination towards art even as a child but I never intentionally chose it to become my profession. It did not even know that it would become my strongest passion back then,” Radha tells TNM. During her first year of college, Radha, who was pursuing BSc Physics at Thanjavur, signed up for painting class with her friend, just for fun. She did not even know that she was signing up for Thanjavur painting at that point, she admits. “In fact, it was my friend’s father who eventually became my teacher. And that too,” she chuckles, “I did not know beforehand. All of it happened by chance. I never planned for it.”

By the time she completed her undergraduate course, Radha knew one thing for sure, and that was to learn Thanjavur painting from a professional artist. She learnt the art from TS Venkataraman, working under him for about two years. Between 2000 and 2001, Radha was awarded the junior fellowship in the field of painting by the government of India's Department of Culture, giving her access to research on old Thanjavur paintings. The period of fellowship and the knowledge gained as a result has made Radha a sought-after artist for restoring old works.

Restored work on the right

In her room, an exclusive space she’s rented out above her apartment in Thiruvanmiyur, Radha enters a world she’s created for herself. “Do you want to turn on the fan?” she asks, as we settle down for the interview in a sunlit room. In the corners are ornate wooden boards bearing pencil sketches of divine figures speckled with gold — paintings in different stages of completion. “I’m so used to working without the fan. I can turn it for you,” she offers.

This is because Radha spends hours bent upon carefully prepared boards (a process that takes a couple of days when following the traditional method), her artist fingers lingering, butterfly-like, on gold foils; cutting, pasting, shaping and polishing to make it seem like gold, indeed, was melted and cast into shapes upon the painting.

“That is the beauty of the gilding technique,” she explains. The waning of the gilding practice, according to Radha, could have been due to how labour intensive it is. “It is also more expensive, wastage is higher and it is a far more difficult technique to master,” she adds. This challenge was one of the reasons why Radha passionately pursued it. “For many years, I tried finding the right kind of tools. I even tried to find out if there were any artists in India working using this technique. Sadly, I could not find anyone,” she says.

Gilding tools

22 carat Gold leafing on archival quality paper

Over the course of the coronavirus lockdown, Radha began experimenting with the technique from what she researched. “While it’s not being practised by Thanjavur painting artists, gilding is popular in the West, especially for frames. I imported a few tools from the US and UK and began trying my hand,” she says.

When working with raw gold foil, one has to be extra careful. Radha sometimes works wearing a face mask since even her breath could cause the foil to crinkle. The base, the gesso work (the embossed projections) are all the same but the tools and the technique used in gilding are different. There’s the gilder board on which the foil is placed, the gilder knife for cutting the foils, the gilding brush for picking them up and placing them onto the painting and then the agate knives for polishing. Radha also shares having experimented with oil and water gilding, the difference only discernible to the trained eye, in terms of how shiny the finished gold layer looks.

Watch Radha working with raw gold foil:


Another distinction with the gilding technique is how original to gold the end result is. “Let me put it this way. The raw gold foil pasted on the gesso work is unlike placing the foil. Here, it’s not even a layer. It’s more like a sheen that blends on top of the gesso work. The end result, therefore, makes it look more authentic as if gold was melted and shaped in these paintings. This was how it was done earlier,” she explains.

A stickler for tradition, Radha prefers to work with what she calls the authentic Thanjavur painting style. “It’s unlike what you see today, and the difference to an ordinary viewer may not be immediately discernible. Right from the shape of the eye, to the style of the icons, there’s a distinct Thanjavur style that’s increasingly becoming sparse today.”

This, she blames on commercialisation of the art form. “Today, you will be able to buy a ready-made board that comes with figures already drawn on it. One just has to apply the chalk mixture for the gesso work and then begin pasting gold foil. But there’s so much more to Thanjavur painting than just that,” she says, adding, “I’m not against change but one should not compromise on technique for that.”

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