Have you ever grappled with a classic, trying to love it on your own terms?
Take the Tanjore-style painting of Southern India dating from the nineteenth century, for example.
It’s not just that the paintings are gaudy and formulaic; they also represent the triumph of conservatism over dynamism.1
Although the style originated during a period of intense social upheaval in India, these paintings are so static—note the lack of perspective, a lack of detail in the background and the flat colors—belying the intense whirlwind all around.
Tanjore was once the capital of the great Chola dynasty that left its imprint all over Southeast Asia. By the nineteenth centuries, it had become a pawn in the Anglo-French wars and had lost much of its former glory; but it was still the center of Hindu culture in Southern India. Rather than adapt to the change, Tanjore’s elites (who were also the patrons of its artists) dug in their heels.
But these paintings are perhaps better understood as religious icons than Art. As icons, their power must lie in their ability to inspire devotion both in the artist and the viewer.
On the one hand, the central deity in a Tanjore painting faces the viewer full on—like the deity in a temple–bestowing the worshipper/ viewer with a glance of the ineffable divine through the process of darshan. On the other hand, the artist must set aside his ego and put himself in a meditative frame of mind. To help him along, the ancients (and their spokespersons, the priests) have laid out rules of religious iconography that must be followed.
The process of creation of such images is then merely repetitive, anonymous and ritualistic.
Not quite. The artists themselves were hardly inward-looking.
Inspiration was everywhere.
The characteristic gold leaf of this style was in fact borrowed from the heretic Islamic kingdoms to the north. The size and depiction of the central deity (especially the more naturalistic renditions of the face) was influenced by Western-style portraiture. In defiance of orthodoxy, one can sometimes spot Western-style winged angels in the darker recesses of such paintings. Finally, the earthy, vivacious aesthetic of the paintings reflected the popular or folk tradition, which was a long way from the milieu of the kings and merchants who commissioned these paintings and the priests who consecrated them.
These subversive details endear to one not so much the tradition itself (which was the dying gasp of the orthodoxy) but the unknown artist.
One can picture him walking through the bazaar, a young man of low caste delighting in all these new faces from all parts of India and Europe that are upending established caste hierarchies. He then goes home to his painting, mulling over how or whether to reassure his boss hiding in the c-suite aka the priests in the sanctum sanctorum that nothing will change when in fact everything will change tomorrow.