The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 25, 2003

Kerala murals get fresh lease of life
N. Kunju

PAINTING is an art form that had attained great heights of excellence in ancient India. Ajanta is an example of not only the development of Indian art centuries ago, but also the technological ingenuity that the ancient artists showed in inventing implements and ingredients for their paintings. Like sculpting and architecture, painting too was mostly religion-based and used to depict gods and goddesses.

Legend has it that two maharishis, Nara and Narayana, were doing deep tapasya (meditation) to attain the knowledge of Brahma. Indra, the Lord of Heaven, anxious that the two rishis would gain divine knowledge, sent his beautiful court dancers Menaka, Rambha, Tilothama, Sukesini and Pushpangada to lure the rishis away from their tapasya. The damsels danced for long, but the rishis were not distracted by their enchanting performance. At last, when the rishis opened their eyes on their own, they saw the apsaras sitting around, tired by their continuous dancing. Seeing their frustration, Narayana rishi bared his right thigh and drew the form of a beautiful woman on it. With his divine power, he then gave life to the picture. The woman thus created by the rishi became the most enchanting dancer of Indra’s court, Urvashi. It is believed that the female form that Narayana rishi drew on his thigh was the world’s first painting.

Legends apart, medieval artists in different parts of India were engaged in painting and the mediums they painted on were the walls of temples, palaces and monuments. The subjects for wall paintings were usually scenes from epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata.


Kerala has a distinct temple culture. The rituals of Kerala’s temples are unique, so is their architecture and sculpture. The ceremonies too differ from those of temples in other parts of the country, being performed to the accompaniment of special percussion instruments like the chenda. The performing arts of temples like Kathakali, Ottamthullal, etc have no parallel. The wall paintings in Kerala’s temples have a distinct identity.

(Above) Kerala murals depicting an apsara and (top) lovers
(Above) Kerala murals depicting an apsara and (top) lovers

Sharp lines form the skeletal support for the body of Kerala murals and this unique feature distinguishes them from other murals. Subjects for the murals are varied —gods, goddesses, saints, kings, birds, animals, plants, trees, creepers, flowers, all in their natural splendour. The murals adorn not only temples, but also the walls of old palaces and some churches.

The murals are done on a meticulously prepared white surface. The colours are made from mineral or vegetable dyes. For example, red, brown and yellow are made from soft stone, that is powdered and refined, green colours from the leaves of herbs, blue dye derived from the indigo plant, etc. Black dye is made from the carbon deposit gathered by burning a wick dipped in vegetable oil. Even the brush is handmade from the shoots of arrow grass that are deftly tied to a bamboo stick. In short, all painting tools are derived from nature.

The white background, whether it is on the wall or hard board, is prepared with lime (calcium hydroxide) mixed with coconut water. This paste is evenly spread to get a glazed surface. No white colour is used while painting; where white is required, the background itself is left untouched.

If the tools and the material required for murals are unique, the art itself also has a distinct character. The wall paintings show a form of stylised realism — a discipline evolved through centuries of traditional attachment and devotion, a tapasya in itself.

A mural depicting Kaliya Mardana
A mural depicting Kaliya Mardana

Sadly, though we take pride in our ancient arts and science, very little is done to revive and promote them. Of course, there are government-funded academies and institutions that are officially patronising artists and artisans. But the whole process is tied up in red-tapism, favouritism, corruption and mutual back-patting or back-stabbing (as the case may be). The fact is, the artists who work silently with single-minded devotion are left out of the rat race for exposure and fame.

The Kerala school of murals was on the brink of extinction when a devoted artist of the old generation, Mammiyoor Krishnan Kutty Nair, established the Institute of Mural Painting in 1989, with the financial aid and patronage of the famous Guruvayoor Temple Trust. A few remaining veteran mural painters volunteered to teach the art to the youth. The institute functions according to the guru-shishya parampara.

Two young artists from the institute’s first batch, Venugopal and Jayachandran, have established their studio in Delhi. Their work has made a mark in the Capital’s art world. Several institutions have commissioned them to paint murals for them. For example, a painting titled ‘Mritasanjivini’ was installed in the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) some time ago. It is not only an excellent piece of art, but also has a theme that can inspire medicos.

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