The Murals of Kerala - Part 3


Maha Visnu
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Nov 17, CANADA (SUN) — The third and final segment of the Kerals Murals series.

A study of the evolution of mural painting in India traces it from Ajanta to Kerala. Kerala's murals are on par with those at Sittanavasal, Badami, Lepakshi, Tanjavur, and Vijayanagar. In fact, there are strong similarities between the styles of Kerala and the murals of Sittanavasan and Lepakshi.

Kerala's mural tradition reached its apogee between the 16th and 19th Centuries. Though there is not much documentary evidence, experts have classified the murals into three phases, just as they have classified its temple architecture - early (800-1000 A.D.), middle (1001-1301), and late (1301-1800). In the last phase, with the incorporation of wood carvings and paintings on temple walls, a balance was forged between architecture and decorative art.

In the two previous Sun segments, we discussed two distinctly different styles of Kerala murals - the traditional Panchavarna murals done in five colours - yellow, red, green, black, and blue, and a softer painting style in earth-toned colours, shown in today's article. In both cases, white was the base itself and the remaining colors were pigments derived from various stones, leaves and dyestuffs. The walls themselves underwent an elaborate preparatory process and there are instances of murals still 'glowing' after 1,500 years.

The paintings, usually on the walls of a temple's sanctum sanctorum, depicted various Deities and Vedic personalities and scenes. While the human figures were highly stylised, animals and birds were painted in more naturalistic postures. Such stylised facial expression and gestures trace their origin to the theatrical elements in the performing arts of Koodiyattam and Kathakali. Wide-open, round eyes, elongated painted lips, exaggerated eyebrows, dramatic body postures, and over-ornamentation are typical of the mural paintings.

Lord Varaha and Bhu devi
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In the case of the earth-toned murals, the design style and ornamentation tends to be less geometric and stylized, instead featuring rounded shapes and smooth colours that blend one figure into the next. The effect is very soothing to the eye and creates a peaceful, mode of goodness sentiment.

In the quiet village of Tokikalam, east of Thalassery in Kannur district, there is a 16th century Siva Temple that was destroyed by the British during their struggle with the Pazhassi Raja. Historians have not been able to precisely determine how old the Todikalam Siva Temple is. Some just say that it belongs to a very ancient period; while others say it was rebuilt about 500 years ago, around the time of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu's manifest lila. Today this temple, like so many in Kerala, is a massive treasure house of murals, with 150 pictures on the outer walls of the two-storied sanctum sanctorum.

Dramatic scenes, elaborate costumes and memorable gestures of figures in intimate relation with each other seems to be parallel to the living dance forms of Kathakali, Koodiyattam and other forms of the theatre of imagination. They form the corpus of a distinctive school of painting evolved by masters of pictorial form who could recreate vitalities of conflict, the frenzy of the demigods and the grace of goddesses in the grand manner of the great Indian tradition of murals. The overall connection between Vedic art history, geography and social issues and the culture of the entire Indian subcontinent was always present in Kerala. Although evidence of direct links are somewhat rare, the art of ritual painting, of floor and body painting and the Theyyam tradition of North Kerala reaches far back into the past.

Murals were deliberately painted on the outer temple walls, particularly on the Srikovil as well as on the gate towers and subsidiary buildings, to attract the attention of visitors. The subject matter of these colourful paintings varied from temple to temple, depending on the Deity to whom the temple was dedicated, when the pictures were painted and to what school of painting the relevant painter belonged.

Lord Ganesh
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Along with the demigods and goddesses, the paintings depicted scenes from the Puranas and Ithihasa, particularly the epic poems Mahabharatha and Ramayana. Naturally, Sri Krsna was the darling of mural paintings, and many exquisite examples of Krsna lila pastimes have been memorialized in Kerala murals. For the devotee planning a trip to South India, an exploration of the Kerala mural scene is a 'must do'.

Source material: Various articles by author K. Pradeep and staff correspondents for The Hindu.


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