The mural paintings of Kerala remains the most iconic symbol of the region’s culture and artistic traditions. The oldest of India’s ‘drawing’ tradition could be the Jataka Tales etched on the walls of the Ajantha caves. From there, the Buddhist monks took it to various parts of the world, wherein the artform evolved through a synthesis of cultures.
In Kerala, the mural art traditions are traced to the 8th century AD. The first of the mural paintings in Kerala is said to be the ones at the Tirunandikara cave temple. The mural paintings of Kerala are mostly from the 14th Century AD. There are over 150 temples in Kerala which have ancient mural art forms.
The initial paintings were influenced by Kerala’s topography and nature. Later, the cultural sphere and the Bhakti movements too inspired the painters. A thorough change was noticed with the advent of the Ravi Varma school of thought in the 16th century.
The aesthetic systems of early ages included making the body a canvas. These included face painting, body painting, and ancient varieties of tattooing. In tribal communities, there were distinct tattoos for specific clans.
Then emerged drawings on the ground and the Onam floral patterns are an offshoot of this. The ‘kalamezhuthu,’ ceremonial drawings on the ground to propitiate the gods, emerged too. It is probably from such representations that the murals emerged.
The murals exhibit differences across regions. The women depicted in the Padmanabhapuram palace murals in south Travancore have long faces and well-built bodies. In the Mattancherry palace drawings, women have round faces and a bulky appearance.
Another feature of murals is the feminine attributes given to male gods and vice-versa. Only some figures like Parasuraman, Vettakorumakan, saints, and kings had moustaches.
Artforms like Kathakali, Tholpavakoothu, Theyyam, and Koodiyattom deeply influenced the mural artists. The Kathakali mudras are akin to the poses struck by figures in mural paintings. The male upper garment in murals called ‘kavacham’ is similar to the male costume in Kathakali.
The word mural comes from the Latin word Murus, or a readied wall. This indicates that the paintings are done on a surface which is readied through a painstaking process.
The use of colours are in two styles. One is the Fresco style where colours are applied on a slightly wet surface. The one where the colours are used on a dry surface is the dry fresco style.
One mural painting takes 41 to 60 days to get over. The outlines are drawn in yellow and then filled in with colours.
The thick lines inform closeness; thin lines, distance; flowing line, rotation. The depth is created by mixing all these. This apart, the artist can bring in the elements of time, seasons, and age through various methods.
The image that an artist intends to draw is first versified and uttered by the artist. Then, the artist also invokes many muses in verse and starts drawing. The prayer verses detail the hand gestures, the mount, and the weapons of the deities portrayed. The Ajantha murals are known for the colour schemes and the Kerala murals are known for the impeccable sketching.
Role of Raja Ravi Varma
Raja Ravi Varma combined the Eastern and Western styles with dexterity. He was also instrumental in taking mural painting, till then an elitist art, to the masses. Raja Ravi Varma also draped his characters in a vesture called ‘Saree’ only found in Maharashtra. The artist even clothed his gods in Saree, in his paintings.
In 1970s, many mural paintings in Guruvayur temple were gutted in a fire. After this, on publis demand, a Mural training school was started there under the tutelage of Mammiyoor Krishnankutty Nair. The establishment of the school led to the world knowing more about the mural traditions of Kerala.
In the Guruvayoor style, the deities are represented without many adorations.
A house for murals
Saju Thurathil, a faculty at the Kaladi Sree Sankara College, has created a ‘house of mural’ on the banks of the Periyar in Paravoor. The aim of the residential art and mural gallery was to create a space for art.
Artists can walk into the ‘Art and Mind’ gallery at any point. Artists can also reside there and work on their paintings.