The state of Kerala, known as ‘God’s own country’, has a rich assortment of religious influence in their crafts which is continued and secured for traditional and cultural retention. One such art form which has a higher religious influence on it is mural paintings practiced in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. This art form stands as the highest in India’s artistic tradition. The Mural painting art of Kerala is known for their technical excellence, depicting enchanting storytelling through clear and bold strokes by using bright and beautiful colours.
Since ancient times, humans started expressing and communicating their ideas, observations in various ways like for instance their day-to-day life observations on the surface of the cave, depicting mythological stories on walls, and later on the walls of the temple too. Humans have never stopped expressing themselves right from the stone age period to the present day. The only major change that can be seen is the form of expressing it, which has changed since ages. But observing the surrounding environment, learning from it and expressing it has remained the same since ages.
In this art form, mural paintings were earlier done on the walls of the temples. Prominent illustrations of Vishnu, Lord Shiva and Ganesha in various personifications were generally depicted. Besides that, in course of time, as the art form started flourishing under the patronage of various rulers of Kerala, it was soon depicted on walls of royal households and palaces. The significant examples of this are the Pallimanna Shiva temple with various illustrations describing about Ramyana on the walls of the Mattancherry Palace, The Padmanabhapuram Palace is decorated with murals portraying puranic themes from the 17th and 18th centuries, Krishnapuram Palace at Kayamkulam has a panel of Gajendramoksham from the 18th century era.
Now, the usage of this art form has slowly changed. Artists are now making use of canvas to paint the murals. Not only that, recently designer sarees have been introduced in Kerala, where the pallu of these sarees are decorated with the traditional murals of Kerala.
During earlier days, the mural painting artists used murals to portray especially Hindu deities and moral themes. Mural paintings were earlier inspired from Hindu mythology. The painters used specific techniques to create these murals. They made use of six colours: white, black, yellow, green and red. All of these colours were made from minerals and plant materials. They made use of these colours in different contexts to make the paintings more unique, alive and interesting. For instance, the colour red was used to represent and describe wealth and strength. Green was used to represent gods and black for devils and monsters.
It is believed that, in order to experience the aesthetic side of mural painting of Kerala, one needs to comprehend the coherent relationship it shares with the architecture of the region’s temples. Earlier, temples were constructed in adherence to the instructions and philosophy found in ‘Kularnava Tantra’ (a primary tantric text), whose mystical verses says that the human body is equivalent to a temple and that Sadashiva or Paramatma is the main deity of this temple. Thus, acting as a physical-world body for the deity, the temple’s design encompasses the whole body. The temple’s inner sanctum sanctorum, which represents as an independent structure within the temple complex, is considered as the head of the deity, while the statue or yantra of the god which resides within it is the essence of the deity: a connection to the god’s inner form and spirit. The murals are illustrated on the outer walls of the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, beautifully blending with the elaborate wood carvings decorating the roof. These murals are worshipped along with the murti (deity). The murals in the temple are characterized by highly stylized figures of gods and goddesses, richly embellished with flora and fauna, delicate strokes and vibrant colours. However, in today’s time, the murals of Kerala are considered much more than just a way to represent mythological stories and folk tales as per the artist’s fancy and imagination. The iconography of these mural paintings is said to be solely based on Dhyana Slokas, a collection of over 2,000 verses of invocatory sacred text which defines in detail nine rasas (emotions), embellishments, weapons, vehicles, proportions and colour schemes. The purpose behind this was to manifest the Deity’s form in the artist’s mind, enabling the creation of this devotional art. For style and technique, the painters have adhered to the classical texts Shilpa Ratna. This encyclopedic text served as a guidebook for all Kerala muralists. It describes the preparation of pigments and brushes, application of plaster on the walls, sketching methods, primary colour palette and stances of figures. All these aspects are explained at length in this Sanskrit text. The text also elaborates on the science of iconography. For example, precise proportions are defined for each form. This thus explains why a particular deity will have the same proportions throughout all the temple murals in Kerala.
In today’s time, the contemporary artists of mural painting diligently still follow traditional guidelines. However, the paintings done are no longer drawn on temple walls. They now also make use of canvas, paper, clay and cloth. Despite the fusion between classical and contemporary expression, the indigenous art style is still known and referred to as ‘mural art of Kerala’.
Myths & Legends:
Kerala’s one of the age old artforms that is completely based upon depicting only myths and legends is mural paintings which makes this art form unique and stand out from other art forms of this state. This art form is an exceptional work of art depicting mostly Hindu mythology. Various scenes from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata are depicted through this art form. These paintings are depicted in a highly stylized version of gods, with elongated lips, wide open eyes and exaggerated eyebrows which is said that it can be compared to forms depicted in the classical theater of Kerala. Apart from these epics, other legends, myths and lore come alive on walls and now on canvas by depicting myriad themes inspired from for instance Dhyana slokas. Most of these paintings are picturisation drawn from the descriptions in the verses of ‘Dhyana Slokas’. Some of these verses are mentioned below-
सर्वोपनिषदो गावो दोग्धा गोपालनन्दनः।
पार्थो वत्सः सुधीर्भोक्ता दुग्धं गीतामृतं महत्
The above verse means that the Upanishads are the cows milked by Gopāla, the son of Nanda, and Arjuna is the calf. Wise and pure men drink the milk, the supreme, immortal nectar of the Gita. While another verse goes that,
मूकं करोति वाचालं पङ्गुं लंघयते गिरिम् |
यत्कृपा तमहं वन्दे परमानन्द माधवम्
The above verse means that I bow down to Sri Krishna, the source of all joy, whose compassion brings speech from the lips of the dumb and carries the lame over mountains.
It is also believed that this art of mural paintings of Kerala is said to be evolved from ancient Dravidian ritual like Kalamezhuthu which means the art of drawing on the floor with colours. It is said that, the colours used for painting murals are believed to be symbolic which are based on the qualities of Rajasam, Tamasam and Satvikam.
The earliest paintings in India had been found in primitive caves and rock shelters such as Bhimbetka (Madhya Pradesh) and Ajantha caves. The term ‘mural’ is said to be derived from the Latin word ‘murus’, meaning wall. Murals refer to the paintings illustrated on visual components like the wall, ceiling and other long-lasting surfaces. The mural paintings of Kerala stand out for their prominence in clarity, beauty and symmetry with an unmatchable linear accuracy. It is believed that these paintings belong to a distinguishable lineage with its tradition carrying influences from Ajanta. The tradition of painting on walls began in Kerala with the pre-historic rock paintings found in the Anjanad valley of Idukki district. Archaeologists presume that these paintings belong to different periods from upper Paleolithic period to early historic period. Rock engravings dating to the Mesolithic period have also been discovered in two regions, at Edakkal in Wayanad district and at Perimkadavila in Thiruvanathapuram district of Kerala.
The scriptural basis of mural paintings can be found in Sanskrit text: ‘Chitrasutram’, which is a text about 1500 years old, containing 287 short verses in nine chapters. It is considered that there is no other book as detailed as the Chitrasutram. It answers all the questions about the purpose of the painting, what a painting is, its relationship with the painter and other arts. Earliest evidence of mural paintings of Kerala can be found in Thirunanthikarai Cave Temple established in 9th century. The mural paintings on this temple are considered as the oldest relics of Kerala’s own styles of murals. The other masterpieces of Kerala mural art consist: the Shiva Temple in Ettumanoor, the Ramayana murals of Mattacherry palace, Vadakkunnathan temple in Trichur, Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple at Thiruvananthapuram. These traditional mural paintings flourished under the patronage of various rulers of Kerala. However, this art form suffered tremendously under British administration. After India gained Independence in 1947, a revival of Kerala mural art form took place. One of the chief contributors to this revival project was the school established by Guruvayur Devaswom Board, ‘Centre for Study of Mural Paintings’, in the Thrissur district of Kerala.
In mural paintings, mostly hindu deities, its various forms and mythological stories are depicted. However, now forms have started changing. Mural paintings are now not restricted only towards depicting deities. The artists consider these paintings as a process of documentation. Thus, they have started depicting different stories of ayurvedic processes, different styles and mudras of traditional dance forms. The backdrop of these paintings was usually embellished with fauna and flora and other aspects of nature. To decorate these murals, pigments played a vital role. The primary colours used were ochre-yellow, Indian red, blue or indigo, black, green and white. Different deities were shown in different colours. This differentiation was based on the character of each deity as described in the literature. White colour was used to present satvauna (spiritual positive aspect) of the deity. Red colour was used to represent rajoguna (inclination towards power and materialistic wealth). Yellow colour was used to represent both rajoguna and satvaguna. Tamoguna (evil characters) were represented by using black colour. The shades of blue and green colour were used to represent a dharmic (righteous) character. The forms of the faces expressed in these mural paintings especially focusing on depiction of hindu deities, one can observe often the artists have depicted each deity differently but one thing which is common is the depiction of large eyes, the prominent ornamentation and its curvy circular art style form. Not only in depiction of hindu deities, but even the animals and different dance forms which are drawn are also prominently ornamented too.
There are few common themes and styles that were prevalent during earlier times which have been noted and observed by various researchers and scholars about mural paintings of Kerala. These themes and styles are given below:
– The common themes are of different incarnations of Vishnu, Ganesha and manifestations of Lord Shiva.
– Characters and some scenes from Christian mythology.
– Few scenes from battle between the armies of Tipu Sultan and the English East India Company.
– Other common themes of Anantasayanan, Krishna with Gopis, Nataraja as Dakshinamurthi, Laxminarayan, Sastha on hunt etc.
The most prominent peculiarity of murals of Kerala is the process of making the pigments with indigenous colours. Each eye was elaborately decorated with colours. Shading was predominantly done with dots depending on the shading pattern. The backdrop of these paintings was always red in colour. It was then coated as per the required shade and was dotted with a mix of red and brown.
The mural paintings of Kerala have taken great popularity among the masses. However, the process, technique and even the canvas have now changed. From wall to thick cotton canvas and now to designer sarees: low quality, digital prints; from natural colours to using artificial colours and from handmade brushes to synthetic, somewhere in the course of time the value and respect of this original art form seems to have been lost.
Revival of this art form is the current need. Revival will help to preserve the old techniques and cultural heritage, traditional values which are so unique to the mural art form of Kerala. By spreading knowledge and making awareness about this art form can open doors to preservation of its great history and its restoration.