Kerala mural painting history

Murals of Kerala -M.G.Sasibhooshan
Kerala on the south-western coast of India has won the admiration of every visitor because of its resplendent greenery and luxuriant vegetation. Every aspect of Kerala art blends into this pervasive greenery with perfect harmony. Nothing loud, nothing discordant. Every work of art maintains a subdued tone.
One can say that 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 of Kerala, at Edakkal in Wayanad and at Perumkadavila in Tiruvananthapuram district.
It is not difficult to trace the roots of the Kerala mural styles to the more ancient Dravidian art of kalamezhuthu. This was a much more fully developed art form connected with religious rituals. It was a ritual art of sprinkling and filling up different colour powders inside outlines sketched with the powder.
The roots of the extant mural tradition of Kerala could be traced as far back as the seventh and eighth century A.D. It is not unlikely that the early Kerala murals along with its architecture came heavily under the influence of Pallava art. The oldest murals in Kerala were discovered in the rock-cut cave temple of Thirunandikkara, which is now in the Kanyakumari District of Tamil Nadu.
The hall of the cave must have once been richly decorated with paintings. However at present only sketchy outlines have survived the passage of years. The paintings that were here were executed in all probability in the ninth or tenth century A.D. Apart from this there are no other paintings that can be dated to the period between the ninth and the thirteenth century A.D. However a tenth century inscription of Goda Ravi Varman found in the Nedumpuram Tali temple in Trissoor district mentions the wages that were paid to mural painters.
A Portuguese traveller, Castaneda, who had accompanied Vasco-da-Gama in his voyages to India, has recorded their experience of walking into a Hindu temple under the mistaken notion that it was a native church. On entering they noticed "monstrous looking images' some of which had four arms painted on the walls. To the travellers the images seemed like the pictures of devils which raised doubts among them whether they were actually in a Christian church. In all probability the European navigators must have stepped into a Bhagawati temple that was situated somewhere between Kappad and Kozhikode.
Archaeological evidences point to the period from the mid-sixteenth century onwards as the most prolific period of mural art of Kerala. Srikumara'sSilparatna, a sixteenth century sanskrit text on painting and related subjects must have been enormously useful to contemporary and later artists. This treatise has been acclaimed as a rare work on the techniques of Indian art, the like of which has not been published before or after. It discusses all aspects of painting, aesthetic as well as technical and it is greatly useful in understanding the later medieval murals of Kerala.
The subjects for murals were derived from religious texts. Palace and temple murals were peopled with highly stylised pictures of gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. It was not a fanciful representation but drawn from the descriptions in the invocatory verses or 'dhyana slokas'. Flora and fauna and other aspects of nature were also pictured as backdrops in highly stylized forms.
The murals of Kanthaloor temple in Tiruvananthapuram district (thirteenth century) and those at Pardhivapuram (Kanyakumari district) and Trivikramapuram in Tiruvananthapuram (fourteenth century) are the oldest extant temple frescoes of Kerala. Representing the prolific period of mural art viz. the period between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries A.D. are the Ramayana murals of Mattancherry Palace and the paintings in the temples like Trissoor Vadakkumnatha temple, Chemmanthitta Siva temple and those at Kudamaloor and Thodeekkalam in Kannur district. They represent a latter phase in the evolution of medieval mural tradition. Likewise the wall paintings at Panayannarkavu, Trichakrapuram, Panjal Kottakkal as well as those in Padmanabhapuram and Krishnapuram palaces and those in the inner chambers and the lower floor of Mattancherry palace, represent a much later period in the evolution of medieval mural tradition.
A close study of the mural art of Kerala will prove to be valuable in understanding the state's art and cultural tradition. It was a tradition that was not averse to incorporate the best of the diverse cultural and aesthetic influences that it was open to. But alongside it was also able to retain and preserve its own individuality.
The state of Kerala holds the second place in having the largest collection of archaeologically important mural sites, the first being Rajasthan. The mural tradition of Kerala evolved as a complement to her unique architectural style. According to scholars the Kerala school of painting represents the final and fading phase of Indian traditional painting. These wall paintings are characterized by their linear accuracy, the adherence to colour symbolism, elaborate ornamentations and sensitive portrayal of emotions.
The palaces at Padmanabhapuram, Krishnapuram and Mattancheri are the important sites of Kerala Murals. The temples at Panayannarkavu, Pundareekapuram, Pandavam, Trissoor, Chemmanthitta, Kaliampally and Thodeekkalm are equally famous for its frescoes. The church frescoes have paid more attention to a more or less realistic representation of human anatomy. The churches at Cheppad, Akapparambu and Ankamali are important for their old wall-paintings. The colours selected by the artists had a direct bearing on the characters portrayed. According to ancient texts there are three broad qualities assigned to superhuman, human and sub human beings, viz satwa (the noblest), Rajas (the active and middle principle) and Tamas (the dark and destructive principle) respectively.
To represent satwik quality green and shades of green were used. Characters of a Rajasik quality were portrayed in red or golden and the Tamasik nature of the gods were represented not by black but in white, while demons and demonesses were represented by black.
Among the subjects, Vishnu and his satwik incarnations, Parvati, Sridevi, Arjuna, pious beings like Prahlada and Markandeya were always painted in green. Bhoodevi, (goddess earth), GangaGanesa and the four-headed Brahmawere also painted in red. Vishnu was painted in different colours according to his attributes.
It is true that though the figures of the murals have the external likeness of men and women, the divine or rather the supra-human aspect is also obvious in every detail. The creators of these pictures no doubt had undergone rigorous mental disciples or sadhana.
They had the creative skill to fill every available space with as many details as possible and also the skill to pinpoint on one or two essential details and leave the rest to our imagination. The painting in the Mattancheri palace of Krishna holding aloft Govardhan for example is a typical example in which minute details of the wooded mountain are elaborately depicted. This tendency for detailed elaboration is also a characteric feature of koodiyattom, the ancient temple theatre of Kerala. Another later but frequent characteristic of the murals of Kerala are the beaded or decorative outlines not only around each panel but also around individual figures.
The most significant drawback of the Kerala mural tradition was that it confined itself with in the stipulations of Icnography. However no other mural tradition has been able to match the linear accuracy of Kerala murals.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when the second Bhakti movement swept through Kerala, many were the excellent murals that were painted then. It is also highly probable that the leading names of the movement like the eighteen and a half poets of the Zamorin's court,Ezhuthachan, Melpathoor, Poonthanam and the venerable sageVilwamangalam must have been instrumental in reviving this popular tradition of religious arts.
The mural artists of the mediaeval period invariably hailed from the upper castes. They belonged either to the BrahmanNair or Ambalavasicommunities. Although many of them chose to remain anonymous quite a few lane taken care to stake their claims. The old paintings in the Vadakkumnatha temple we understand were done by a Krishnan and his disciple. The murals at Pallimanna in Vadakancheri were done by Raman and Gopalan, disciples of Brahmans. The old wall paintings at Balusseri temple were executed by an artist called Poonthanathu Krishna Pisharody who is also credited with having painted the murals at Panjal Ayyappankavu. Records reveal that two of his disciples, Arangottu Bharata Pisharody and Sankaran Nair were the artists who painted the beautiful murals of Kottakkal Siva temple. Sankaran Nair obviously was a popular mural artist, since there are several mural sites in north Malabar which hear his signature. Another name which must not go unmentioned is that of Narayana Pattar, who painted the murals at Pandavam temple in Kottayam.
The decadence of this tradition that started in the late eighteenth century gained momentum with the Mysore invasion (1766 - 1782) of Malabar and the take-over of the Travancore temple trusts by the then British Resident (1811). A final blow was inflicted when Raja Ravi Varma's (1848-1906) portrait style of painting gained fame and popularity.
Decline and Resurgence
With the invasion of the Muslim warrior Tippu Sultan (1766-1782) and the later takeover of the Travancore temple trusts by the British (1811), wall-painting art fell out of favor in the 18th century. For 150 years it languished, and those who knew the art grew fewer and fewer.
It took a disaster to halt the decline. In 1970 a fire broke out in Guruvayur Temple, burning down the walls and obliterating the murals. Faced with replacing the masterpieces, temple authorities realized, to their dismay, how few competent mural artists were available. Only three veterans could be summoned for the recreations: Mammiyur Krishnankutty Nair, M.K. Sreenivasan and K.K. Varier. "It is because of them that we are able to enjoy the wonderful works of art in the temple today," said a devotee of Guruvayoorappan.
The incident awakened the Guruvayur Devaswom to the urgency for revival of this traditional and uniquely Keralite art form. Driven in part by the prodding of Dr. M.G. Sasibhooshan, the Institute of Mural Painting was established in 1989. Today it thrives, offering a five-year course inside the temple premises (see sidebar this page). Institutions for learning and research in mural arts have also come up at the Sree Sankara Sanskrit College in Kalady, the Malayala Kalagram in Mahe and the Vastu Vidhya Gurukulam at Aranmula. Mural painting is also taught in the Banaras Hindu University in north India.
Even local Christian churches, recognizing this revival and the importance of mural art in Kerala, have employed this art form to depict the Last Supper and other Christian stories, in the attempt to give their imported history a distinctively local look.
Color and Content
The subjects for murals are typically derived from religious culture and texts, peopled with highly stylized pictures of the Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Other common subjects are rishis and sages, their exploits and those of kings and warriors, as well as royal attendants, processions and the significant events which define the history of the place.
Dr. Subbanna Sreenivasa Rao, a leading writer on the subject (see his work at told us, "The human and the godly figures depicted in Kerala murals are strong and voluminous, drawn in running, smooth curves and subtle darkening of colors. The exquisite shading depicts the fullness and roundness of their form, resembling the paintings of Ajanta.
"The figures are highly stylized and rendered with elongated eyes, painted lips, exaggerated eyebrows and explicit body and hand gestures (mudras), decorated with elaborate headdresses and exuberant, overflowing ornaments. The strong and voluminous figures of Kerala murals with their elaborate headdresses have a close association with the characters from the dance dramas of Kerala.
"The expression of the emotions, too, comes out rather strongly. As compared to these figures, the animals, birds and plants drawn in the pictures appear closer to life. The wild and erotic scenes also are overtly shown without much reservation. The Gods, humans and animals are shown in combat and lovemaking. The murals take a holistic approach to existence, almost obliterating the thin dividing line between the sublime and the mundane, between religion and art."
These subjects are not fanciful representations of the artists' imagination but motifs exactingly drawn from the Dhyana slokas, which are not mere prayers or hymns but word-pictures or verbal images of the Deities. These verses describe precisely the Deity's form, aspects, countenance, the details of facial and bodily expressions, posture, the number of arms, heads and eyes, ornaments, objects held in the hands, etc. Suresh Muthukulam estimates there are more than 2,000 such verses which help artists like him to visualize and paint the sacred forms. These slokas also lay down the theory of proper color schemes, the skillful management of which provides stylized balance and rhythm to the paintings.
Murals depict the epics, like Ramayana, and the classic frolics of Krishna as well as the mystic forms of Siva and Shakti. They recount the Hindu myths and the Kerala forms of worship and lifestyle. As backdrops to these highly stylized works, flora and fauna and other aspects of nature are also pictured.
In his Mural Paintings in Travancore K.P. Padmanabhan Tampy writes, "The great and distinctive art displayed in these paintings reveals a wonderful vitality and intensity of feeling, meditative charm, divine majesty, decorative delicacy, unique verisimilitude, subtle charm of color, fine texture and marvelous draftsmanship. The Kerala murals blend harmoniously with their surrounding architecture, wood carvings and decorative art."
Unlike the temple wall-paintings of nearby Tamil Nadu, which relate to either Siva or Vishnu, Kerala murals present Siva and Vishnu rather evenly. There are paintings of Siva worshiping Vishnu, and Vishnu offering worship to Siva. Kerala especially adores the depiction of Siva and Vishnu as one Being in the form of Hari-Hara, a common subject on the fresco walls.
Unique to Kerala murals is the Pancha-mala (five garlands) system, in which borders are decorated with relief-figures of animals, birds, flowers, vines and such: the Bhootha-mala depicts goblins and dwarfs; Mruga-mala, animals such as elephants and deer; Pakshi-mala, rows of parrot-like birds; Vana-mala, floral motifs; and finally, the Chithra-mala is composed of decorative designs.
Kerala murals are also typified by their rich, warm and loud colors. A traditional Kerala mural strictly follows the Pancha-varna (five colors) scheme, using only red, yellow, green, black and white. In fact, it is this adherence to a limited earthy palette that gives the murals much of their distinctive look and feel.
White, yellow, black and red are the pure colors, according to Shilparatna. The ocher yellow, ocher red, white, bluish green and pure green are the more important colors.
All pigments are derived from natural materials, such as minerals and stones, oils, juices., roots and herbs. The yellow and red colors are mixed from minerals (arsenic sulfide and mercuric sulfide), green from the juice of a plant locally called Eravikkara, black from the soot of oil lamps. White, the base, is prepared with lime. Colors are mixed in a wooden bowl with tender coconut water and exudates from the neem tree. Other methods, minerals and herbs are occasionally used, but always natural.
The colors relate to the gunas, or attributes, of the subjects. For instance, green is employed for depicting the sattva (balanced, pure or divine) divinities; red and yellow for rajas (active, irascible) characters, and white for tamas (inert or base) events and creatures.
The brushes used are of three types--flat, medium and fine. Flat brushes are made from the hair found on the ears of calves, medium from the hair on a goat's belly and the fine brushes from delicate blades of grass.
Exacting Techniques
Mural artists are not merely illustrators but chemists as well, creating a complex concoction that will not only receive the organic pigments but will then resist the erosion of the elements for hundreds of years. Mr. K. U. Krishnakumar, Principal of the Institute of Mural Painting in Guruvayoor, explains that the walls must be painstakingly prepared with a rough plastering of lime and sand mixed with the juice of kadukkai or of a vine called chunnambuvelli, all dissolved with palm sugar (jaggery). A smooth plaster--a similar mix with ground cotton added--is then applied. After ten days, 25 to 30 coats of quicklime and tender coconut water are applied, creating a thickness of about half an inch. Lemon juice is used to mellow the alkalinity of the surface. The mural is painted only after the wall is completely dry, using the fresco (Italian for fresh) technique of mural painting, which involves the rapid application of water-soluble pigments in a damp lime wash.
The art itself is defined in six stages, artist Muthukulam notes. Lekhya karma is the first, where sketching of the outlines is done in a light yellow color. Second comes the rekha karma which enhances and gives dimension to the outlines. The third stage, called varna karma, breathes life into the subject with the addition of colors. In the fourth stage, vartana karma, shading is added for depth and definition. Lekha karma is the tedious outlining of all forms, usually with black. The final stage is called dvika karma, where life is given to the eyes of the Deities and people, "awakening or stirring the work to life." This is also called samarpanam, which means an offering from the artist. A fine coat of resin is then painted on the surface to give it a glossy look.
While the ancient procedures remain fairly intact, modern times have brought changes. To meet the demands of clients and for display at distant exhibitions, Kerala paintings are often executed these days on plywood, cloth, paper and canvas. But the old genius is still evident in the work of Suresh Muthukulam and his students, in their renderings of modern Kerala village life, of contemporary Indian biographies and of the eternal Divinities. The old Kerala masters might be startled to see the murals in the lobby of the Mumbai Hyatt or on pillars in Delhi's Imperial Hotel; but even the most irascible of them would smile to know that his craft is alive and well in the 21st century.
Two Bold Contemporary Initiatives
On display at the Gandhi Smrithi Darshan gallery in New Delhi is perhaps the finest artistic exposition of Indian history and culture: an eight-part mural series on India's freedom struggle, created in 2001 by Suresh Muthukulam and his team. Celebrating India's 50 years of independence, it focuses on eight moments from the life of Mahatma Gandhi, father of the nation. The main piece, measuring four by six meters, took six months to complete. Done in dry fresco, the perfect medium to immortalize Gandhi's nonviolent vision, the paintings will endure for 2000 years.
Adorning the Mannam Samadhi in Changanassery is a work completed in 2005 by Suresh and team: the 'Saphalamiyathra' murals on the life of Mannathu Padmanabhan, the late leader of Kerala's Nayar clan. Six artists worked for two years to capture eleven moments in this hero's life, revealing a man who dedicated all his life and wealth to unite his community, walking away from luxury and leaving behind even his wristwatch, walking stick, pen and wooden shoes.
Portrait of a Modern Master: Suresh Muthukulam
When next you land at the new Mumbai airport, a massive 10' by 80' mural depicting flight will greet you, the work of S. Suresh Kumar, popularly known as Suresh Muthukulam. Traditionally trained and extraordinarily gifted, Suresh is arguably Kerala's leading muralist. His work can be found in hotel lobbies, museums and temples in 12 nations, and even at the Hinduism Today offices in Hawaii. (Full disclosure: we have been working with him for four years and have no claim of objectivity in telling his story!)
Suresh was born in 1971 in a central Travancore hamlet called Muthukulam in the Alappuzha district of Kerala, the sixth and youngest child of K. Sukumaran and Pulamaja. His aptitude became evident from his childhood when he drew illustrations of the stories of Bhagavatham recited by his father. Encouraged by his teachers, he excelled in school art competitions. "When as a boy I visited the Krishnapuram Palace, which is not far from my ancestral home, I was attracted by the mural painting of Gajendra Moksham drawn on the wall adjacent to the bathing ghat in the palace pond. It inspired me a lot," Suresh told Hinduism Today.
"Father soon took me to Mr. Varier who was teaching painting privately. I was led into a puja room inside the school where Ganapati was installed. To introduce me to art, Mr. Varier took a brush, sanctified it with some pujas and gave it to me with the order to draw Ganapati riding a mouse. With the blessings of the Ganapati, I did it to the satisfaction of my first guru."
He fine-tuned his skills at a school in Mavelikara, took a three-year Diploma in Painting from the Modern Fine Arts at Mavelikara (1986-1989), then joined a five-year degree course (1989-1994) in the Kerala mural tradition under an innovative gurukula system started by the Guruvayur Devaswom. "There I was fortunate to apprentice under the late great Mammiyoor Krishnankutty Nair, a master of the tradition. Together we restored a mural painting at the Padmanabha Swami Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. It took us four years to complete and we stayed at the site happily, only receiving boarding and lodging for our work. To us it was pure, selfless art, and a great opportunity to perfect our skills."
Raw talent and hard work earned him accolades and commissions in India and abroad. In 1995 he became a visiting lecturer at the Ravi Varma Institute of Fine Arts. When the state set up the Vastu Vidya Gurukulam at Aranmula to teach vastu shastra and mural arts, Suresh was chosen to head the mural section. His students are thriving in the field. He senses the traditional arts are in revival, as people discover murals have more color, style and grace than modern works. He half jokes that "Modern art gives me the impression that it is done without bothering much with knowledge of the basics."
Kerala Murals
The Art of Painting on Walls
Professor Dr. Bibhudutta Baral and Mr. Antony William 
NID R&D campus, Bangalore
Mural Style Painting on Canvas Process
Kerala Mural - Products
Renowned widespread illustrations of Vishnu in various personifications are the oldest paintings found in Kerala. Other common murals are of Ganesha and manifestations of Siva.
Thrissur houses many mural paintings in the temples like:
• Pallimanna Shiva Temple with the illustrations of the story ofRamayana  on  the  walls  of  the  Mattancheri Palace  and  in SankaraNarayana,  Mahabharata  is  retold.
• Vadakkunatha Temple with twin sets of paintings – in the interiors and the other in a small shrine
• The Chemmanthatta Temple of Shiva has sculptural art of Krishnaand Balarama at its entrance
Others murals can be found in:
• The Padmanabhapuram Palace  houses  murals portrayingpuranic  themes  from  the  seventeenth  and  eighteenth  centuries.
• Krishnapuram Palace  at Kayamkulam  has  a  big  panel  of Gajendramoksham  existing during the earlier  eighteenth  century era.
• Panayannarkkavu  Murals  depicts Hindu  mythology  on  the  walls  of  SaptaMatha  temple  of Panayannarkkavu.
• Ettumanoor Murals  depicts the  epics  with  imaginative  panorama  of  a music  concert  by  the Gods  and  Goddesses.
• Pundareekapuram Murals depicts the Hindu epics and also the frolics of Lord Krishna.
• Rama Temple atTriprayarrepresents Rama and his coronation, Vishnu, Krishna and Sita.
• Guruvayur and AranmulaParthasarthytemples have many wall paintings.
• Marathiavolom temple in Alleppeyhas many paintings on Krishna.
• St.  George’s Orthodox Churchis surrounded with Christian murals depictingscriptural stories and biblical characters.
• Mar  Sabore  and  Afroth  Churches inAkapparambu,located in  the  outskirts  of  Ernakulam,possess  murals  portraying various  scenes  from  the  bible.
• Attractively, St. Mary.s Church at Kanjoo,rhas battle scenesof the armies of Tipu Sultan and of the English East India Company, on the both sides of its entrance.
Picture Captioning:
1. For the contemporary art, the canvas is used as a primary material for drawing.
2. The traditional painting brush is made of elephant grass locally called ‘Kuntalipullu’.
3. The first shade of color used in Kerala Mural is yellow.
4 The second shade is followed by red.
5. The colors used on the human figures, depend on the characters and common qualities.
6. The colors are richly painted and brought to live with black outlines.
7. The colorful representation brings a sense of glamour, tranquility and charm to the Kerala murals.
8. Pre-historic stories retold in the murals.
9. The spiritual divine wealth is depicted in shades of green, golden yellow and red.  Blue was introduced much later.
10. The order of colouring is firstly yellow, red, green, blue and brown (mixed red and yellow)
11. Striking illustration of Kerala murals.
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