When we speak of traditional Indian art, it is hard to leave out the impactful history and the rich traditions from which these art forms have developed. Spanning from North to South and East to West, we have been blessed with diverse forms of art that have multiple styles, importance, and a peculiar significance to it. Today, The Bimba dives into one of the art forms that encapsulates the beauty of tradition and history — Kerala Murals, one of the most ancient and culturally rich paintings from the Southern part of India, Kerala.
Kerala Murals - A History
As the name suggests, Kerala Mural paintings originated in Kerala and can be traced back to the 8th Century AD. These artworks are frescos which majorly depict characters and stories from Hindu mythology. It is believed that the first mural art of Kerala was discovered in the Thirunandhikkara Cave temple in Kanyakumari (now in Tamil Nadu). Before the murals were discovered, they had a predecessor in the form of rock engravings found in the caves of Edkkal in the Wayanad district and Perimkadavila in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala followed by pre-historic rock paintings found in the Anjanad valley of Idukki district. The history and scriptures related to this art form can be credited to Sanskrit texts like Chithrasoothram, Tantrasamuchaya, Abhilashitartha Chintamani, and Silparatna, all texts ranging from the twelfth century to the sixteenth century.
The Kerala Mural art flourished between the period of 9th to 12th centuries BCE under the many royal patronages but with the advent of the Britishers, the artform took a hit and slowly went out of practice. Post-independence, many major temples undertook the responsibility of reviving this dying art form. One of the major centres that represent this revival phase is the Centre for Study of Mural Paintings established by the Guruvayur Dewaswom Board in Thrissur, Kerala. Today, there are over 150 temples in Kerala which are decorated with ancient mural paintings.
The Kerala Mural Style
One can easily distinguish between Kerala mural art paintings and other paintings because of their distinct features and style. It reflects a unique blend of indigenous artistic traditions. The initial style of the mural art of Kerala was influenced by the local topography and nature, depicting lotus flowers, elephants, peacocks, etc, which one can still spot. But one overarching and important theme is Hindu mythology and religion. Hindu epics like Ramayana and Mahabharat find great significance in the style of Kerala Murals. Gods, goddesses, historical characters, events, folklore, traditional cultural practices, and performing arts associated with Kerala are some other imageries that one will find in Kerala Mural paintings. The figures are vibrantly drawn and a distinctive aspect of these is the depiction of large eyes, prominent ornamentation, and a curvy flow of art style.
The process of making Kerala mural art is considered time-consuming, only to be able to create something long-lasting as a result. These were murals (wall art), which were done as frescos. A layer of fresh ground was prepared by plastering it with a mixture of lime, clean sand, and cotton with 25-30 washes of a mixture of quick lime and juice of coconut tender. The frescos could be chosen to be done in two styles - a dry fresco or a wet fresco (the mural was done while the plaster was wet). An outline is created of the sketch and followed by filling it with colors and finished off with with final touches.
Kerala mural art paintings are drawn with fine brushes and colored with natural pigments made of minerals, plants, and gemstones. These traditional murals were done using the panchavarana i.e. the five colours - red, yellow, green, white, and black. Each color signifies a prominent trait of the character depicted. The importance of colors is emphasised via the color used. White colour is used to portray satvauna, a spiritual trait. Red is used to portray rajoguna, a character with power and wealth. Yellow colour is used to depict both rajoguna and satvaguna or someone with a lively personality. Black colour is used to portray Tamoguna, an evil character and blue and green colours are used to portray a righteous person.
Preserving a Cultural Heritage
Today, with contemporary needs, the mural art of Kerala has been dispersed into more modern forms. Very few places practice making traditional Kerala murals. Now, people prefer to buy Kerala mural painting online and Kerala mural painting on canvas, with artificial colors on mediums like cloth, sarees, and more. One can easily spot digital prints which are made easily available in other formats too. Hence, preserving the cultural heritage and safeguarding the values that come with this art form are important to protect. Not only are they great mediums of knowledge but with every generation, they tell a story that no other technology will.