I was walking down the lobby of Vasundhara Sarovar Premier, a resort in Alleppey, when I suddenly felt that I was being watched. I looked to the side, and a pair of eyes stared back at me. I gave a start, but the figure didn’t move at all. A life-size, three-dimensional statue of a Kathakali dancer, in his traditional garb and green make-up continued to smile down at me. It was just a sculpture: I heaved a sigh of relief. The wall that it rose from was painted on with stylized artwork — there were elephants, there were fireworks, there were children — evidently, a pooram was in progress.
This kind of fresco art, albeit with variations from the original technique, falls under the classic Kerala mural tradition . Traditionally found on the walls of temples, palaces and churches, the bulk of Kerala mural paintings date back between the 9th and 12th centuries. I had visited the Anantha Padmanabhaswami Temple in the Kasargod District of northern Kerala a few months ago. It was set in a charming location: on a freshwater lake and surrounded by ruins. But what really adds to the vibrancy of the whole temple is its mural work. Intricate works depicting Lord Anantha (an incarnation of Vishnu) and Lord Nataraja span the interior temple walls.
While mural paintings have for long been limited primarily to religious buildings in Kerala, today this school of art finds itself in coffee table books, on the walls of homes and lobbies of hotels and resorts. There are two things that set apart contemporary mural paintings from traditional ones. For one, there is a departure from the subject: a move away from mythology to ordinary situations of everyday life. The murals from the 14th-15th century have mostly Hindu gods Vishnu, and his incarnations, Shiva, Ganesha, Durga etc. But a contemporary mural, such as the other one I came across in Vasundhara, is an elaborate picture depicting a village scene done in acrylic paint. That brings us to another departure: material. In earlier times, the artists used solely vegetable dyes. They would extract the pigments from leaves, burn coconut shells, and mix it with liquids like coconut water and limejuice. The resultant colours made an exciting palette: saffron-red, saffron-yellow, green, red, white, blue, black, yellow and golden-yellow. Making a wall surface fit to be painted on is a long-drawn process too. A careful layer of jaggery, milk and a number of resins are applied in equal proportion. The paintbrushes, too, are made by the artists using bamboo and other varieties of grass and roots.
About a hundred and fifty buildings in Kerala that include temples, palaces and old houses boast intricate mural artwork. Historically, the technique started as far back as the 10th century but really began to flourish from the 15th to the 18th centuries. The Gajendra Moksha in the Krishnapuram Palace in Alappuzha District is the largest mural panel in Kerala, and almost 10 feet high. It exhibits a 10th century Bhagvata Purana legend of an elephant saluting Vishnu amidst a crowd of other gods and goddesses. The Mattancherry Palace in Ernakulam has several murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana.
The good part about mural art is that unlike other ancient art forms it is not anywhere close to dying out. There are many institutes in Kerala which have Mural Art listed as an exclusive course. For example, the Guruvayur Devaswom’s Institute of Mural Painting’s 5-year diploma course, started in 1989, has been churning out professional mural artists over the years. In fact, mural art has suddenly had a resurgence of popularity as it slowly makes its way from temples and holy spaces into domestic spaces, living rooms and bedrooms, sold for lakhs of rupees.
Kathakali: a stylized classical Indian dance-drama which originated in Kerala
Bhagvata Purana: one of eighteen Maha Puranic texts of Hinduism.