ART Murals that date back to centuries in many Kerala temples are either lost or in various stages of conservation. K. K. Warrier has been working to protect them

The Goddess is in her element, perched on the shoulder of a cute little mythical creature, vethalam. She is surrounded by several of these creatures, her acolytes, who appear to be in awe of her. This is a part of a large mural, at least 200 years old that once adorned the walls of the Alathiyur Hanuman temple in Malappuram district. Most parts of the mural bit, now framed, have faded and the distinctive red and green have blurred to mildew brown.

Mural artist K.K.Warrier, who did not have the heart to see the ancient work disappear bit by bit, wrote to the temple authorities for permission to salvage it. As soon as he obtained their consent, back in 2002, he and his team of three mural artists retrieved bits and pieces of 20 ancient mural paintings from the temple, which they have framed and kept for posterity.

In the last 26 years, Warrier has collected several of Kerala’s heritage paintings, which, he says, would otherwise have faded into oblivion or gone to complete ruin. It all began when he was asked by the authorities at the Guruvayoor Sree Krishna Temple to redo its murals. Several of the original paintings had been destroyed and they had to be scraped off before new ones were painted. It broke Warrier’s heart to see the skill and workmanship being scraped off the walls and that is when he decided to “conserve” them.

Kerala’s temples have invaluable murals that date back to many centuries. While some of them are maintained well, having been reworked from time to time, many have been lost to the vagaries of weather and the vandalistic whims of devotees. Sometimes, workers, who are commissioned by the temple authorities for renovation, do not understand the true value of these paintings and scrape them off.

“We have lost many ancient paintings to sheer neglect,” says Warrier, who has redone the murals for many old temples in the State. “All the murals, which we have taken, were in various stages of disintegration. Some of them were peeling off and falling apart. It is impossible to conserve them while retaining them on the walls,” Warrier says. Though our murals are widely appreciated, Warrier feels some temple authorities are still not completely aware of the historical value of the old paintings.

Warrier’s collection includes 98 ancient murals from eight temples Guruvayoor Sree Krishna Temple, Angadipuram Thirumandhamkunnu Temple, Kannur Karivellur Puthoor Siva Temple, Alathiyur Hanuman Temple, Kumaranalloor Devi Temple, Tahikkattuseri Vamanamoorthi Temple in Thrissur, Pallathankulangara Siva Temple in Vypeen and an ancestral house, Nharakkat Pisharam house in Guruvayoor.

Mural tradition

Very few murals are found in the original condition, as complete paintings, Warrier says. Most often, only parts of it would remain. One of the biggest works in his collection, retrieved from Nhrakkat Pisharam, depicts a scene from the Ramayana. The 200-year-old painting, done in the Kathakali tradition, shows Hanuman, Rama and Sita. The red and yellow ochre, black and green have faded to a dull orange-red.

The paintings, done in ancient mural tradition, using natural pigments, are a window to the creativity and skill of the artists of the time, says Sasi Warrier, K.K. Warrier’s son and director of the Indian School of Art, Kochi, who assists his father in conservation work. “The paintings are intricate and the detailing brilliant,” he says. Though the basics remain the same, the style of embellishments and detailing has changed with time, notes Sasi.

Though they are based on Indian mythology, the murals also reflect the social and cultural setting of the times. For instance, one of the works retrieved from Nharakkat Pisharam depicts a soldier believed to be of Tipu’s army. The painting deviates from the mural tradition and the intention of the artist is difficult to guess, says Warrier, who has authored two books on murals- Chitrasootram and Chitralakshanam.

The paintings are extricated through a complex procedure, which involves the use of a chemical solution. All the murals retrieved have been registered under the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act 1972 of the Archaeological Survey of India.

Some art restorers, however, feel the method Warrier has employed is not scientific and does not adhere to the ethics/norms of conservation.

M.G. Sasibhooshan, historian and author of books on Kerala’s art and culture, feels the works, especially those from the Alathiyur Temple, may have been lost had it not been conserved thus. “Warrier, a genuine lover of murals, had no other option but this in order to retain the paintings,” he says. Sasibhooshan also cautioned against illegal trade of antiquities that are rampant in the State. “People should know that it is a punishable offence,” he says.

Warrier, who has been involved in mural art for the last 50 years, is also the director of ‘Chitrageham’ in Guruvayoor, where traditional mural paintings and pictures based on dhyana slokas are done. He dreams of setting up a museum of “conserved murals”, which will help students of art and the general public understand the artistic heritage of the State better.

Sixty-five of the “conserved murals” from Warrier’s collection were recently showcased at an exhibition at the Durbar Hall Gallery in Ernakulam.