Experts and novices are re-interpreting Kerala-style murals in myriad ways

A dirge was once sung for Kerala murals. Brought back to life, the art appears to be fiercely making up for lost time. Kerala-style murals and their off-shoots are seen everywhere, occasionally in their natural habitat, temples, and more often on canvases, fabrics, pots, wall-hangings or any willing material. Its practitioners too are diverse — from those who have spent years studying the art to those armed with workshop and short-course experience.

Mural painting has a diligent following among home makers who want it to be one among their accomplishments, a starting point to a modest enterprise.

Though shifting from walls to canvases and rendered in acrylic rather than natural colours, murals are still enjoying a flourish. V.M. Jijulal, whose exhibition “Mizhiyayaku” is on at Shrishti Art Gallery in the city, paints themes from the staple Ganesha and Radha-Krishna to scenes of village life.

Growing interest

“There is greater awareness and interest among people,” says V.M. Jijulal, alumnus of the Institute of Mural Painting Guruvayur, one of the first institutions in the State to devote itself to the art. But a rising interest doesn’t necessarily translate into buys. “There were a lot of enquiries when we held an exhibition which had mural paintings too, recently,” says Nigilesh T.G. of Art Alley.

Mural art was not always so actively pursued, says artist Sasi Edavarad, another product of the Guruvayur school. Tipu Sultan’s attacks, the British era, the dominance of realism in painting, and the popularity of Ravi Varma paintings all took their toll on Kerala murals, he says. When a fire damaged large parts of the Guruvayur temple in the 1970, the mural paintings on the walls were lost.

“The search for mural artists to restore the paintings led to the realisation that there were hardly any practitioners left. The institute was an attempt to revive the art,” explains Sasi. At the institute, a handful of students learn the art professionally over five years in the gurukulam way.

Murals, with their flush of colours and vivid style, appeal to everyone, says Sasi. But the art is defined by strict rules and norms, traditional paintings being based on shlokas and tales from the Puranas, while the figures are governed by measurements, down to the last ornament.

All this is often cast aside when a mural is transferred onto a fabric, say a sari. And also when those who do not have a sound footing in the art paint it.

“Then it is not a Kerala mural, but Kerala mural-style work,” he says.

While he knows deviations from the traditional depiction of gods and goddesses to images of everyday life help the art expand and attain visibility, he stresses, “We should be careful not to let the traditional art slip away from us.”

Gauging art

Satheesh Thayat, a mural artist who studied at the Guruvayur school and is also a teacher, says the profusion of mural art will pave the way for correction. “It is not bad for the art as it will help the discerning to differentiate good, mediocre and bad works.” Satheesh paints contemporary works as well as traditional. “There are a lot of exhibitions and the contemporary images are a welcome break from the same-style traditional paintings,” he says. “It is also a challenge to the artist.” Even when they largely work with acrylic, artists like Satheesh and Sasi still paint with natural colours. “When we tell customers about the long time period involved in painting with natural colours, they tell us to do with acrylic,” says Satheesh.

Most of Satheesh’s students are home makers, but he steers clear of crash courses. “At workshops and camps, you can only make them do a painting, but cannot teach them to make paintings. Even five years is nothing when it comes to learning it. In the institute we had study tours to temples across Kerala and interaction with seniors. While painting, we would start on the mudra, move to the costumes and finally reach the form,” he says. Those flocking towards capsule courses don’t take the art per se seriously. “Among home makers it is now a craze quite like glass and fabric painting,” he says.

Seena Vijayan, home maker and a student of Satheesh at OISCA, says, “We began with 12 of us and after four years of a class a week, three of us completed the course.” Enamoured by the murals at Guruvayur temple, Seena was looking for ways to learn it when she came across Satheesh’s classes. She and her friends now aim to hold exhibitions and take what they have learnt forward. “We cannot make a mural based on shlokas as we do not have working knowledge of Sanskrit. We draw inspiration by watching other paintings,” she says. “But there is a good market for murals.”

Mural on fabric

P. Radhamani, a home maker who learnt mural painting for a few months, has promptly moved on to sari art, though she exhibited a few mural paintings recently. She finds murals on saris much easier. “Mural painting on canvas is a lot of effort and about minute details,” she says, adding that there are many takers for her saris, for which she charges Rs 1,000 and above depending on the number of figures painted.

The tradition Sasi describes is very different. “In the past, a mural at a temple was a meditation for the artist,” he says. “They took 10 to 20 years to complete a painting and to achieve it was salvation for them.”