For mural painter Prince Thonnakkal, who is in Chennai to conduct a workshop, the art is his passion.

The sun is at its zenith and the stream of pick-up vehicles servicing the noon shift at the IT parks, make a constant drone. But inside ‘Craft Nest’ in Chennai, there is calm. Figures in languid postures, with tranquil eyes lean against startlingly detailed backdrops on sheets of white canvas stretched over the tiled floor. They are being brought alive in colour by eight students bending over their work. A soft spoken man is demonstrating the painting of waves with a brevity of brush work that speaks volumes about his experience. He is Prince Thonnakkal, who teaches the fine art of traditional Kerala mural painting.

In Chennai to conduct the Kerala Mural Workshop, Prince takes time off to speak about his life-long passion. “The speciality of Kerala murals is the profusion of line drawings in the paintings and their distinctive colouring,” he says. Originally found as cave paintings in the ancient Thirunandikkara Cave Temple, murals adorned the walls of more than 150 prominent temples all the way from Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in the south to Thodeekkalam Siva Temple, Kannur, in the north.

“There were stylistic differences in the way murals were painted in the north and south,” points out Prince. “Primarily because of the depth of involvement in a project, an artist may well spend roughly half his lifetime at a single temple. Since travel was limited, his style was seen only in temples around where he lived and worked.”

Dhyana slokams

Notwithstanding stylistic differences, all murals strictly adhere to the Dhyana Slokams of each deity that they represent. These Dhyana Slokams were codified by the famous Namboodiri family of Kanippayyur Mana. These are strictly followed by idol makers and mural painters alike. Within the framework, which would decide the deity’s posture, colour, ornaments and so on, the artists could express their individual styles.

When fire ravaged the Guruvayoor temple in 1970 that destroyed a large part of the temple’s murals, the authorities started looking for an artist to repaint them. Their choice was the famous Mammiyoor Krishnankutty Nair, who is Prince’s teacher. The Guruvayoor Devaswom went on to set up the Institute of Mural Painting and thus was born the first school for murals outside the guru-shishya parampara.

Prince attributes the renewal of this art to the Institute. It brought mural art out of temples and into public places, hotels, corporates and homes.

“Today, more and more people are exposed to the beauty of murals than they were in the past,” says Prince. “There is now a huge private demand for murals, which is a big boost to both the art and the artist. Also leading artists of today frequently network and share ideas about projects they are working on.”

The techniques

“The technique of correctly mixing the paints and gums can only come with experience,” says Prince.

Traditionally, only four colours were used. Not counting white, which was the unpainted area, the other colours were yellow, red, black and green. All colours are derived from organic sources. The preparation of the surface itself took several weeks of plastering and drying (upto 28 times) using a mix of lime and tender coconut water with the final layer being “only as thick as a tamarind leaf!”

One hears tales from bygone ages of mural subjects exerting subtle influences on the artist doing the painting. Prince shares an unforgettable experience: as his personal offering, he painted murals at the Siva Temple near his home, depicting the story of Markandeya, covering over 300 sq.feet. Even on a tight budget, the expenses did put a strain on his finances. The day Prince did the ritualistic “eye opening” ceremony for the painting, someone placed an order for just emailing images of five paintings. By end of the day, the buyer had deposited in his account, roughly the same amount that Prince had spent on the project. “I felt as if Lord Siva Himself was compensating me,” he says with a catch in his voice.

Prince Thonnakkal will be teaching the next Kerala Mural Workshop at Craft Nest, Thuraipakkam between October 26 and 29. For registrations contact 9840544420, 9789971116, 9444191538.