"On the wall, the first line is the final line," says master of Kerala murals KU Krishnakumar. A first-person account of how a mural comes to life.

Meeting master of Kerala murals KU Krishnakumar, who is in the city to conduct a workshop on the divine art of mural making, is a privilege. Charmingly humble, this authority on the divine art is on a mission to promote it. In a narrative of short sentences and perfect sequencing, he takes me through the history of the art to which his own artistic life is inseparably linked.

The process

“I start painting on an auspicious day after worship. Murals demand hard, manual work. Preparing the wall, an act that distinguishes a mural from a ‘painting-on-the-wall', is a complicated process. Egypt or Kerala, this preparation is crucial, though the techniques are different. Artists use locally available materials.

The rough plastering of the ‘ground' is made smooth with a mixture of sand, shell lime, water and plant (kadukkai, chunnambuvelli) extracts, fermented for 15 days. The wall is left to dry, to make rare shades possible. The second coating has sand, lime and cotton ground into smooth butter. The cotton fills the cracks and absorbs colours to give it a rich finish.

The thin third coating is a mixture of lime and tender-coconut water. Horizontal and vertical strokes pile up 25-30 layers. The paintings are done with five major colours (Panchavarnam). A trained artist will leave the white portion and paint only the coloured ones.

On the wall, the first line is the final line. We start with yellow lines, fill with red and green and outline in black. Yellow and red are crushed out of stones and plants, green from indigo (neelambari) mixed with yellow, black from gingelly oil lamp soot. The final coat is the glossy neem resin.

When a temple mural is finished, the priest does a puja for the brushes and colours. And, the guru opens the eyes of the main figures in a final touch, bringing them to life,” he concludes.

Decline and revival

Talking about the history of the arm form, he says it had a golden reign for 400 years from the 14th to the 18th Centuries. Then, colonisation brought the Portuguese and Dutch painters and their training methods. The Raja Ravi Varma era provided readymade canvases and oil colours. The system of gurukulam went out of style and mural paintings lost their sheen. In the 1970 Guruvayoor temple fire, all the murals were lost.

Later, the senior artists, the Devaswom management and the Government decided to promote this unique art form, and set up The Institute of Mural Painting, Guruvayur Devaswom, with KK Nair as Principal.

“And, I was among the 10 students in the first batch in 1989. For five years, I studied aesthetics, Sanskrit, history of Indian and Western art, tribal and folk paintings. I specialised in Kerala mural painting,” he recalls.

“We exhibited our art in camps. No one had heard of Kerala murals. They had stayed within temple precincts because of strict rules. In exhibitions and camps we painted on cement sheets, paper and canvas to popularise the art.”

And, now, the master artist worries about the commercialisation of the art form by “hobby artists”, who copy the murals on canvas, sell them at fancy prices and proclaim themselves ambassadors of this art abroad.

Still, he is happy that temple murals are mobile, so what if you find them on sari pallus. “It's all part of development,” he shrugs. “If some at least study the art thoroughly, learn to prepare colours and know the technique, it is all right.”

Its all in the detailing

Kerala murals are characterised by heavy ornamentation — costumes and jewellery.

Green (satvik), white (tamas), yellow (rajas) are the prominent colours. The expressions resemble Natya Shastra's mudras and bhavas.

Chitra Sutra says an artist must study great artists, watch the changes in seasons and in human life. He must paint a picture of a sleeping herd of cows, with one of them dead; the viewer must be able to spot the dead cow.