“Art in temples faces threat from vandalism of two kinds; one the works are spoiled by visitors and the other in the name of renovation they are damaged,” observed N. Ravi, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, releasing ‘Paintings of the Varadaraja Perumal Temple, Kanchipuram,’ a book authored by Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Director, C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer Foundation. He went on to commend the efforts of Dr. Krishna in preserving heritage, in the light of the fact that most of our treasure, especially the bronzes, are smuggled out or stolen away.

The thousand-year old Sri Varadaraja temple in Kanchipuram is a repository of fine murals, which are fast vanishing. “I’ve been visiting the temple for the past several years and every time I’ve found deterioration,” said Dr. Nanditha, presenting vignettes from the book. “This is the only temple to have all the divyadesams painted on its walls, and thus an authentic reference source. But don’t even try to figure them out because most of them are obliterated,” added the author.

Any sprucing up operation leads to ‘whitewashing’ of the walls, ignoring the value of the murals. Even worse, when the blunder is pointed out, the lime is rubbed away with sand paper! And ancient murals are ‘restored’ with poster colours, garish hues replacing the muted jewel tones.

“Kalahasti was not far away but artists of this place used mineral colours, instead of vegetable dyes,” Dr. Nanditha pointed out. “The exquisite green of Rama must have owed its sheen to emeralds,” she added. Gold was another predominant colour that was seen in the pictures.

Wall paintings in temples

Why were the walls painted in temples? According to Dr. Nanditha, the idea was to enable devotees queuing to have darshan meditate on the deity and stay in a spiritual vibration. But it is sad that people choose to scribble on the paintings and scratch the names of friends. Areas that are beyond the reach of these vandalists still sport brilliant murals done in natural colours. For instance, the ceiling.

Temples have sculptures and icons but Dr. Nanditha’s pet subject is paintings. “Yes, for the simple reason that they never come under limelight. The other two are much written about but murals do not enjoy the same privilege,” she explained. “We have already lost the Sithannavasal paintings, and murals in temples are fading out. We, as people of this land, should preserve whatever is left,” she said with feeling.

Swarnamalya Ganesh, Bharatanatayam artist, set the tone for the event by presenting a rare composition on Varada. Dr. M.A. Venkatakrishnan, Head of the Department, Vaishnavism, Madras University, who received the first copy and Dr. Chithra Madhavan, historian, spoke on the literary and architectural aspects of the temple respectively.

Some more titles

Dr. Nanditha has authored several books on Indian heritage and culture. A few are given below:

Sacred Animals of India

Madras-Chennai, Its History and Environment

Book of Demons

Folk Toys of South India

Book of Vishnu

Varahishwarar Temple - Damal

Balaji Venkateshwara - Lord of Tirumala

Tirupati - An Introduction

Painted Manuscripts of the Sarasvati Mahal Library

Folk Arts of Tamil Nadu

The Arts and Crafts of Tamil Nadu

Ganesha (jointly with Shakunthala Jagannathan)

The Art and Iconography of Vishnu-Narayana