The priceless collection of art at the Ambalamedu House, one of the earliest art galleries in the State, is in urgent need of restoration

Ambalamedu House plays hide and seek as we drive across the bridge on the lake in the Cochin Division of Fertilisers And Chemicals Travancore Limited (FACT) at Ambalamugal. The tiled roof peeps over the foliage and then seems to hide. It is hard to imagine that the campus, filled with lush foliage, is just 30 km from the concrete jungle.

As we reach the tall gates of Ambalamedu House, a security guard stops us, verifies our credentials and opens the gate. An overwhelming sense of curiosity accompanies us on our drive. We are headed to what was, probably, Kerala’s first ever art gallery. It was, 40 years back, the one place where works of living artists of the time were exhibited.

The building stands like an ageing beauty, ravaged by time. There is a coat of paint which, rather than being complimentary, offsets the neglect. And there is a sense of pathos that hangs heavily in the air. For after all old timers still remember the magnificence of Ambalamedu House in her heyday.

It is said of M. K. K Nayar, founder of FACT, that he dreamt big and did nothing in half measures. Amabalamedu House, planned as a guest house, came into being in 1970. It stands testimony to that grandeur of vision. The three-storied building has 48 rooms, which are distributed on three floors. Adjacent to the plaque announcing its inauguration, there is a reception counter. Muralidharan is in charge of the guest house but it is Rajan (the chef-cum-odd job man ‘on daily wages’) who has information on his fingertips. But ask them about the paintings and they look at each other, then one offers “wall pieces?” They understand and we are led to the rooms.

Veteran artist M.V. Devan, who was involved in its designing as consultant, says “MKK wanted this building to be a tribute to all things Kerala. The switchboards, for instance, are unique. Look at the sloping roof which is typical of Kerala architecture. What made Ambalamedu House unique was that it housed under one roof a collection of paintings by eminent artists of the time.” Works by artists, who were who’s who of the Indian art scene, such as K.C.S. Panicker, Paris Viswanathan, C. N. Karunakaran, Kanayi Kunhiraman, Dhanapal, Akkitham, M. V. Devan, S. Nandagopal, Reddeppa Naidu etc. adorned its walls.

Art works

“Go and see the Ambalamedu House,” Devan Master often urged. “See the art works there,” he said. We find the paintings, mounted on aluminium frames, in rooms on the ground floor. The works in air-conditioned rooms have fared better than those in humid rooms. Ravaged by time, humidity, and moisture, some of these paintings are still redeemable and the others have been ruined. The invaluable paintings are now mere wall pieces. It is especially ironic at a time when Kochi prepares for its first art biennale.

Rajan says that the paintings would be brought down for banners to be put up during functions and then wouldn’t be hung back. Around seven paintings have been mounted on the walls. There is not much idea about the others there or the exact number of paintings. Muralidharan and Rajan are unaware if the paintings have been inventoried. “Some of the paintings have been damaged and we have kept them in the store,” they say. Repeated requests to see the ‘store’ were ignored. However, one did get to see a couple of paintings dumped behind furniture in one of the locked rooms. The neglect and apathy were shocking. Fortunately Kanayi’s wooden sculpture survives and thrives, “the coat of varnish that we applied did the trick,” says Muralidharan.

All is not lost. Some of the works can be redeemed and given their due place as works of art. Only that someone has to care enough.