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Updated: March 3, 2013 17:26 IST

The innocence of yore

P. Venugopal
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Pastoral pleasures: The boy from Murali Nagapuzha's paintings.
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Pastoral pleasures: The boy from Murali Nagapuzha's paintings.

An exhibition of paintings that transports the viewer to simpler times

Murali Nagapuzha’s paintings, displayed till March 4 at the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, take one’s memories some 50 years back to a childhood spent among the simple surprises of a village of paddy fields and sacred groves, near the coastal town of Alappuzha in Kerala. The village’s name is Punnapra, where, a few years prior to the time of these memories, the famous Punnapra-Vayalar uprising had taken place. It is history that the uprising had sparked the emergence of communism as a powerful force in the State, changing the very destiny of its people.

Suddenly the working class had woken up and were demanding their due; there were strikes and shutdowns in the coir factories of the town; the first communist government came to power and the landlords were divested of ‘excess’ land and the same distributed among the toiling masses. “Inquilab Zindabad” was the cry resonating all around. The old order was changing and something new was emerging. Poverty and distrust ruled the landscape amidst green luxuriance.

Two children, a boy and a girl aged six or seven, too young to know anything about all these, are playing in the front yard of this old house in Punnapra. The girl is from a neighbouring house. There is a kooval tree close to where they are playing and the aroma of its leaves and fruits fill the air. Not so far away is a sacred grove in which there are several stone idols of coiled up snakes, their hoods raised in peace, meditating.

The boy and the girl have been warned against entering the grove and disturbing the snake gods. No one enters the grove except on the day of the annual pooja on the Ayilyam day in the month of Thulam; and on that day there will be a splash of yellow from tamarind powder around the snake idols and all family members enter the grove with palms held together in fearful worship as the pulluvan sings his song in praise of the snake gods, playing on his single stringed musical instrument.

Entering the grove on any other occasion is forbidden. The snake gods are meditating.

Within the grove, among the wild growth of trees and climbers, is a spot where there is a luxuriant growth of chooral. The kind of delicate, yet resilient and flexible cane their class teacher Nandanan Master loved to employ on their outstretched palms when they incurred his displeasure.

So, the girl suddenly fancies she should take a cane to Nandanan Master the next day. He has a good collection of canes, some of them oiled and seasoned over smoke, in his shelf in the staff room; and each morning, before starting for the classroom, he has this way of twisting three or four of them, one by one, testing them for temper. Then he would swish them in the air and examine them closely through his thick glasses, before selecting the one he thought the best suited for the juvenile offences of the day. He loved his canes so deeply that the more intelligent of the children would make presents of good canes to him from time to time, hoping to gain in his affection. And this girl was among the most intelligent in the class…

She cajoles the boy to get her a chooral and says she shall accompany him on the adventure. When a girl says she is not afraid to enter the grove, a boy shall not be found wanting in courage. Therefore, sickle in hand, the boy steps lightly into the sacred grove and the girl follows him close behind, allowing no dry twig or dry leaf to crackle under their feet… They shall not wake up the meditating snake gods and shall only quietly cut one simple cane from deep within the grove and shall as quietly leave the holy precincts…

Thus they make their way to the spot where the chooral grows, skirting the clearing where the snake gods are, past the small pond all overgrown with creepers hanging from tall trees...and then they come across these sudden surprises in the play of light and shadow on the many-hued splendour of the world around them…

Using words, one cannot describe what it is when there is a rustle in the undergrowth and suddenly it is a peacock freezing at an unexpected encounter. Murali’s paintings bring to you that kind of surprises— you don’t dare to breathe in their presence. You hold your breath fearing you may startle away the birds and the butterflies, or the lush green surroundings and the flowers will wilt and droop...

Murali had his childhood in Kerala around the same period mentioned in the adventure of the boy and the girl. Murali hails from Muvattupuzha, where three rivers jointo become a bigger river, flowing along the folds of the foothills of evergreen Western Ghats. Greenery thrived more vigorously in Muvattupuzha than in the coastal village of Punnapra those days, and even today it is very much so. His memories sparkle on the canvas.

The sacred grove in Punnapra referred to in the story has long since disappeared to make way for concrete houses. The snake gods were, with all the reverence due to them, shifted to a popular snake temple in another part of the State, where they take care of snake gods rendered homeless. Both Punnapra and Muvattupuzha have changed. Murali says his paintings are of an “almost lost world.” He does not want to call it a “lost world” as yet, because it still continues to live in his memory, as fresh and fragrant as it was 50 years ago.

And, to conclude the story of the boy and the girl, she promptly presented the chooral to Nandanan Master the next day. As it transpired, the two friends had the benefit of more than their due share of the caning this chooral had the privilege of meting out to students in general during its career. It became Nandanan Master’s favourite chooral for several weeks at a stretch, until it finally broke into two one day, active till the very end.

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