Mounted grandly, the paintings done under Murugan’s supervision line the walls of temples.
Scenes from the epics and the puranas materialise here in a rich panorama of colours and forms and from this tiny room flow massive paintings that adorn numerous temples in Tamil Nadu. The Sri Ganesan Kalaikkoodam is located adjacent to the Manicka Vinayakar shrine of the Uchchi Pillaiyar Koil at Rock Fort, Tiruchi.
The works of art, done under the supervision of 72-year-old M.S.Murugan, can also be seen in places of worship across the seas and in secular venues - hotels, offices and concert halls.
Murugan, with his team of artists, is at present engaged in a series of paintings that describes the legend of the Srirangam temple. The tableau of divine figures is striking in size and proportions. Nine paintings of the total 30 have already been installed at the temple. Close by, another divine scene unfolds, portraying Goddess Durga.
Murugan is eager to explain the significance of the episodes depicted. But you interrupt him at your own peril. He admonishes you impatiently, “Wait, amma,” - and then carries on. “I direct the painters and specify exactly what each figure should be like,” he states with barely concealed pride. And they follow his directions to the letter. No visitor to the temples in Rameswaram, Karur, Thiruvaanaikoil and Tiruchendur, to name a few, can miss them. Mounted grandly, they line the prakaras. The narration is inscribed below each work.
Pilgrims on their perambulations of the shrines can by just looking up acquaint themselves with the legends associated with the particular temple and deity. The colours and the detailing of the figures, the ornamentation and the natural poses, make an impression.
No wonder Murugan is a man proud of his contribution. “The paintings are sure to last for 500 years!” he tells you. “If you live in Chennai, you can see the Kalaikkoodam’s works at the Kalikambal temple on Thambu Chetty Street and the Sri Kachaleswarar temple on Aranmanaikarar Street,” he adds.
The orders for the works come from both within the country and abroad. “Every year by the time of Chaturthi, when I undertake the expenses of Maha abhishekam for Lord Vinayaka ,there are miraculously enough orders to ensure it is celebrated in a fitting manner.”
Murugan’s advisor for the paintings is Vaishnava Sri Krishnamachari. “He is an authority on the Upanishads and the epics.
All the details are laid down in the ancient texts - the colour of the gods, the weapons they carry, the colour of their garments, their vehicles, every single detail,” says Murugan.
He is especially proud of the Navagraha paintings executed by his studio.
Actor turned painter
Murugan came into this field by chance. The former stage actor was a member of the Vaira Nataka Sabha four decades ago and married a fellow artiste, Mallika. “Manorama and Muthuraman were my colleagues,” he says. “When the company wound up, they moved to Madras.” A devotee heard the out-of-a-job actor sing at the Vinayakar temple. He gave him Rs. 100 and said he could spend it as he chose to, for the Lord. “I had a picture painted of Him as Sakti Vinayakar. Orders began to pour in for similar pictures.”
Helped by artists such as Marimuthu, Murugan has executed 5,000 such pictures in the last four decades. The work goes on steadily. But Murugan is a very worried man.
“In the past, kings were patrons of the arts. But now we do not get any support from the Government and we get no royalty for the paintings. Also, I’m being harassed for rent by the temple authorities. Thirty years ago, I was given this room, to live in and use it as my studio, by one Ramaswamy Naidu associated with the temple. Later a nominal rent was charged. But now I have been asked to pay substantial rent with the arrears running into lakhs. Where can I get the money from?” he agonises.
As he narrates the story of his life he takes me down the steep steps to the Manickar Vinayakar shrine. There are huge pictures of gods and goddesses painted by the artists of the studio. People light lamps and pray before the pictures of Amman and Jai Santhoshi Ma.
“The temple gets revenue from selling copies of the pictures. But I do not benefit in any way.” Murugan sighs. What brings tears to his eyes is the fact that many of the pictures done by the Kalaikkoodam, such as that of the birth of the Cauvery, are in a state of neglect.
Still his faith in the elephant-headed God is firm. At the entrance to his studio is a board which says it all - “Ganesan Kalaikkoodam. Proprietor: Manikka Vinayakar.” “For He is the true owner and doer,” says Murugan.