Keeping art alive

Documenting life Through art: R. Krishnan Kitna with his painting Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy   | Photo Credit: M. Sathyamoorthy

A mettu seelai is laid out for a prospective Kurumba bride. But, is the groom worthy enough? The Kaelvi Panam will decide that. The groom arrives dancing his way as he balances a stick on his shoulder with two bags full of coins. The village elders count the coins, and if happy give the nod. Then, the bride walks down the mettu seelai, gets their blessings, and the wedding festivities begin.

Artist R. Krishnan Kitna captures this marriage ritual of the Kurumba tribe in his painting. “The maximum Kaelvi Panam that is expected of a groom is Rs.100 while the minimum is Rs.10,” he explains. We are at Krishnan’s Kudil in Velaricombai Village, a Kurumba belt in Kotagiri.

Sitting cross-legged at his painting table, that is nothing more than a wooden plank mounted on top of an iron frame, he recounts the lifestyle of his ancestors and how they were noted for their artistry.

“Their main occupation was agriculture. They cultivated thinai, saamai, raagi, parangi kaai, cholam, keerai, thuvarai and mochavarai, and vellai poosani… It was a common sight to see the poosani plant with its yellow flowers hanging from the roofs of tribal huts. People would paint on the walls of their homes and temples.” he says.

The paintings were mostly of their settlements, temples, guhai manai (cave dwelling), Kumbha Devan (their ancestral god), and animals. The Kurumbas are skilled hunters too. They collected honey, attended council meetings and participated in festival rituals.

Honey gatherers

Krishnan has painted the Thaen Paarai – where they go every year to collect honey . “Tribals trek deep into the forest to cliffs where the beehives are found. They make ladders out of bamboo, tie them together with climbers found in the forest, and use the sturdy ladder to reach the beehives. They light fires to drive the bees away before collecting the honey. From each beehive, we would get 10 to 15 kilos of honey. Now, we get about five kilos,” says Krishnan.

Graphic art has always been a part of Kurumba lifestyle. In the 1990s, friendly forest officials were shown with an enlarged head (indicative of intelligence), and thin body and long limbs. While an unfriendly person would be shown lying down with a pot belly!

Down to earth

Their paintings are simple and follow geometric lines which resemble stick drawings. The colours are earthy and predominantly red, black and green. Krishnan mixes red soil with natural gum he collects from the forest trees.

“This is vengai paal,” he says, holding out a bowl with sticky glue that is pitch black. It is collected from the bark of Vengai trees. When mixed appropriately this gives three colour palettes — black, yellow and brown.

“For the green, I grind the leaves of kaatu avarai and katta gida plants,” he explains. Krishnan also uses water colours.

Krishnan is perhaps the last surviving painter of the Kurumbas. He was handed down this art by his ancestors. He remembers learning the nuances from his grandfather right from the time he was in class VI.

“My grandfather Mathan used Aalankuchi ver and painted on temple walls,” he recalls. Krishnan struggles to keep the tradition alive.

“In our tribal settlement, there are just four or five people who have learnt the art,” he says. It takes about four to five days to make a single painting.

Call Krishnan at: 091599- 45077

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 2:55:04 AM |

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