Drawn to the beautiful murals of Nayak period

Anna Seastrand  

Like a film reel rolled out on the walls, paintings on walls and ceilings narrate the epics in temples. These mural paintings of the Nayak period have always drawn art historians.

But, concern for style, structure, technique and depiction also long overshadowed the labour that goes into the making of mural art and access to these. “Who built the temple? What kind of labour was required to haul all the rocks? Art historians do not think much about the labour involved,” says Anna Seastrand, Collegiate Assistant Professor, Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, the University of Chicago.

She spoke to The Hindu during her visit to French Institute of Pondicherry, where she was affiliated as a research scholar for her doctoral thesis in 2010.

The art historian adds: “To think carefully about whose labour produced the magnificent temples, sculptures and paintings of Tamil Nadu, we need scholars who work on many different aspects of history — including epigraphists and textual historians, economic and labour historians, contemporary practitioners and art historians.”

Her fascination towards mural paintings of Nayak period and use of language in the inscriptions had triggered a quest in understanding the access people had in order to view these paintings, looking beyond the style, technique and structure of the mural paintings and sculptures.

“The first thing that troubles me is: who could see the paintings, considering that not everyone can go inside the temples? Even if they can go, they might not be allowed to go after a certain point. Who saw these paintings and who can see them now? Are they able to read these inscriptions anyway? The question of access is very important to think about,” Ms Seastrand says.

Ms. Seastrand adds: “I really think about these things since I cannot go inside some temples and see them. It is true historically, if we think about who the audiences are and to whom these paintings are dedicated. It would be the elite class of people in terms of caste and socio economic conditions. It shows how these paintings were for a restricted audience.”

Though changes have occurred over time, allowing people access to view those paintings, a few temples still follow restrictions. Ms. Seastrand was not allowed into temples in Kerala to study the mural paintings for her doctoral thesis.

Her first brush with the mural paintings happened when she was studying Tamil at American Institute of Indian Studies. After reading Cambridge History of South India on mural paintings, she took a bus to Thirupudaimarudur near Tirunelveli.

What she saw at that moment became a defining factor of her major research work. The paintings on the gopuram, decorations on every surface, beautiful wooden sculptures, pillars, sculpted ceiling and gorgeous paintings on the walls left an indelible impression on her. These were the mural paintings of the Nayak period. “They were so beautiful that I decided to do a PhD on this subject. There are very few texts on mural paintings of that period. People think it is not a good art and it has a bad reputation. I think it is undeserved,” she says.

Ms. Seastrand also started learning Telugu to read the inscriptions and translate them. “The inscriptions are both in Tamil and Telugu languages and I made a survey of all of the paintings.”

She has surveyed at least 100 temples across south India and mostly in Tamil Nadu, including Bodinayakkanur, Thanjavur, Tirunelveli, Tittakudi, Natham and Ramanathapuram. Like any other art historian, she also expresses her concern for dying art. As an art historian, she says: “Art history allows us to know the past in different ways; it should not be thought of as subordinate to texts or inscriptions. Images give us information about politics, trade, social prestige and power, different kinds of visual and performing arts, literature and religion, just to name a few. Without knowing all these other aspects, we cannot begin to understand the art. And without the art, we cannot reach a full understanding of these other aspects of history. So it is vital to preserve and study the history of art.”

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