History & Culture

Kalamezhuthu: When art is integral to ritual

Kalamezhuthu at Ayyappan Temple, Mahalingapuram, Chennai   | Photo Credit: K_V_Srinivasan

When traditional Kalamezhuthu artists, 67-year-old Sukumaran Kurup and his son Suresh, arrived at the Mahalingapuram Ayyappan temple, Chennai, at the invitation of Sree Ayyappa Bhaktha Sabha, to participate in the evening’s ceremony, the anticipation and interest generated by their art among the attendees exceeded expectations.

“Kalamezhuthu is an ancient art woven into the ritualistic mores of Bhagavati, Naga and Ayyappa temples in Kerala,” explained Suresh.

“It refers to the pictorial representation of deities on the floor (kalam) using coloured powders (kolappodi) during ceremonies. When combined with the singing of specific songs (kalampaattu) and dance movements related to the puja (kalapradakshinam), it becomes a ritualistic performance known as ‘kalamezhuthum paattum’ or ‘kalamezhuthupaattu’.

Specialised in the art

Suresh hails from a family of traditional practitioners dating back several generations. Among the communities whose livelihood centred around temple rituals (ambalavasis), the Kurups specialised in kalamezhuthu. Starting off by helping his father with the simpler drawings, Suresh graduated to being a full-fledged artist.

The chief deities depicted include Bhagavati, Bhadrakali, Ayyappa, Vettakkorumakan (Siva putra), Darika (asura killed by Bhadrakali) and Sarpa (Naga). Each is assigned a specific sloka, sung for about 15 minutes before the drawing commences, during which time the priest (melsanthi) performs a puja. The actual drawing is an elaborate, detailed process that could take 2-4 hours to complete, in accordance with the requirements and diagrams laid out in texts. It is positioned on the floor outside the sanctum, to the right of the main deity. Pigments derived from natural sources such as charcoal, rice, turmeric, lime and green leaves are used to prepare the powders in five colours — black, white, yellow, red and green.

What aspects distinguish kalamezhuthu from Kerala murals? “Kalam art is three-dimensional, particularly the rendition of eyes, nose, bosom and gold ornaments, while murals have a two-dimensional effect,” states Suresh.

“Again, weapons rarely figure in murals, while in kalamezhuthu, weapons are often emphasised, contributing to the personification of ‘ugram’ (aggression). Kalam art depicts Saivite moorthis only.”

Any do’s and don’t s? “Green alone is to be used for the body of Ayyappa, Bhadrakali and Vettakkorumakan. Ornaments and hair for each deity should conform to strict specifications. Only for Bhadrakali, a few creative changes are allowed in attire and ornaments,” elaborates Suresh.

Begun in the sandhya vela (evening) after the rituals such as deeparadhana, keli and thayambaka, the drawing is completed, the velichappadu (oracle) sings the hymns and certain tantric rituals are conducted.

The penultimate step is the breaking of coconuts (nalikerameru). These could vary in number from a minimum of three to a staggering maximum of 12,008. The effect of the coconuts being hurled and broken in sync with the rhythm set by a thundering percussive ensemble led by chenda players is mesmerising.

Once nalikerameru begins, the kalamezhuthu is ceremonially erased in stages. The coloured powders are distributed to devotees for bestowing prosperity, progress and good health.

How sustainable is kalamezhuthu for full-time artists? “From 2000 onwards, there has been an increased demand for kalamezhuthu from temple committees. Today there remain only around 120 families conversant with the original skills. Maximum demand is during Kerala’s temple utsavams when an artist is paid Rs.2000-3000 a day. However, those performing the ritual velichappad dance that requires dedicated study, are paid more. Off-season, Bhagavati Seva pujas offer earning opportunities, though these drawings are not considered strictly kalamezhuthu,” Suresh says.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 10:18:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/kalamezhuthu-when-art-is-integral-to-ritual/article25622568.ece

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