The Highly Evolved Stylization of Kerala Mural Painting
Mural painting is one of the earliest forms of painting. Murals refer to paintings created directly on walls or similar large, permanent surfaces. Out of the murals and frescoes found in India, the mural paintings of Kerala are known for their beauty and unique stylistic approach. Let’s learn about Kerala Mural painting by taking a look at its history, style, and painting process.
Some scholars discern that mural painting in Kerala began in the pre-historic ages, specifically the upper Palaeolithic period to the early historic period, as evidenced by the rock paintings found in the Anjanad Valley. The painted wooden sculptures seem to blend in with the murals, similar to the Ajanta or the Deccan Badami.
The ‘Discovery’ of Kerala Mural Wall Painting
In 1498 A.D., the Portuguese traveller Castaneda, Vasco da Gama, and a few of his friends entered a temple under the mistaken assumption that it was a local church. They saw murals on its walls depicting ‘monstrous looking images’ including creatures with four arms and sharp, pointed teeth. To their European eyes, it looked like paintings of devils and demons, and they began doubting whether it was a church at all. It is very likely that the images they saw were Kerala murals on the walls of the Bhagavati temple.
The wall paintings of the Kanthaloor temple in Thiruvananthapuram are the oldest surviving Kerala murals, dating back to the 13th century A.D. The style developed during the 14th and 16th century. The Pisharikavu and Kaliampalli murals in Kozhikode and the Ramayana paintings of Mattancherry Palace belong to this era. The Thrissur Vadakkumnathan temple, Chemmanthitta Siva, and Kudamaloor and Thodeekkalam temple murals belong to the later mediaeval stages of mural painting.
Learning About Kerala Mural Painting Through its History and Evolution
Up until the 16th century, murals featured beaded borders and rounded figures with very little blue colour. The artists would paint using the Tempera technique, and use the seed of the Indian licorice or Rosary Pea (Abrus precatorius) as a binder. After the 16th century, Kerala murals developed a lavish and decorative style with extremely exaggerated anatomy and poorly defined outlines.
By the 18th century, we observe a distinctive Vijaynagari influence on the Kerala mural painting designs. For example, out of the three artists who painted the murals at Padmanabhapuram Palace, one of them painted the body positions in the Vijaynagar style. The murals of this period have beaded borders and well-defined outlines, and the figures show greater freedom of movement.
Themes of Kerala Mural Painting
Kerala Mural art features approximately fifty iconographic themes. The murals in temples show an indigenous and folk art influence, whereas the ones in palaces feature a more refined and elegant style. Kerala Mural painting designs in churches are a blend of local and foreign art styles. The themes and subjects of temple murals are decided according to the Vastu-Shastra and wear elaborate jewellery.
The Kerala Mural style derived inspiration from indigenous ritual art forms like Kalamezuthu and Patayani. The artist decides the composition and subjects of the painting in accordance with certain rules and Vastu principles. The human body and face have to be painted with specific proportions. The skin tone of the characters also reveals certain information about them. Divinity and nobility have green skin tones (Saatvik); red skin represents wealth and power (Raajasik); less powerful and insignificant characters are white; and demons are painted black.
The highly stylised Kerala murals contain fantastical elements that blend in with imagery of local flora, fauna, and religious iconography. They are well known for their bright colours and bold outlines. The colour palette of these murals is made up of five colours, or the Panchvarna: yellow, red, green, black, and white. Symbolism from mythology like the Bhagavata Puranas, Ramayana, and Mahabhrata is prominent in Kerala Mural painting designs. Church murals depict scenes from the Bible in a similar manner.
The Natural Colours of Kerala Mural Paintings
The artist uses coconut shells to mix and store colours. They use organic and mineral pigments to paint traditional Kerala mural paintings. They use turmeric powder, ground laterite, or arsenic to derive yellow pigments.
The artists create black paint from soot, which they obtain by burning sesame oil inside a mud pot. They crush the powdered leaves of Neel Amari (Indigo ferra) and Eravikkara (Garcinia morella) to create different shades of green. Instead of using white paint, the artist preserves the white colour of the background.
The artists use paint brushes made from elephant grass (Kuntalipullu) or tree roots. They coat the blue and green areas with a copper sulphate solution. This protects the natural, organic pigments from being damaged by bugs and insects.
A Deep Dive Into the Painting Process of Kerala Mural Art
First, the artists prepare the surface of the wall that is to be painted. Contemporary artists also paint on cloth, canvas, wood, and decorative objects. There are approximately six stages in the creation of a Kerala Mural wall painting.
Step 1: Lekhya Karma
The artist creates the sketch using cow dung ash mixed with water or coconut water.
Step 2: Rekha Karma
They usually use cow dung pencils called Kittalekhini to create the outlines on top of the sketch. Sometimes they may directly use yellow paint.
Step 3: Varna Karma
The artist then begins painting the figures in the mural. The order of colouring is first yellow, then red, green, blue, and finally brown. Artists usually colour the light areas first and gradually move on to the darker colours.
Step 4: Vartana Karma
In this stage, the artist adds shading and rendering.
Step 5: Lekha Karma
The final outlines of the painting are added with bamboo sticks or fine brushes.
Step 6: Dvika Karma
The artist adds finishing touches and perfects the details. After finishing the mural, the artist coats it with pine resin and oil for protection and to add a glossy finish.
Kerala Murals are some of the most intricate and exquisite paintings of India. Whatever the subject matter, the artist’s mastery over the art form makes it come alive. These paintings continue to captivate the hearts and minds of art lovers and encourage us to explore concepts in a more nuanced yet open-minded manner.
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By Melissa D’Mello.
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