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Kaavi Art: Unearthing Goa’s Forgotten Folk Art Form

Kaavi art

When one thinks about Goa, the only possible images to conjure in one’s mind are those of the golden beaches, delicious seafood, floral prints, drinks, dance and so on. Perhaps one could take a step further and list the many churches and sites of architectural interest. But the image least likely to come to mind is that of Goa’s rich artistic heritage – Kaavi art.

In this blog, we’ll take you to a side of Goa that’s often overlooked amid the glossy veneer of its beaches and touristy delights – the gritty allure of Kaavi Kale, a folk art tradition hidden in plain sight.

What is Kaavi Art?

Maruti Temple, Advalpal, Goa (Image Source: Havanje, D’Souza, “Kaavi Kalé: The indigenous architectural ornamentation…” )

The term “Kaavi” stems from the local name for the maroon-red pigment, also known as ‘uramunji,’ obtained from laterite soil.

Kaavi art is an enchanting form of mural creation thriving in the Konkan region, notably gracing the aged structures and temples of Goa. With its intricate reddish-brown murals, Kaavi art or Kaavi Kale, as it is traditionally called, is a testament to the rich history of the region.

Essentially, this art form involves the meticulous carving of lime plaster on a surface treated with red oxide, resulting in intricate murals and motifs that draw inspiration from the unique folklore of the region.

Kaavi Art: Origins and Evolution

Kaavi art
Morjai Temple, Goa, showing Kaavi Kalé on its cornices, pilasters, openings and plinth (Image source: Havanje, D’Souza, “Kaavi Kalé: The indigenous architectural ornamentation…” )

Despite its stunning beaches and glitzy shops, one cannot escape Goa’s harsh climate which has up to 90% humidity and receives about 150 inches of rainfall during the monsoon. As the tale goes, the natives, considering this aspect, felt painted walls to be unfit for the weather conditions. 

Hence, they came up with more adaptable and durable means of incorporating art into their architecture. This is how they discovered the art of etching or inlay, using the most affordable and readily available local materials. 

Another theory suggests that Kaavi art originated from the plains of the Saraswati and was introduced to Goa approximately 600 years ago by Saraswats who migrated to Goa to escape political and environmental challenges.

Regardless of what its true origin story is, there’s no denying that Kaavi Kale is a laborious undertaking, demanding patience and skill to craft intricate monochrome motifs that withstand the test of time and nature’s unpredictability.

Also read: The Colourful Kaleidoscope Of The Arts And Crafts Of Goa

Kaavi Art: Techniques and Process

Kaavi art
Layers of application of lime plaster and Kaavi etching on a wall surface (Image source: Havanje, D’Souza, “Kaavi Kalé: The indigenous architectural ornamentation…”)

Did you ever think that such captivating designs could be created with just two colours?! That’s the beauty of Kaavi art.

Let’s dive into this fascinating process. The traditional process for this art form begins with using locally available materials to prepare the wall for plastering. Artists obtained Snow White Lime by burning seashells and then mixing it with jaggery and clean river sand. After fermenting for two weeks, they hand-pounded the mixture which would then harden when applied to the wall. This step was mainly to shield the walls from rain and to sprinkle a dash of aesthetics into the mix.

In the next step, the final layer of plaster, known as the ‘Kaavi layer’, is prepared by combining sieved red laterite soil and lime putty in a ratio of 4:0.5. This mixture is finely ground and blended to achieve a paste with butter-like consistency. Subsequently, the paste is left to ferment for two days, with regular mixing intervals. 

The wall mural etching starts immediately after applying the Kaavi plaster to allow for design adjustments before the layer dries. Tools such as a timber compass, stencils, and handmade kanta (steel bodkins) aid in the etching on the wet Kaavi surface, revealing the white plaster beneath, creating a positive artwork against a negative white background 

After letting it dry for a day, a weekly routine of curing commences. Every four hours, the artists spray the art with water and polish it using smooth pebbles from the river.

Why all this effort? Well, this is to prevent any cracks and make sure these murals stick around for a long time.

Defining Characteristics of Kaavi Art

Kaavi Art
Varna Vanitha Art Camp (Image Source: Deccan Herald)

In ‘Kaavi kale,’ the primary elements include mythological characters, geometric patterns, and various common figures like men donning boots, guns, and topis (hats), symbolising the British rulers of India. The artwork encompasses depictions of Brahmins engaged in pooja, dancers, and more, serving as a reflection of contemporary life. 

The portrayal of Gods and Goddesses features distinctive attributes, such as nose rings, elaborate hairstyles, ornaments, and the unique nine-yard saree tucked at the back. The meticulous detailing extends to the graceful, elongated fingers and intricate jewellery.

Did you know?

Mural depicting Karna and Arjuna fight at Mahalasa Narayani Temple, Kumta (Image source: Havanje, D’Souza, “Kaavi Kalé: The indigenous architectural ornamentation…”)

If you visit temples in Honavar, Sirsi, or Ankola in the state of Karnataka, you’re very likely to encounter Kaavi art adorning the temple walls. How? 

Well, the belief among temple priests in these areas is that families left Goa in the 16th century due to the fear of forced conversion. In their migration, they brought their deities and temple art, including Kaavi, with them. As conditions improved, the art made its way back to Goa, incorporating certain motifs and figures of the Yakshagana dancer from Karnataka into the temples of Goa. Isn’t that fascinating?

Also Read: Chittara Murals – Languish Craft Of Indian Customs

Where in Goa is Kaavi Art Found?

Kaavi art
Kaavi medallions on the soffit of Maruti Temple, Pernem, Goa (Image source: Havanje, D’Souza, “Kaavi Kalé: The indigenous architectural ornamentation…”)

Traditionally, Kaavi art was used to decorate walls, columns, and ceilings in temples and homes. They made beautiful patterns with circles, semi-circles, triangles, squares, hexagons, and octagons. 

Over many years, these paintings gave a special look to shrines, temples, churches, and mosques along the Malwan, Konkan, and North Malabar coasts. They brought people together, no matter their language, religion, or community.

Notable examples of this ancient craft are dispersed across locations such as the Sri Morjaie temple at Morjim, the Sri Vijaydurg Temple in Keri, the Sri Hanuman Shrine at Advalpale, and a shrine at Agarwado.

The Charles Correa Foundation in Panaji found and wrote about 21 temples and four houses in Goa with Kaavi art. Temples in Pernem, Sattari, Canacona, and Ponda proudly show these special art forms, adding to the history of the region.

Additionally, Morjim boasts an array of captivating designs adorning its semi-circular ceiling, walls and pillars, while the Lamgaonkar Desais’ residence in Bicholim stands as a testament to the opulence of Kaavi art.

Yet, the destruction and renovation of buildings and temples coupled with the forced migration of communities have hidden many of these masterpieces behind the veil of time. 

Today, the excitement of uncovering these artistic expressions is overshadowed by the sorrow of witnessing the absolute neglect of these creations on buildings in Goa. Visitors may often find that the Kaavi art found in many small temples across Goa is often severely defaced or vandalised. 

Efforts to Revive an Artistic Tradition 

(Image source: Yugaantar Goa)

Yet, there is still hope.

Kaavi art is experiencing a resurgence, credited to a renewed interest in the art form and support from historians and architects. This observation comes from artist Sagar Naik Mule, who gained attention after his Kaavi artwork was showcased at Miramar Beach in Goa during a G-20 event held around August 2023. He highlighted that a lack of awareness has resulted in the public being unfamiliar with the art form. According to him, many individuals encounter Kaavi art, but due to misconceptions or a lack of communication, its identity fades from memory.

The government is actively taking concrete measures to revitalise this art form. A new history textbook, incorporating significant chapters from Goa’s past, will enlighten students about Kaavi art, representing another crucial aspect of the state’s history. This marks the first instance of Kaavi art, Goa’s exclusive traditional native painting technique, being included in the state’s syllabus. According to the Goa board chairperson Bhagirath Shetye, the curriculum not only introduces students to Kaavi art but also allows them to explore it through internal projects.

Despite the unfortunate decline of Kaavi art, with no new artwork produced in the past 15 years and no living practitioners, these recent efforts offer a glimmer of hope. The Goa board recognised the importance of promoting knowledge about this art among students after Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed the revival efforts during his weekly broadcast of “Mann Ki Baat” on December 26, 2021.

The initial step towards restoring this art form was taken by the Goa state government at the Saptakoteshwar temple in Naroa.

Wrapping It Up

In preserving the rich cultural legacy of Kaavi art, these proactive steps by the government and educational authorities are crucial. Such steps of revival and restoration not only preserve and impart valuable knowledge about Kaavi art but also foster a renewed interest in this traditional native painting technique. 

While the challenges of a 15-year hiatus and the absence of living practitioners pose significant hurdles, these recent endeavours to revive Kaavi art signify a dedication to safeguarding the artistic heritage of Goa. It’s important to keep going with these efforts, get more people involved and work together to make sure we preserve and promote Kaavi art for future generations.

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