Studying the Influence of Kalamezhuthu Art on Kerala Murals
Similar to the Alponas of Bengal and the Aipans of Kumaon, a unique floor art form exists in Kerala. Most Indian floor art forms often form a part of the daily lives and rituals of various communities, and Kalamezhuthu is no different. This art plays a significant role in religious duties and ceremonies, and is directly linked to religion and rituals of Kerala.
Let’s explore this spiritual art form and learn more about Kerala’s rich cultural and artistic heritage.
Themes and Regional Variants
While it is widely believed that Kalamezhuthu originated in the 9th century AD, others think it evolved during the Sangam period of 3rd century B.C. to 3rd century A.D. It may have begun as a way to enhance the worship rituals in temples.
Like all art forms, Kalamezhuthu art has certain regional variations, such as Kalam Pattu in the northern parts of Kerala and Kalamezhuthu Pattu in the south, Dhumakkali in Thrissur and the central regions, and Kalam Karuppai in Tamil Nadu. It is also called Dhulee Chitram (an image made of powder). The designs are slightly different in different regions, but the rituals and beliefs surrounding them are the same.
Traditions and Cultural Practises Surrounding Kalamezhuthu Painting
Kalamezhuthu is part of a communal ritual art form. Artists perform the art form on several auspicious occasions and also integrate it into religious ceremonies. There are even 40-day Kalamezhuthu festivals that are held in certain temples every year. In southern Kerala, the Kalamezhuthu accompanies the theatric Mudiyettu ritual. Kalamezhuthu are drawn in the Bhadrakali temple during festivals and in Ayyappan Kavu (temples of Lord Ayyappa) and Sarpa Kavu (sacred snake groves).
Many communities in Kerala, such as the Kurup, Theyyampadi Nambiar, Theyyadi Nambiar, and Theyyadi Unnis practise it. It is mostly male artists who perform the art form. The members of different communities perform different roles during the ritual.
The Ritualistic Significance of Kalamezhuthu Art
Songs dedicated to different deities (Kalampaattu) and ritualistic dances precede the actual drawing of the Kalamezhuthu (Kalapradakshinam). The entire ritual takes place on a performance stage, or paattu mandapam, which is decorated with flowers, leaves, and oil lamps. Prior to the Kalamezhuthu taking place, the entire neighbourhood is invited through the Sandhya Pattu (evening song).
Kalamezuthu requires a lot of concentration, as it must be drawn according to religious guidelines. It is drawn to invoke the blessings of the deity and create a positive atmosphere. A single mistake could spoil the entire kalam. This art form shares certain similarities with Thangka paintings, which are also drawn for strictly religious purposes, adhering to a strict set of guidelines. The patterns to be drawn are also dictated by occasion and not chosen at the discretion of the artist. The painting starts at a fixed time and is erased once the rituals have ended.
The Kalamezhuthu Painting Process
First, the artist prepares the surface of the floor with a mixture of rice powder and cowdung. They start the kalam by drawing a straight line from east to west. They then begin to create outlines using white rice powder. The entire process can take anywhere between two to five hours. The artist completes the entire image before painting the eyes of the deity. This is because the people of Kerala believe that the deity comes to life once their eyes are ‘opened’.
The entire painting process is done by hand, with the exception of a few designs. The artist may use bamboo or coconut fibre brushes to paint ceratin elements, but only when it is absolutely necessary.
The Colours of Kalamezhuthu Art
Usually, a Kalamezhuthu is created using only five colours (Panchavarnam). These colours were traditionally derived from natural pigments and represent the Panch Bhoota, or the five elements of nature, namely Prithvi, Vaayu, Aakasam, Aapam, and Theijes. Yellow represents earth, or prithvi; green symbolises air (Vaayu); white represents water (Aapam); black represents space or the cosmos (Aakasam); and red represents fire, or Theijes.
Kalamezhuthu artists use rice powder to create white, turmeric to create yellow, charcoal or burnt husk to create black, and leaves of the Gulmohar tree or Albizzia lebbek to create green. They use the charcoal obtained from burning rice husk or paddy (Umikkari) to create black powder. These natural pigments give off a strong and aromatic smell that enhances the devotional atmosphere of the temple. Artists also include fresh flowers and flower petals in many designs to add fragrance and create a three-dimensional effect.
The Styles, Themes, and Motifs of Kalamezhuthu Art
The size of a Kalamezhuthu is dependent on Vastu-Shastra, the scale of the event, etc. but on average, they measure about 10 feet but can go up to 20 feet or more. The artists paint the images directly and do not use any tools or stencils. They must follow specifications and rules regarding the appearances, hairstyles, ornamentation, and attire of all the deities.
The subjects of Kalamezhuthu include scenes from Hindu epics and deities such as the goddess Bhadrakali (avatar of Parvati), Ayappan (son of Vishnu and Shiva), Bhagvati, Vettakkorumakan, etc. Artists paint the deities with angry expressions (ugram) and with weapons in their hands. The locals believe that these paintings stop unfavourable events from happening and provide protection to the people.
The important motifs of Kalamezhuthu include the image of deities, lotus flowers, mandala and yantra patterns, the Swastika, and other such religious symbols. They also show the community’s bond with nature through depictions of birds, animals, trees, etc. Some animal motifs include elephants, peacocks, snakes (depictions of the earth gods or nagas), and animals like bullocks and horses as the vehicles of the deities.
The State of Kalamezhuthu Painting Today
This ancient art form is said to have inspired Kerala murals. Kerala mural art is characterised by bold colours, imaginative expressions of deities, and simplistic yet powerful poses. The depictions of the deities in these art forms bring to light the unique artistic idiom of Kerala.
Kalamezhuthu painters who create awareness about the art form and make significant contributions to it are widely respected. Kalamezhuthu is painted either by reputed individual artists or groups. The groups or tropes consist of several artists who work together to create a single Kalamzhuthu with high attention to detail. They are called kalari or kalariyogam. Very few Kalamezhuthu artists and groups exist today, but they have made considerable efforts to restore the art form to its former glory.
In order to ensure that folk and indigenous art is not lost to time, we should make efforts to understand such art forms and spread awareness about them. If you’re interested in learning traditional Indian art, download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store and check out our latest courses and workshops.
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By Melissa D’Mello