An interesting article in the recent issue of India Today – more than a little critical of the present trend of ‘the domestication of the temple mural’ and therefore thought provoking. Naveen’s work features right on top of the page.
Murals in the Staircase Room
The themes are several and various in this room, which measures 18-ft by 17-ft. The paintings include a family portrait of Siva, Vishnu in his Sankarshana form, Ardhanariswara, or Siva as half-female and half-male, the coronation of Rama, Kirata-Siva, Anantasayanam, few themes from the Devi Mahathmyam, paintings of the ten incarnations of Vishnu, and also an unfinished painting of Vishnu. The picture of the deity of Tripoonithura Temple, which is painted in the adjacent room is comparitively good.
These paintings are fair imitations of the highly complex iconographical art of Kerala. The paintings of Vishnu and Goddess Durga will surely hold the attention of those interested in iconography.
The predominant color used in these paintings is of course ochre. Apart from ochre, there are also shades of green like light-green and parrot-green, black, golden-yellow, blue-black, blue and white. the color pigments are, as usual, extracts of minerals and vegetable dyes.
Paintings in the lower chambers
A short flight of steps leads down to a small and not so tall inner chamber. in this room, as well as in the room to the east of it, are several painted wall panels. These ladies’ chambers are nearly one-fourth below ground level.
The most beautiful frescoes of Mattancheri are doubtless the murals in these rooms. The main theme is the nuptials of Siva and Parvati. These paintings are only outline sketches in ochre. Amrita Sher-Gill was fascinated by the effortless ease with which these ochre lines seemed to flow over the white wall surface. It is likely that the artist may have drawn inspiration from Kalidasa’s Kumara Sambhava (The Birth of Kumara). What is most fascinating is the picturization of Parvati’s bridal toilet and bridal procession. Instead of Himavan, it is Vishnu who is shown giving away the bride. This is certainly one among the best murals in Kerala.
The adjacent painting is also decorated with paintings. The dance of Siva and Mohini, the jealous anger of Parvati, Krishna’s miraculous feat of holding aloft the Govardhan mountain, a family portrait of Siva, and Krishna flirting with a group of enamored gopikas.
Though written off as a highly erotic piece of art, it is quite notable and distinctive among the palace frescoes. The artist seems to have fully understood the ‘sringara’ of Madana Gopalakrishna. The reclining Madana Gopalakrishna holds his flute in his characteristic way with the first two hands, and with his other six hands, he caresses and fondles the fifteen gopikas flocking around him. There are very few paintings that display erotic love with such intense passion, and one cannot help but wonder whether this picture was done under the influence of the tantric practices of the Vaishnavas, which were once very popular in Kerala.
The painting of Krishna holding up the Govardhan mountain conveys very cleverly, the drama of the moment. While protecting his kinsmen from the fury of Indra, Krishna’s face also mirrors a mischievous amusement. the expressions of the people who flock around him speak eloquently of the drama and the trauma of the moment. A frightened child goes instinctively into the arms of its mother. Obviously scared by the roar of thunder, a boy closes his ears. Besides these, the general expressions of the group is awe and wonder. An interesting feature of this painting is the abundant representation of the wooded mountain, showing hunting scenes and the various animals and birds of the forest. It seems likely that the artist who had painted this picture could have been subconsciously inspired by the mimetic rendering of ‘Kailasodharanam’ of Koodiyattam.
If ochre is the predominant color of the upper chamber, turquoise, golden-yellow, and a light shade of blue add a rare charm and softness to the paintings of the lower rooms, which are the ladies quarters. Directness, strength, vitality and rhythm are the characteristic features of the Ramayana paintings, while freshness of color dominates the Bhagavatham murals.
In the lower rooms, many paintings of copulating animals are cleverly painted wherever occasion appears to have permitted. It seems likely that these paintings, the painting of Madana Gopalakrishna and the flirtatious dance of Siva and Vishnumaya were an overt attempt to instruct the royal ladies in erotic love.
The female figures in the frescoes of the lower chambers are charmingly voluptuous. By Vatsyayana’s classification of female groups, these women would be categorized as Padminis. On the other hand, the women of the Padmanabhapuram murals can easily be identified as belonging to the Sankhini category.
Chemical treatment of the walls in recent times had revealed a small drawing of a girl dancing before Tipoo Sultan, which is clearly a clue to the date of the murals in this room. Tipoo and his army had marched to Kochi in 1776, during the reign of King Rama Varma (1775-90). Before the discovery of this painting, the lower chamber paintings were considered to be a little later than this.
Anujan Achan ascribed the Ramayana paintings to the 16th century, i.e. during the period of Portuguese supremacy. But taking into account the various stylistic features, the 17th century seems to be more plausible.
The Bhagavatham paintings of the bed chamber, and the paintings in the staircase room were in all probability done at the end of the 17th century or later, by an inferior artist. But it is very clear that the murals of the lower rooms were also painted during the end of the 17th century, by a truly great artist belonging to a line of renowned muralists of Kerala.
[From the publication Murals Of Kerala by M G Shashibhooshan, Dept. Of Public Relations, Kerala State. Reproduced here without permission, please advice if this information may not be carried here.]
The Making of a Mural series has been expanded to include the making of the traditional Anantasayanam and Ardhanariswara murals.
Mattancheri in Cochin has the distinct smell of trade and commerce even today. The passage of the years has only retouched her trading face, large godowns still stand in and around the quayside.
Mattancheri had also been a former capital of the erstwhile rulers of Kochi. When the ‘adventurers from over the seas’ came to Kochi seeking trade, Mattancheri also bustled as a brisk trading port. First the Portuguese and later the Dutch beguiled the rulers with gold and gifts in exchange for spices, especially back pepper.
To please His Highness Veera Kerala Varma Thampuran (1537-61) the Portuguese built a palace, and also gifted him a gold crown. According to Huzur records, the palace was built and presented to the Kochi Raja in 1552 AD. With the coming of the Dutch in 1663 AD, the trade rivalries between them often led to bloody skirmishes. From contemporary literary works such as the poetry of Melpathoor Narayana Bhattathiripad as well as from the accounts of Father Bartolomeo, it is not difficult to get an idea about the Mattancheri court.
The palace originally built by the Portuguese had some extensions done by the Dutch. These were the porticos on the east and the south of the palace, and the decorated ceiling of the Coronation Room. Paradoxically, the name Dutch Palace somehow stuck to it, and still prevails.
Pundareekapuram is a small temple atop a little rise called Midayikunnam near Thalayolaparambu in Kottayam. Architecturally it is not very different from any typical village temple of Kerala. A tiled and saddle-roofed square ‘chuttambalam’ encloses a square sanctum sanctorum. Appended to the small enclosure is a small ‘balikkalpura’. The idol worshipped here is the image of Vishnu sitting astride his celestial vehicle Garuda, together with Bhoodevi. This is a rare icon.
What makes this temple so special to the art lover, apart from the rare idol, are the exquisite paintings on the walls of the sanctum. Eight large panels and about twenty smaller ones feature episodes from the Hindu myths and the Puranas.
There’s a fine picture of Siva and Parvati sitting beneath the Kalpavriksha; a powerful picture of Durga vanquishing the buffalo-headed demon Mahisha; the pranks of Krishna, the divine boy of Ambadi; a picture of a Yakshi, the dangerous seductress of legends; Rama Pattabhishekam, or the coronation of Rama, Siva Tandava, and a picture of Sastha astride a horse, to point out but a few of the striking paintings of Pundareekapuram.
Since as far back as I can remember, and that’s rather a longish patch of time I must mention, I’ve been pulled by the temples of Kerala. If I try and get objective about it, there are a number of factors that may have contributed to this, but while these may well have been necessary, they do not seem sufficient to explain the extent of the significance that very many of these temples have for me. I hope to explore these in some other posting but for now, this is only meant to serve as the context for how I came into contact with the mural paintings of Kerala.
I still have fragmentary memories of walking slowly around the sanctum of the Guruvayur temple, drinking in the amazing scenes painted on walls of the shrine. Over the last year or so, I’ve gone on to find that these are not among the best work there is and not the only style either, but that too is another story altogether. About a year ago, I literally stumbled onto the only institute that I’m aware of that offers a course in mural painting, based in Guruvayur itself. And the ongoing endeavor to catch a glimpse of the Goddess began!
When you travel eleven kilometers to the north of Kottayam town, you reach Ettumanoor and its centuries old temple of Siva. The small town has all the noise and bustle of any small provincial town. But as one travels northwards on the main highway, the ambience of the temple infuses a rare kind of peace.
The deity of Ettumanoor still inspires awe and fear in his devotees. This is Siva as Sarabha Moorti, his most fearsome, or Roudra form. This is the omnipotent power that can crush evil underfoot and at the same time grant favors to the faithful.
Ettumanoor temple is also a museum of rare and beautiful works of art and sculptures in wood and stone. The walls of the central shrine or sanctum are paneled with intricate and delicately carved wood. These panels form a kind of screen around the circular shrine. On the inner and outer walls of the western gopuram, or entrance tower, are the large sized paintings that have been acclaimed by artists and art critics alike, like Ananda Coomaraswamy, Stella Kramrisch, Fuku Akino and C Sivarama Murti. The most outstanding among the paintings is the mural of Siva as Nataraja. This is on the southern side of the inner wall face of the gopuram. The painting is quite large, measuring 360 cms in width and 217 cms in height. The dancing Siva is, of course, the focal center of the painting, and is enclosed within a circular outline. The dance depicted is that described as ‘Taalasamsphotita’ by Bharata Muni in the Natya Shastra.
Panayannarkavu is one of the few temples in the state of Kerala where the Sapta Matas, or the Seven Mother Goddesses are worshipped as the presiding power. Chamundi, the fiercest of them all, gets the predominant place as Kali. There is also a temple of Siva in the premises. Situated in a luxuriant grove near Parumala and girdled by a tributary of the Pampa, this apparently modest temple is only about 2-miles from Mannar, a village well known for its bell-metal lamps and vessels.
Until recently, esoteric tantric rituals were conducted in this Saktheya temple. From an allusion to this temple in the 14th century Malayalam epistolatory poem, Unni Neeli Sandesam, countless legends and stories sprang and gained credence, about the sacrifices and rituals practiced to invoke the blessings of the ferocious goddess. The poem mentions, in figurative language, the practice of sacrificing elephants to appease the goddess.
And even today, the goddess inspires fear and awe in the faithful. But as one walks into the temple and beholds the paintings around the shrines, the initial fear vanishes and a rare calm settles in. Familiar stories from the Puranas, in gentle and pleasant tones adorn the walls.