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.]