“Don’t speak here, Walls have ears too.”
But what if it’s not just ears? What if it also has eyes, lips and other bodily features?
Count on Kerala Mural Paintings to take you to a world like this. Illustrating narratives from Hindu mythology, the murals of Kerala are paintings mostly made on temple walls which date back to the 8th Century. Apart from depicting characters, the paintings also show trees, animals and other aspects of nature in order to set a background for the narrative to settle in.
The word ‘Mural’ in itself is derived from the Latin word ‘Murus’ meaning ‘Walls’. There are almost around 150 temples in Kerala whose walls have been adorned by this artform. The process of making the paintings is intricate and involves using symmetrical motifs- ensuring that the final result is neat and tidy. The dyes used in the process are entirely natural, prepared from mineral pigments and vegetables. The five colours used mainly in the paintings are- yellow, red, green, black and white.
The technique involved in making the paintings is quite specific in itself, from preparing the ground by plastering the walls using different substances to sketching the outline, applying colours and finalising the decorations. And because the artwork is mainly inspired by mythology,a lot of attention needs to be offered during the process of sketching and colouring- for the sketches now not only carry an aesthetic purpose, but also a sense of divinity.The aesthetics thus need to be moulded in a way so that the paintings are further able to establish an aura of spirituality. Certain colours need to be used for depicting specific gods- for example, spiritual and dharmic characters are depicted using shades of green while characters depicting traits of wickedness are often shown using white and black. Further, Kerala Mural paintings are known to give all their characters a feminine finish- thus enhancing the artform with tenderness and intricacies of detailing.
The emergence of these paintings can be roughly attributed to Kalamezhuthu, an ancient art of Kerala that depicted illustrations of deities on the floor using coloured powders.
It is perhaps from this art that the Murals came from; marking its path all the way from floors to the walls.
Interestingly, the artform of Mural paintings has emerged to grow differently in various regions- showcasing diversity in minute details, for example, the way bodies are depicted. In Padmanabhapuram Palace of South Travancore, women depicted in the murals have long faces and slim-built bodies. On the other hand, artists chose to depict women with round faces in the Mattancherry Palace.
The artform also grew by the help of other artforms. The poses sketched in mural paintings are somewhat similar to the mudras of the dance form Kathakali. The official costume of Kathakali, called Kavacham, also finds a place in the Murals. Other artforms like Koodiyattom, Theyyam and Tholpavakoothu also influenced mural artists; one can find shadows of them in the light shone on the Murals.
The oldest mural can be found in Thirunadhikkara Cave Temple in Tamil Nadu- a 9th century rock-cut cave temple near Kanyakumari. It is quite impressive how murals made so long ago have managed to leave behind their traces for us to now discover. In this lies the very purpose of art; something our ancestors learnt ages ago: Human connection. From paintings to sculptures, any form of art that helps us connect to our roots and ourselves is immensely important for us to grow and feel a sense of belonging to our world.
Walls have ears. Is that a reason to not speak? They also have mythological illustrations painted in the most fascinating way ever. Perhaps that counts as a reason to speak even more. And finally initiate the dialogue we need to have urgently on preserving Indian art.