The roots of the mural art tradition run deep in Kerala, beginning in the 7th-8th centuries and begetting generations of dexterous master artists. The state boasts one of the most extensive collections of traditional murals in India, second only to Rajasthan. The art style is known for its unforgettable discipline in terms of symmetry and line-work, and also the vibrancy of the colours used to illustrate grand mythological episodes on a gargantuan scale.
From the 14th to 16th centuries A.D., Kerala revelled in what is considered the Golden Age of mural paintings, coinciding with the second Bhakti movement. The art form was mostly contained within places of worship and structures patronised by nobility as those were the most prominent social institutions of the time. Moreover, they were the only buildings spacious enough to accommodate the murals. The 17th and 18th centuries drew a concluding line across the heritage of the previously flourishing art. With colonisation and the import of oil paints, the mural tradition suffered a nearly irreversible blow.
It wasn’t until the Centre for Study of Mural Paintings was established post-independence by patrons of the Guruvayur temple that Kerala mural art entered its revival phase. To this day, the school adheres to the traditional technique of painting and teaches the use of naturally produced pigments in art. Adarsh–- the artist leading our masterclass– has undergone training at this prestigious institute. In its efforts to revive the ancient, profoundly philosophical artform, the school has, in turn, evolved into a custodian of culture, tradition and heritage.
The intrinsic sanctity of the murals lies in the prayer-like discipline exercised by the artists. The process of preparing and then painting the walls requires patience, focus and a highly skilled hand as the outlines of the artwork need to be extremely precise. This is what gives the murals their mesmerising symmetry, allowing the rich colour-blocking to truly shine through. The hues utilised in Kerala murals are paramount for their successful execution and are far from arbitrary. While there is an allowance for artistic freedom in the discipline, the colours hold symbolic significance and add depth to the rendering of the paintings. The principal pigments each refer to a characteristic deliberately depicted in the narrative.
The colours traditionally used in the Kerala mural tradition are ochre yellow, red, green, white and black - known as the panchavarna. Though synthetic alternatives are readily available in the market, some of the orthodox practitioners of the school tend to use natural materials. First, the wall is prepared by a coat of lime, sand and water, which essentially acts as a plaster. The black pigment is derived from soot, ochre-yellow and red from minerals, green from the trees Garcinia morella and Indigofera tinctoria, and the occasional blue from the fresh leaves of Indigofera tinctoria. The adhesive and resin, too, are all-natural. The fact that these processes are still carried out in a market dominated by synthetic products is a sign of the unbroken bond between traditional art and its foundation in nature. Just as artists in the 7th century painstakingly prepared every tint, every shade variation from scratch, the same method is being followed by some painters today even though the utilitarian aspect of the process is long gone. Above all, this highlights the hold that tradition can have on society - in this case, through art. The ancient instructional texts - Vishnudharmottara, Abhilashitartha Chintamani and Silparatna - slip into the physical reality of Indian aesthetic experiences even today.
Before we explore the symbolic realm of colours, let us take a detour through the scenic route. The process of painting a wall mural can be seen as a meditative ritual of sorts. As it is linked to worship in many cases, the mural painting customarily begins on an auspicious day. After the wall has been coated with the lime mixture, a few weeks’ time is allotted for it to dry and smoothen out. The painting is then carried out.
First, we begin with the Lekhya Karma, which refers to the basic sketch that the artist renders on the wall. It acts as a guiding outline, allowing the artist to visualise the intricate shapes which often consist of mandalas; the character art in turn is influenced by local dance forms such as Mohiniyattam, Koodiyattam and Theyyam. The second stage is called the Rekha Karma, which reinforces the linework by tracing it and enhances the shapes to be filled in. The Varna Karma finally utilises the panchavarna. This is the stage wherein the colours are painted into the outlines. The mural begins to come together, enlivened by the strong hues, each referring to a virtue. At this point, however, the colours are solid and have not been shaded in. This is what happens in the Vartana Karma. Tonality is added to the painting by way of darkening and lightening as required. This gives dimensionality to the art. Next, we come to the fifth stage, namely - Lekha Karma. Here, the outline is decisively finalised, after which the finishing touches are added in the final stage of the Dvika Karma. The mural is brought to life in all of its brilliant glory, and is preserved with resin and oils for a gleaming finish.
As previously mentioned, the colours used to paint Kerala murals are deliberately selected as prescribed by ancient traditional guidelines. The panchavarna not only complement each other beautifully, but also act as symbolic vessels for narrative. Green, yellow/red and white represent the three gunas respectively - sattva, rajas and tamas. The characters depicted in green are those with a pure, intelligent and righteous soul - the saatvik. Those painted in shades of yellow ochre, golden yellow and red are the rajasic figures associated with power, wealth, ambition and action. Tamas is considered to be the lowest of the three gunas, and is undesirable. It is ironically painted in white, referring to characters plagued with inertia, selfishness and greed. The black in Kerala mural art is usually used when painting demonic figures.
The mural lives its dual life as both, art as well as a religious artefact. On completion, it is offered worship as has been the custom from time immemorial.