The Beautiful World of Kerala Murals

I “discover” Kerala Murals

Until a few years back, I had not even heard of Kerala Mural Paintings. One day I went to an Indian Crafts Exhibition and was captivated by the reproductions of Kerala Mural style. At first they reminded me of the Ajanta cave-paintings, but I quickly realised my error. Ajanta frescoes were painted by Buddhists between 2nd century BC and 450 AD. Kerala frescoes were inspired by the Hindu Pantheon and flourished mainly between 9th and 12th century. The roots of this art are traced to the ancient Dravidian art of kalamezhuthu (Pen-drawing?) and probably influenced by Pallava art as well. Surely there must have been cross-pollination between many sub-cultures and hence my confusion.

The Decline and the Renaissance
The Kerala murals that survive today in the Palaces (notably Mattancherry ) and Temples (like Guruvayoor , Thrissur) were created in the 15th & 16th centuries. These depict scenes from mythological epics like Ramayana, Siva Purana and Vishnu Bhagavatam. I have been to Mattancherry Palace and recommend it to anyone interested in Kerala art. Photography is prohibited in most places, but one can always download good reproductions from the internet.


Eternal Classics: Rama & Sita with Lakshmana & Hanuman in attendance (Source: Internet)

The paintings are stylised renditions of mythological characters . The eyes are elongated and wide open, the eyebrows are exaggerated, the lips are luscious and coloured, the mudras (body/hand gestures) are explicit and the background is full of action and ornamentation. The emotions stand out and the characters are curvaceous and openly erotic and sensual.


Eternal Classics: Siva & Parvati with their sons Ganesha & Muruga (Source: Internet)

Patronage for this art declined after the 17th century and by the 20th century it was all but forgotten —only a handful of artists remained. Then, in 1970 a fire destroyed many murals in Guruvayoor Temple. Alarmed, Dewaswom authorities commissioned the surviving experts to recreate some of the lost works; further, in a rare display of strategic vision, a college was established in 1989 to train young artists in the craft; one more was established in the Temple town of Kaladi later. Point of inflexion! Suddenly, highly trained artists were producing brilliant Mural Art—truly a terrific resurgence after near-extinction!

The rigours of the Art
It takes about 5 years to graduate from a Mural Art college. A Kerala Muralist has to be more than a handy illustrator; he has to be a chemist and a Sanskrit scholar! The artist cannot act on wild imagination but conform to the science behind the art. This science comes from Dhyana Slokas , a collection of over 2000 verses that describe the mythology base, the form, the mood, the expressions, the ornaments and embellishments, the proportions and even the colour scheme for every piece. The colour scheme is a combination of only 5 colours – the Pancha-Varnas — Red, Yellow, Green, Black & White. Far from being restrictive, this scheme gives an earthy but vibrant look that is very unique. The colouring materials are natural ingredients — minerals, oils, herbal and plant juices — that have to be mixed in the right chemistry. Even the brushes have to be carefully self-manufactured — animal hairs for heavy and medium applications and delicate grass for fine applications. Different colour schemes depict different characters/emotions: Green is Satvik, Red & Yellow are Rajasik and White is Tamasik. Black often depicts evil. Preparing a wall for a fresco takes about 25 days, when different coats of lime, sand, jaggery, coconut water, lemon juice and other bio-products are applied in a defined sequence. Even the painting must be done in 6 different stages (the painting of the eyes always comes last) after which the artist does samarpanam (submission or offering). So a Muralist is a very versatile professional!

Contemporisation & Democratisation
A happy outcome of this renaissance is the democratisation of this art. The Mural colleges multiplied the artistic talent in the field, so more avenues had to be found to absorb this artistic surplus. Restoration of old Temples & Palaces was simply not enough challenge for some of these artists who are true geniuses. So the muralists painted foyers in 5-star hotels, airports, malls and villas of the rich. ( I have seen many wonderful examples). As awareness spread, public appetite got whetted.


Dancer Shobana looks stunning in the backdrop of a Kerala Mural. (Source: Shobana’s own website)


Art for the people: Kathakali dancers use a Kerala Mural background to enhance the visual impact

The more enterprising artists got into designing saris, ornaments and the like. Others found new applications: vases, coasters, magnets and so on.


Kerala Murals in everyday objects : a wooden bangle with floral motif & a fridge magnet with Hanumanji

Many famous artists have their own websites and you can order nice objets d’art over the net. They are often reasonably priced and you need not be rich to afford them. My wife bought a few over the net and we are quite delighted.


Ordered over the net– Mural on Bamboo sections, from Left to Right: Ganesha, Saraswati & Krishna as Govardhana-Giridhari

Another divine side-effect is the removal of the religious straitjacket. Churches have been enthused to commission muralists to paint their walls with Biblical lore, like the last supper. They  apparently see this as “Kerala’s heritage”, not as “Hindu art”(Which only shows that if pseudo-secular politicians can be kept out, art is a truly binding force).


            Mural depicting Christian lore

Can this democratisation lead to dilution of the rigorous discipline in this art? I think not: this is one case where the classics have touched the common man without the need for compromise.


Dewaswom = Administration Bureau in Kerala Temples

Satvik         = Balanced and spiritual quality

Rajasik       = Active and materialistic quality

Tamasik      = Inert or base quality


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