Monday, January 14, 2013

Saving Kerala’s mural heritage

The father-son duo of KK Warrier and son Sasi, both renowned painters, have preserved many mural paintings in Kerala, which were on the verge of being destroyed

Photo by Manu R. Mavelil

By Shevlin Sebastian

On November 30, 1970, a massive fire broke out in the Sree Krishna temple at Guruvayur. As a result, several mural paintings were damaged. When renowned mural painter KK Warrier read about the news, he rushed to the temple, accompanied by two artistes, Sreenivasan and Soman. “We traced the painting on paper so that we knew what the drawing was like,” says Warrier.

Then in 1986, the Guruvayur Devaswom, which oversees the temple, showed an interest in preserving the paintings. Usually, when there is a renovation, the old works are scraped off. Then new drawings are put on the same wall. “But I wanted to preserve the original compositions,” says Warrier. “These have been done by masters like Pulakkat Raman Nair and his disciples.”

In the ancient method of mural painting, first the wall is plastered. Thereafter, there is a coating of lime and coconut water. “In fact, there are 28 coats,” says Sasi. “It becomes thicker than paper. It is on this base that the painting has done.”

Warrier, 78, accompanied by his son, Sasi, tried various techniques to remove the paintings, but none worked, till, after four months of experimentation, they finally hit upon a foolproof method. “It is a chemical process, and we want to keep it a secret,” says Sasi, with a smile. “We have applied for a patent and hope to get it soon.”

In their method, they can take the painting off, along with the underlying layer. Then it is placed on a wooden board and for the background, the ochre-red colour, which is a must in all mural paintings, is painted in.

Apart from Guruvayur, Warrier and Sasi have collected paintings from eight temples across Kerala. These include the Kumaranalloor Devi temple at Kottayam, the Tahikkattusseri Vamanamoorthi temple in Thrissur and the Pallathankulangara Siva Temple at Vypeen, Kochi.

Interestingly, they got the largest painting, 6 x 4 ½ ft., from a house on the periphery of the Guruvayur temple. Owing to security reasons, these old houses were being demolished. But 150 years ago, Pulakkat Raman Nair and his assistants stayed in this house while they worked in the temple. And in a gesture of goodwill they painted the walls of the house. 

Over the years, the walls were painted over, except for one, which had a painting on it. And the Warriers wanted to save it. The owner, Nharakkat Pisharam, had one request: he wanted a photocopy so that he could hang it in his new home.

In this work, Hanuman is reading the Ramayana to Rama,” says Warrier. “It is one of the best paintings in our collection.” And the Warriers ensured that Pisharam got a copy.

The earliest painting -- at the Karivellur Puthoor Siva temple at Kannur -- is 400 years old.  In 2002, the temple authorities were planning a renovation. So, the ceiling was demolished, as they wanted to put a new roof, but the walls could not take the weight. So, the walls had to be demolished. “When the news broke out in the media that such old paintings were going to be destroyed, we got in touch,” says Warrier. “The authorities gave permission and we completed the job in four days.”

In total, there is a collection of 98 paintings, which were displayed at an exhibition in Kochi recently. “We wanted to sensitise the public about this treasure trove,” says Sasi. “There are many non-Hindus who will not be able to enter temples to see these works. So this is a chance for them to view them.”

The Warriers also want temple authorities across the state to view the display. “Many works are being destroyed day-by-day,” says Sasi. And there are various reasons for this. 

“Sometimes, it is the handiwork of human beings,” says Sasi. “But there are natural causes, like fire or when rain water seeps down the surface of the painting. Sometimes, the walls develop a crack. On other occasions, insects and birds, which dwell in the temple premises, make scratches.”

Incidentally, the subjects in the paintings include gods like Brahma, Indra, Vishnu and Siva and goddesses like Bhagawathy and Durga. There are also scenes from the Mahabaratha, Ramayana, and the Puranas. And in order to ensure that no painting is taken abroad, every one of them has been registered with the Archaeological Survey of India. 

So, an unlikely combination of an ageing father and son, both well-known mural painters, have taken the onerous task of preserving a particular niche of Kerala’s cultural heritage. 

(The New Indian Express, Sunday Magazine)


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