Monday, February 20, 2017

Telling Ancient Tales

Mural artist PK Sadanandan's work is one of the more eye-catching ones at the Kochi Muziris Biennale

Photo by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Yesomi Umolu, Exhibitions Curator of the Reva and David Logan Centre for the Arts, at Chicago, stepped into a large hall, at Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi, recently, her eyes widened in shock. Then, as she turned her head from one side to the other, she said simply, “This is impressive.”

So impressive that even Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stopped and spent a few minutes with the artist PK Sadanandan. The work, titled '12 Stories (of the 12 Progeny)' is an ongoing mural art work, 50 ft wide and 10 ¼ ft high.

It tells the stories from the 'Parayi Petta Panthiru Kulam', a Kerala legend, of the 12 kulams (families born to the Parayi, or women of the 'pariah' caste). Here is one story. “Varaduji is a Brahmin scholar,” says Sadanandan. “On a pilgrimage, he stopped near the banks of the Bharatapuzha river, in Kerala, saw a house, and decided to rest there.”

There he came across a smart girl and decided to marry her. But it was after a while he realised that she is not a Brahmin, but a Parayi. When word got around, he was expelled from society.

Of course, there is an underlying message in the many stories which have been depicted. “Too much of attention is being given to caste and religion,” says Sadanandan. “Once we had a society where both these issues were not that important. I also speak about the relevance of fate, the inequality of the caste system, and the role of family and society.”

Sadanandan is one of the leading proponents of Kerala mural art. “I learnt everything at the feet of my guru Mammiyur Krishnan Kutty Nair from Guruvayur,” he says.

One of the unusual aspects of his work is that he uses natural colours. So the colour yellow is got by scraping an arsenic stone brought from Afghanistan. For black, an oil lamp is placed under a clay pot for a week. The ensuing soot is again scraped away, and mixed with water, to create a black paste. As for glue it is from the neem tree.

And all these colours are applied several times. “My assistants – Anish A.K., Joby John, Anish Kuttan – and I start work at 8 a.m. and work till 9 p.m,” says Sadanandan. “It will be completed by the end of the 108-day Biennale.”

And the reason for this painstaking work is simple: it is the only way to ensure that the work will last for centuries. “The paintings at Ajanta and Ellora have lasted for so long because the artistes have used natural colours,” says Sadanandan.

Meanwhile, as visitors stream in, there is a palpable excitement on Sadanandan's face. “For the past 30 years I have been practising this art,” he says. “But I have never got an opportunity to present my work before the international art community. I feel so lucky. I am grateful to curator Sudarshan Shetty for inviting me.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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