Mural artist Sasi Warrier has extracted several artworks from a wall of the now-demolished Vishnu Narasimha Swami Temple at Elamkulam. He is carrying on the life project of his late father KK Warrier
By Shevlin Sebastian
One day, mural artist Sasi Warrier, who runs the Indian School of Art at Ravipuram, Kochi, got a call. It was from his student, Meera Menon. She said, “Master, they have started demolishing the temple.”
The temple in question is the 800-year-old Vishnu Narasimha Swami Temple at Elamkulam. Sasi immediately got in touch with the temple committee. They had agreed earlier that Sasi could come and peel off the mural paintings. But it seemed they forgot about it, as the roof had just been demolished.
But they made amends by quickly putting up a tarpaulin sheet over the wall on the second floor where the paintings had been etched.
On the morning of October 22, Sasi stood in front of the works, accompanied by his student Shreekumar and Dr CP Unnikrishnan, a well-wisher of the school and Kathakali artist. Inches above them was a blue tarpaulin sheet. On the wall, in front, there was a 3 x 2 feet painting. It depicted a scene from the Mahabaratha.
Krishna’s mother Devaki and Vasudevan had just got married. They are being escorted home by Devaki’s brother Kamsa. A celestial voice tells Kamsa, “This eighth child of this Devaki shall become your death!" Frightened and angry, Kamsa grabs hold of Devaki’s hair to kill her.
Sasi has a time-tested method, as perfected by his artist father KK Warrier, who died on August 6, 2018. He rubbed a chemical on the surface. Then he waited for about two hours. Once the chemical dried up, Sasi took a pocket knife and delicately began to lift the edges. A slight mistake would damage the painting. But his movements were sure-fire and confident. Within a matter of time, the entire painting had been taken off.
He continued to work steadily. Soon, around 12 works of differing sizes had been taken off, without a blemish. They are all now stored at the school. “My next job is to clean the back of the paintings,” says Sasi. “There are bits of mud, the plaster of the wall and dust particles.”
Sometimes, there will be damage at the edges of the work. “The appropriate colour will be added to match the rest of the painting so that people do not know this area has been torn,” says Sasi “After this, it will be framed.”
According to Sasi’s estimate, these works were done in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “This style can be seen in North Malabar temples, and is similar to the Thanjavur school of painting,” says Sasi. “Unlike most murals, the women are wearing a blouse and saree. This has probably been done by the disciples of a master named Pulakkat Raman, as the style seems to be the same.”
This idea of preservation was KK Warrier’s life project. The first painting the duo saved was one in the Guruvayur Temple in 1986. So far, they have 140 paintings in their possession. And all of them have been registered with the Archaeological Survey of India. Apart from Guruvayur, there are 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. The oldest painting -- at the Karivellur Puthoor Siva temple at Kannur -- is 400 years old.
Unfortunately, many works have been destroyed. “Sometimes, it is the handiwork of human beings,” says Sasi. “But there are natural causes, like fire or when rainwater 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.”
Nevertheless, Sasi has not been deterred. He says that as and when he gets the opportunity, he will continue to save paintings. “And one day, I will be setting up a museum where I will showcase all the works,” he says.
(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)