Paintings of god's own land - Mural Paintings of Kerala

Paintings of god's own land - Mural Paintings of Kerala

Art in general is an embodiment of man’s deepest instincts.  Out of various forms of arts, paintings have held a vital place through ages. One of the oldest art form known to mankind is cave paintings. Those splashes of colours have a unique way of communicating with their observer and creating a lasting impact on them. Whilst, seeing a painting you will find every hue, curve and shape telling their tales of how they evolved from the tiny vivid pigments to the art that you glimpse now. Numerous paintings are available across the globe each differing in their techniques, styles and details. Indian paintings have a long tradition and history in the ancient world. Mural paintings are one of the oldest and interesting classifications among them. More often we would have come across the term “murals”, but we have a very faint idea about what exactly it is.
So, let’s get to know more about this beautiful classic and its journey!
Defining murals in a classic way
Mural paintings (or murals) instil emotions and the essence of the subjects in a magnifying way. The word ‘mural’ is of Latin origin, ‘murus’ meaning ‘wall’. These are painted on the walls, ceilings, rocks and other permanent surfaces. They are also available on canvas/scrolls, banners, masks, manuscripts, earthenware, etc. The most intrinsic part about this piece of art is that it blends with the elements of its surfaces efficiently. These have served as such a powerful language of art to entice people’s attention. It was used to create a visual impact on history, cultural and social issues to the public sphere until now. Creating an impact or conveying significant information to the public is a herculean task as they easily get deviated with trivial issues. We can find attractive mural arts on the buildings, walls and streets of many towns to attract tourists. This boosts their economy. Imagine how bored and dull does a bare concrete and solid coloured wall would look. Murals are used in spaces like these to create a positive atmosphere to refresh minds. A splash of colours is an absolute mood changer.

History of murals across the globe
Ancient people painted on the rocks of their rock shelters. The origin of the murals dates back to the Palaeolithic era, circa 30,000 BC. The historical murals of this period are found in the Lubang jeriji Saleh caves of Borneo, Chauvet cave in Southern France, Ajanta caves, city of Pompeii, Minoan palaces, and paintings on tombs of Egypt. During middle ages, the European art was influenced by the perception of adding more artistic, aesthetic and more geometrical patterns to the mural paintings. And thus, it gave rise to renaissance art. Few of the most famous muralists of this period like Leonardo Da Vinci created the masterpieces like the battle of Anghiari at Palazzo Vecchio of southern Florence and last supper at Santa Maria of Milan with more of scientific approach. Muralists like Michael Angelo, Raphael and Correggio are some of the remarkable artists of this period. 20 th Century popularised the murals to Mexico, Central America and United states though a revolutionary movement based on Diego Rivera brought in more sophisticated murals based on post-impressionism (the style is inclined more towards emotions, distorted form of expressions, geometric forms depicted with more natural and light colours. Famous Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh is an example of this) and cubism (style is more abstract depicting different views of the same subject using geometric, interlocking patterns. Here is an interesting fact. The father of this revolutionary style of art is the legendary artist, PABLO PICASSO!!). Most of these paintings around the world are destroyed by effects of nature, human vandalism and neglect. But we are glad to have enough amount of paintings that survived all those to reveal us the essence of its glory and brilliant mastery of its artists.
Later on, the aerosol spray cans found its way on to the walls of streets and common spaces paving the way to community murals, street arts, graffiti, etc. and it gradually travelled across the sphere.
That’s short yet an exhaustive history to read, Isn’t it? Never forget the steps taken they say!
Mural paintings in India
 There are quite a lot of paintings that survived through ages to showcase the rich culture of the Indian mural paintings. Most of them are rock paintings and natural cave paintings. This again is a very vast topic of discussion. The period of painting, the style and techniques are hard to explain in brief.  So here are the few prominent murals of India:
  • Ajanta caves (Ellora)- One of the earliest surviving paintings portraying the Jataka tales, Buddhism and stories from previous births of Buddha.
  • Badami murals (Karnataka)- Later mural cave site paintings were done during the reign of Chalukyas. Depictions on Vaishnava affiliations. It is famously known as  Vishnu cave
  • Murals of pandyas, pallavas and cholas (tamilnadu):
  • Paintings at Kancheepuram temple by Pallava king, Rajsimha.
  • Paintings at thirumalaipuram caves and Jaina caves at Sittanavasal by pandavas.
  • Paintings at Brihadeeshwara temple by Cholas.
  • Vijayanagara murals (Andhra Pradesh)- Paintings at the ceilings of mandapas and walls of Virupaksha and Lepakshi temple.
  • Nayaka paintings (Tamilnadu)- Extension of Vijayanagara styles created during the 17th and 18th century. Depicts episodes of Mahabarata, Ramayana and Krishna Leela.
  • Kerala murals (Kerala)- Distinct style but has adopted certain features of both Vijayanagaras and Nayakas. An extensive description of this particular mural and the techniques, the process is discussed below.
Varied techniques of painting a mural
               We got to know about the existence of different paintings from India and across the blue sphere. Every painting has travelled its journey. The foremost thing about painting is the painter’s vision and the magic of his/her techniques. It all comes down to how they use these techniques, styles, tints and shades to sketch and brush them to life working on the littlest of nuances to forge the wonder they envisioned.
   The tradition of painting and its aspects are discussed at lengths in the treatises like Vishnudharmothara, Shilpashastra, manasollasa, shilparatna, Kashyapa shilpa, etc. To understand and discuss the contents of these invaluable pieces of literature on paintings in depth will take the space of another whole book. So, we are going to get a quick peek into the techniques and traditions involved to create mural paintings.
Distinct methods of mural paintings:
    The word fresco is of Italian origin ‘affresco’ meaning fresh. 
            Buon fresco is the true fresco. This technique makes uses a lime plaster to paint on. The durability of the frescos entirely depends on the wall. The wall must not be moist and be free of any damaging agents or salts. The plaster is coated on to the wall in layers. It is the backbone of the painting, any damage to the plaster directly affects the quality of the paintings. Most frescos make use of the lime plaster. These plasters ensure long term durability of the paintings shielding them from the effects of humidity and temperature.  
   Setting up the plaster for painting is important. One of the biggest cons of the frescos is that the entire process of the painting must be completed within the curing time of plaster. The plaster will have a caustic effect (i.e. can cause burns) initially with a pH around 12. So the plaster is allowed to rest until the pH neutralizes and reaches a value of 7. Another con of this technique is that the erasing can be done only when the lime is active on the surface which is just a couple of hours. Otherwise, it would form dents. The time when the surface is active bonds the pigments well with plaster. Since lime is present, alkaline resistant pigments must be used. The artists should be meticulous and systematic about painting in the restricted time. Depending on the weather the curing time varies. Say if the weather is humid, the curing takes longer in general. So rainy days are best to grab your brushes to draw murals on frescos. 

  • ‘Secco’ means dry. In this technique, the painting is done completely on dry lime plaster. The surface is thoroughly soaked and washed several times with slaked lime and water mixture. The pigments are added to the plaster when the lime is in its viscous state (i.e. wet). Since the painting is done on the wet surface of the plaster, the pigments stay on the surface and do not bond with plaster-like true frescos. This is one of the cons of this technique. This reduces the durability of the painting. There are high chances for the colours to flake off over a long period. Organic binders like glue or oil are also used as a binding medium for the pigments. The pros of the secco method are that an ample amount of time is available to work on the paintings. The detailing and retouching to the paintings can be done without the spoiling the quality of it. The secco paintings are easier to work within comparison to other frescos. These paintings are not mere brushwork, working on a restricted palette and limited range of expressions requires mastery of the art. 

  •       Mezzo fresco (or half fresco) is a technique which makes use of nearly dry plaster. The lime water is used to brush the pigments on to the plaster. Since it’s almost dry, the pigments will penetrate slightly into the plaster. This technique has certain advantages of fresco secco like extended time and it can be painted over a large expanse of wall. This technique gives a soft appearance to the painting.
          It originates from the word “temper” which means to bring desired consistency. This technique of painting is different from the frescos. No binders are used here with pigments of colours. This was the original mural medium in ancient Egypt, Greece, Babylonia and China.  Original tempera was a mix of pigments in the water along with yolk of fresh eggs. The yolks serve as adhesive and it is durable, unaffected by humidity and temperature. Well yolks, it should stink you might think. Other emulsions like casein glue with linseed oil were used. Of course! It will and it is one of the cons of this technique. It can get flaky and the layering is real hard. In India, tempera technique pigments are mixed with chalk/clay and weak glue.
          Using any of the techniques to paint is not a mere drawing, but a meticulous work of an artist with a bird’s eye for details, creating conceptual sketches and flawless execution of the work. All these nuances contribute to the aesthetic output of the murals. Indian Shilpa texts refer mostly about tempera and fresco secco. Most of the works in India have pertained with these two types of mural paintings. 
    One of the popular murals available commercially is Kerala murals.  
    KERALA MURALS- a quick peek into its journey to life
               This exquisite piece of art began its journey back in Kerala through pre-historic rock paintings found in Anjanad valley in the district of Idukki. Archaeologists presume that these paintings belong to the upper Palaeolithic to the early historic period. Earliest Kerala murals were traced on the rocks of the shrine at Thirunandhikara (which was part of Pallava kingdom and is currently at Kanyakumari) in the 8th century.   These aesthetic and eco-friendly paintings are made with clarity, symmetry and supreme linear accuracy. The characters are made with unrealistic replication. It is simple, rich, brushed with delicate strokes and bright hues. Red, green, yellow, black and white are the only traditional colours used. These are the same colours used in kalamezhuthu, a Dravidian art from. This art form has great influence over the Kerala murals. A detailed description of techniques and procedures of painting these murals are available on chitrasutra, a section of vishnudharmottapurana. Temples are elaborately decorated using these murals. 
    Process of painting
             Brushes and pigments 
  • Brushes of varied sizes are made from domestic animals, plants and trees.
    • Colours always play a crucial role in paintings they add life to the sketch. Various pigments are obtained from different sources obtained mostly of vegetable, organic and mineral origin. All of which are alkaline resistant. Yellow and red pigments are made exactly as described in shilpashastra. Sources of various pigments are,
  • Yellow – yellow ochre 
  • Red- red ochre 
  • Green- a mix of juice from leaves of the indigo tree and resin from the barks of eravikkara tree.
  • Black – lamp soot of gingelly oil lamps
    • White- cotton is added to bring the bright white colour to the wall.
          Preparation of the wall
    The whole process of preparing the wall for painting occurs in three stages. 
    • Firstly, the mixture of lime and fine sand is taken in the ratio of 1:2 and grounded to the consistency of a paste. It is let to set and dry for a week. 
    • During plastering, juice of the plant, oonjalvalli (Cissus glauca roxb) is added to increase the viscosity and ease the conversion of liquid in to paste. Ink-nut or jaggery water can also be used. 
    • Plaster is made at a thickness of ½ to 1 inch. 
    • Second coating to the same mixture of lime and sand, cotton is added. Cotton is added to give the bright white hue to the wall.
    • The layers coated so far will have been rough on the surface. To smoothen the surface, a coating of 1 mm thickness is done using black gram flour and is left to dry for a day.
    • Final stage- The plaster is washed with a mixture of lime and tender coconut multiple times to create a sheen finish. After drying for a day, the wall is ready to create the enchanting murals.
        Sketching and brushing strokes to life
    • An earlier version of the pencil to do the basic sketching was done using kittalekhni. This pencil was made by grinding black stone with cow dung. In recent days, commercially available pencils are used. 
    • The sequence of the colours painted is – yellow, red, green and black.  White is the background colour, the wall. 
    • The characters are coloured in a way that describes their gunas (virtue) and traits as described in Bhagavad Gita.
    •  Sattva (justful, divine)- Green 
    • Rajas (active, materialistic, inclined towards power)- Shades from red to yellow
    • Tamas (evil, wicked)- Black
    • Yellow is the initial shade used over the sketch and then red is used.
    • Considering the aesthetics of the murals, the pigments are shaded into the plaster using the dotted method (i.e. in the forms of dots) as washing will leave behind brush strokes.  
    •  Black pigments are added either by wash or dotted method to intensify its output.
    • The backdrop is enriched by the features of nature.
    Common themes:  Incarnations of Vishnu, Krishna with gopis, manifestations of Ganesha and Shiva, battle scene of English East Indian Company and Tipu sultan.
    Murals in recent days, 
            In 21st century buildings, murals have transformed to be a part of interior decor in buildings to add that artsy touch to the contemporary living and working spaces. On the walls and pillars, streets and public spaces murals have turned into portals of communication apart from adding to the aesthetics. Most of the timeless murals have been preserved. Scribbling (not in a very literal sense) on the walls have been one of the oldest practices known to mankind. That has continued to evolve with us through ages. We yell at our kids when they scribble on the walls, but maybe we should let them do it. Or create a space for them to draw, who knows they might end up creating a masterpiece of their own!

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