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Kerala mural style-art

Imagine a place of worship or a palace wall in 5th century AD in the South Indian state of Kerala. What your eyes will be hooked on will be ornate murals that show the magnificent grace of mythological figurines, each one telling a different story. Natural pigments made from leaves, red stones, turmeric etc. feature in these extraordinary artworks, although they couldn’t withstand the flawed walls, exposed to the elements over many centuries. This dying art has been transforming ordinary pieces of canvas and newly plastered walls in recent days.

In my adaptations of these on canvas, I have tried to adhere to the basic colours (sap green, yellow ochre, crimson red, prussian blue, black and white). The seemingly more feminine nature of the figurines, abundance of golden and floral jewellery, unique colour combinations reserved to character demeanour and so on, make this style of art unique and gives us a glimpse of the socio-political characteristics of Kerala, centuries ago.

The Process

Priming the canvas with an acrylic primer or gesso is the first step. Traditionally, a gesso-like paste is diluted with water to coat the walls to prep them to stick to the natural paints better. Next is the preparation of colours, which is choosing the six major colours sap green, yellow ochre, scarlet red, Prussian blue, white and black squeezed out from their tubes to one’s palette, these days. But this used to be a major time-consuming affair hundreds of years ago- harvesting turmeric roots, red stone dust, leaves with high pigment loading, oil-lamp soot, etc. and treating them through various chemical/physical steps to preserve and enhance pigment loading, and finally getting a thick, concentrated paste. It was nothing less than alchemy and tonnes of patience!

The yesteryear artist often listens to tales or songs from mythology, which they spontaneously copy onto the walls using a light brown pigment. After this they start filling in, layer-by-layer, while carefully staying within the lines. The modern artist goes in with their pigment of choice, usually a burnt amber, draws outlines of the piece. Mind you- much smaller than sketching out an entire chapter of a story, and approach the rest of colouring in, a line, a circle, a curve at a time. Still very laborious work, but in the comforts of modern resources.

Ancient or modern, this style of art always involved two dimensional images, thus one see weirdly sculpted and twisted limbs, normally physically impossible albeit comfortable! After many many months of multiple artists at work, the ancient group finishes their work, covering hundreds of square meters covered in beautiful art work, that tell stories. Meanwhile, the modern artist takes anywhere upwards of 18  hours of work, depending on how ambitious they go in terms of complexity and size of the work, canvas or mural.

Above are some snaps of these different stages of my not-so-pure, but original works in Kerala mural art-style, and some artworks from existing references.

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