JaggeryLit Arts Editor Srividya Ramamurthy had a virtual sit down with Mr. Suresh Muthukulam – An artist based out of Kerala, India. We hope you enjoy knowing about the artist and his artistic creation.
It is so lovely to meet you Mr. Suresh! I am so excited to talk with you and know more about you and your work. First off, thank you so much for accepting to talk with us.
Thank you so much Srividya! The pleasure is mine.
Can you please explain to us what Kerala murals are? How is this different from other art forms?
History of Kerala Murals can be traced back to about 2000 years. Within Kerala these forms were drawn in palaces and places of worship using natural colors. This is a visual art form done on the walls. These paintings were all done much much before the use of synthetic colors came into practice.
There are some major differences between Kerala Mural and other art forms. The first being the fact that these murals use only 5 colors. Yellow, red, leaf green, black and white. These 5 colors are representative of the 5 elements or the Pancha Bhutas (Earth, water, fire, air and space)
The second difference is the usage of lines and facial or visual representation. Based on the character that is being drawn, and the story being told of that character in that drawing the colors are based on that character’s innate intrinsic quality that is being presented in that story. This is very different from other art forms like Western for example where things might be more black and white.
Ah! I never thought of the colors to represent the character. Now if I think about that, it makes sense as to why some have red in face vs. blue in another painting. How impressive!
What is the history of this art form? Again, I cannot get beyond the vibrancy of colors that is so unique to this painting. How did that evolve? If you have any historical pointers to help to understand that would be wonderful as well.
This is a good question. I am not sure how many people are aware of the history. This might be a lengthy answer, but you did ask me a lengthy question (Smiles)
In India, one can trace the artwork with the usage of colors to the Ajanta and Ellora caves. Now if we were to look in Kerala, India. In Wayanad, Eddakal caves there are plenty of artistic engravings however there is no usage of colors in these. If we were to look and trace the oldest of the murals within Kerala – In those days Kanyakumari used to be part of Kerala (It is now part of Tamil Nadu India), there are Thirunandikkara caves and there are artistic works done here. According to historians, they trace the timeline to the 12th century AD.
If we move on, then we have to look at the mural artwork in 3 main palaces. The 3 notables amongst them are the Padmanabhapuram palace in Thauckalay, Kanyakumari District Tamil Nadu, Krishnapuram palace in Kayamkulam, Allapuzha District Kerala, Dutch palace in Cochin, Kerala. We also find mural artwork in many old temples and in some churches.
For colors we use all-natural colors. For yellow and red we use laterite soil. For Green we use an ayurvedic plant called neelamari( Indigofera Trincora) and along with Erivikara (Garcinia Morella). For black, soot from oil lamps is used. For white, since the base or substratum for the painting is usually transparent and the wall is usually coated with a layer of lime.
Wonderful! I have always loved history (Smiles). Tell us how you get interested in this art form? Where did the inspiration to learn the Mural art come from?
I grew up in Kayamkulam, Kerala. And our house was very close to the Krishnapuram Palace in Kayamkulam. The palace had a Kerala Mural depiction of Gajendra Moksha. It was superbly depicted with all of the emotions. The main highlight is the face of Vishnu. There are 2 bhava’s (aspects) that are shown. There is an emotion of karuna (grace ) shown towards the devotee namely Gajendra (The Elephant King) and then the anger shown in as a Vira rasa which is directed to the crocodile which was causing such pain and agony to Vishnu’s devotee Gajendra. One face having both the aspects just fascinated me as a child. I have been to the palace many times and this just created just an indelible impression with me. After I finished my schooling, I finished a Diploma in Fine Arts in Mavelikkara, Kerala. After that I joined the Institute of Mural Painting, Guruvayoor Devaswom, Guruvayoor. This was a five-year course, and I was trained and was amongst the first few of the students of the late Mammiyoor Krishnankutty Nair. I consider this to be a privilege as Mammiyor Asan(teacher) as he is famously called was an expert in this field. I learnt the art from the best and years 1989-1994 were the best grounding years to learn the craft.
Once I graduated, my first job was to restore the paintings of the famous Shri Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Trivandrum Kerala. I consider myself extremely lucky and privileged to be able to do this work.
So, restoration of the murals in the famous Shri Padamanabha Swamy Temple in Trivandrum was your first job?
Yes. After we graduated from Guruvayur, my asan (teacher) called a few of his students and I was one amongst them. He informed us that he had received a letter from King Marthandavarma of Trivandrum. The letter said that they are looking for artists to restore the mural paintings on the wall of Shri Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Trivandrum. However, he said that there would be no remuneration however they would provide food and accommodation. This was a bit of a dilemma for me as I lived by the coastal area which was not close to Trivandrum and so it would be hard for me to go back and forth to visit family since there would be no source of income. However, 3 of us decided to take the offer, others possibly didn’t take the offer due to financial constraints. I am not very sure. So, 3 of us went to Trivandrum and started doing the restoration work.
3 months into the job, I had an art exhibition in the Trivandrum museum. This was of great success. People really liked my work. There were some people from New Delhi that had visited this exhibition and they called me to New Delhi to commission an artwork for them. And then work back at the Temple was going on full progress. I had another exhibition in Chennai. That was received very well too. So, my name started to garner some amount of recognition in these 3 years. I sincerely believe that even though I received no remuneration for the restoration work of Shri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, all the fame and success that I have received, are all due to his Grace.
That was Divine grace indeed! Was it easy from that point onwards in your artistic journey?
I was one of the first batch of students (1989- 1994) graduating from the Guruvayur College. I consider this as my luck and the start of my destiny. Earlier my Asan Mammiyoor Krishnakutti Nair was the only person who was doing this specific style of Kerala Mural. So, in the whole mural scene the artist population was extremely rare. Being the first batch of students graduating under the best teacher of the times, our batch mates received plenty of opportunities. When we went to work for different places in Kerala for many of them it was seeing this for the first time in their life. We got the opportunity to work for different entities, private, commerce, places of worship. It was definitely a great break for our batch. As the years continued and more and more students graduated, we started having more artists capable of doing Kerala murals in our midst. However, there is no disadvantage due to this. All of us have been able to have a good life. I have explored various options of expressing Kerala Murals and hence I have a gallery platform for my art.
Can you please explain what you mean by that?
Sure! We have murals in temples or palaces, and they all depict a story. It is essentially a mural artistic way of representing or stating a story. The colors add to the vibrancy of the murals. So, in similar fashion, we can easily say a story on the wall of, let’s say in a top hotel. The story can be what a client might want to showcase. And I find this similar to let’s say Kathakali or Bharatanatyam (both being a dance form from South of India) originated in the temples. It was an artistic way of using dance as a platform to say the stories. In the old days, this art form stayed only inside the walls of the temple. Now if you see they have also made entry to the world outside of the temple. They continue to tell stories, but they also tell stories based on events that happen around the world.
I find the transition of Kerala murals in a similar fashion. They originated and stayed in the walls around the temple and now it is also adaptable to the walls of the outside world. It is definitely a very interesting journey.
For me just as a person who appreciates art, I was in awe of your huge ceiling to floor painting of these Kerala murals at the Mumbai International airport. Can you give us details on how you were invited to that project? Did they give you a theme to paint to or were you free to paint what you had perceived from an artist standpoint?
The Mumbai International Airport project is a very interesting one. They had this idea of having contemporary and traditional art from all across India. They had invited many artists and they had a selection process. The selection team then shortlisted artists. I was shortlisted as an artist from Kerala.
With regards to the theme for the project, it was given to the artist. I chose to create a thematic drawing of Ashta Dikbala. As you might know this signifies the protectors of the 8 directions.
Namely: East – Indra, South East -Agni, South – Yama, South West – Niruti, West- Varuna, North West – Vayu, North – Kubera & North East – Isana.
So, this was my theme, and I used my own creative ideas to portray this on 4000 Sq ft of wall space in the Mumbai International Airport. This work of mine was highlighted in Forbes India Magazine. It has won me a lot of recognition and fame.
You said about restoring the old paintings in the temples, can you give us help us understand how you approach a project that old and that big at the same time.
Yes, this is something that I have a lot of experience with this type of restoration work. I have worked on art in temples that are anywhere from 500 to 700 years old. I have worked in about 4-5 temples. The way I look at restoring this artwork is to keep the sanctity of the original painting. Think about the archeological importance and the history in these walls. To me that is pristine and timeless. So, the way I start at these restorations is to first study the walls. Examine if there are any cracks in the base structure. Get a plan in place to restore the crack. Then I look at what is the color scheme that has been used. And continuing on the visual inspection, I look to see if there has been any dirt on the color pigments. If there are then the cleaning has to be done in such a way that the original pigments are kept intact.
The next stage would be to identify the color scheme that has been used. Using the same color scheme, I just restore the needed. Then I also examine the art and the story it is trying to convey. Who are the characters in the art? Since it is all traditional art in the temple, it is important to know who they are. For example, if the art is about a Vishnu in Ananthasayana pose, then as an artist I would need to know who else would need to be there. Like Bhoo Devi, ShreeDevi, Sanakathi and so on. In some cases, there has been loss of up to 50-90% percent of the painting, in such cases, there would be no color left in the mural. In such cases, I spend time to understand what the subject or the theme or the story that was conveyed. Then I would plan on what the color scheme needs to be. So that way I restore it.
The next stage would be to identify the color scheme that has been used. Using the same color scheme, I just finish the needed touches for the restoration. What I mean by that is, I just look where the colors have possibly been peeled. I touch the colors in those places.
I am very sensitive to ancient history and I want to keep the sanctity of the art. I have found that people actually like it restored this way, as they can still find the old nature of the art and the mural and it is not completely new.
Wow! That is definitely some back breaking work. But I agree with you being sensitive to ancient history and preserving the original roots in the restoration efforts. Do you find instances where such standards are not followed?
Yes, unfortunately sometimes I have found out that some of the artists just completely whitewash the whole ancient artwork. They then create completely new ones in the new canvas. This is more of a renovation than restoration. In some cases, I have been asked to do something like that and I have put my foot down and not encouraged this kind of renovation. I have in fact only received positive feedback from people visiting the temples that I have restored. They feel the authenticity has been kept intact. Walls have history and they speak a story for sure in the cases of Kerala Murals (smiles)
There must be many old temples that possibly need restoration of the murals isn’t it? How different are the colors used then to now?
When we talk about colors to be used for restoration, we try to keep the colors as authentic as it originally was. Now the Archaeology department has its own guidelines which states to use water-based colors. However, I feel they framed this without prior knowledge of the murals and the fact that only natural colors are used. Murals do not use water-based colors and they do not last long. So, I follow what my teacher has taught me. Which is to use all-natural colors which I explained in detail earlier.
Can you give us some details on your VIVID corporation project?
It is a project in a place called Varkala. VIVID (VISION VARKALA INFRASTRUCTURE DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION), is a Kerala Government project. I was involved with the performing arts center. This setup is on the compound of an old palace. It is one of my favorite projects situated by the side of a beach. Shri. Adoor Gopalakrishnan Sir is one of the main advisors for this project. The performing center’s aim is to teach, learn and perform the various ancient performing arts so pristine to Kerala like Koodiyattom, Kathakali, Chakkyarkoothu, Mohiniyatoom, Thullal, Theyyam, Kalampattu, Thiruvathira, Markgamkali, Oppana. Also, another specialty is the fact that: Kavu, Kulam (Lotus Pond) – which have traditional as well as mythical backgrounds. In the “Kavu” – the serpent dance and snake worshipping folk arts forms will be presented. So, there is also protection of the serpents and snakes. In addition, the center will also have training and learning centers for Nalukettu, Koothambalam, Kavu, Kulam, Kalari
As you can see this is just going to be an amazing place and a destination for teachers, learners, performers and tourists as well. I was just thrilled when Sir reached out to me and asked me to paint the walls of the performing art center.
That does sound wonderful! Wow! How did your murals come to play in this?
So, the pit for Kalari is at a lower level. So, what I have done on the inside walls is using these murals to showcase in a learning tutorial visual of the 18 important adavaus (steps) and the vadivu meaning imitating the animal for the sounds. This is something unusual. You might find the visuals of a kalari move in the murals but what I was able to do here with the guidance and advice of Sir was to make this as a visual technical tutorial of these adavu and vadivu.
While Kalari was inside, the outside walls are complete black and white of scenes from Theyyam, kathakali.
Apart from this there is a tall structure resembling a tower. In Bharatanatyam there are 108 karanas. These are the poses that Lord Shiva as Nataraja performed. All of this is part of Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra – I have drawn all of these 108 Karana’s on this tower. It is just a fantastic piece of work. My team and I were able to wrap this entire project in 3-4 months’ time frame.
Wow! I am just completely in awe! I have to make a trip to Varkala just to see your murals and the grandness. It seems like it would be a complete one-day trip to have a feast to the eyes with the art and the performing arts!
With COVID everything has gone digital and online – How has this impacted the learning of Kerala Murals? Can people learn this remotely?
The entire world has been reeling under the pandemic. And artists I should say have not had it easy either. There would be periodic venues for art exhibitions and work based on commission etc. All of that has come to a standstill. While learning has gone digital, I have not gone teaching in the digital platform. However, I have been able to help or clarify doubts that come my way. But I have to say that the positive aspect to this slowdown has been the fact that we have been staying put at home and spending more time with family. Which was just very hard earlier due to all of the travel. I have been able to spend more time in my own gallery at home.
I own one of your magnificent creations, “Mahishasura Mardini”. The art on canvas has received so many compliments. How can people buy your artwork? Do you commission artwork based on what people want to hang in their homes?
I have had very good support from connoisseurs of art. Exhibitions have been a wonderful platform. Several governments as well as private ones. For example, in New Delhi the Ex Chief Minister Smt. Sheila Dixit had purchased a few pieces for her office. Similarly, there have been many people that have purchased. And when it hangs in an office space or home and such it gets noticed and people find out the name of the artist. Also, my work is showcased on the walls of the Mumbai International Airport, Grand Hyatt Mumbai, Imperial Hotel in New Delhi are some places to mention.
All of this has led to people finding out who the artist is, and they look it up on the internet, social media sometimes they contact me personally. I don’t mean to put down anyone but sales in the exhibitions, the artists don’t get paid all of the sale amount as there are commissions involved. Visiting an artist gallery and or working with any artist in person would generally be beneficial from a price point for the buyer as well and it also works well for the artist. But that said it is definitely nice that we have so many avenues such as exhibitions, social media for people to contact the artist. You can always visit my website: https://www.keralamurals.com/
Suresh – It has been such a pleasure talking with you. We have learnt a whole lot about the history of Kerala murals as well. Thank you so much for taking your time and sharing your thoughts with us. On behalf of JaggeryLit, we wish you all the very best. Thank you!!