The colors which you use on the walls for the murals are obtained from nature and that’s again one of the wondrous highlights of the Kerala murals. Which are the essential materials used to form the 5 colors?
We essentially use minerals for the colors. However, the color blue is extracted from the leaves of the medicinal plant called Neelamari. The underside of these leaves have a bluish hue which we extract. For yellow and red we collect stones and mud that come in the same color and then we grind it into a fine paste. In fact we literally hunt for places that have these colored stones and mud. We collect these over time to make the paste, which again is a process of its own as we have to sieve it nearly 5-6 times to remove the impurities and then let it dry in a cool place and not under the sun. It takes many days to complete this whole process. The colors made are kept in earthen pots as flake bits. The color black is made from burning oil, to which we add some amount of wood gum too. For white we use white lime.
The brushes used are different again from that of the normal brushes. How so?
We use a certain kind of grass to make the brushes. We need three bushes each for the 5 different colors- a pointed one, a medium and a thicker one, to do the painting on the walls. All these facts such as the brushes for the colors are all mentioned in Vishnu Dharmothara Puranam. Unlike normal paintings, we apply dots on the outline of the picture to do the shading work and this takes considerable amount of time to finish the picture.
Do you need to prepare the walls before you start painting on it?
Yes of course. It’s a huge process, and takes many days to prepare the base wall. First you need to prepare the walls giving a fine dusting down with sand and then applying a fairly good coating of white lime and a certain amount of wood gum. After the walls dry, you need to wash it with jaggery water -a coarse dark brown sugar obtained from the sap of palm trees. Next, you need to apply another coating of white lime, after which you need to smoothly rub the walls with butter soft slacked lime mixed with tender coconut water. This needs to be redone nearly 8 times, each time after the walls dry. It’s after all this basic preparation that you start drawing the outline of the picture using yellow paint.
Sir, you are indeed the “Curator of Kerala Murals”, for the many number of centuries old Kerala mural paintings you preserved rather than let it destroy due to age. You started this way back in 1986, while doing the restoration and repainting of mural works in Guruvayoor temple. Can you tell us more about it?
In 1970, a raging temple fire nearly destroyed almost all the mural paintings in Guruvayoor temple. Three of us, M.K Sreenivasan, Soman and me, traced all what was left of the paintings inside the temple. The paintings were literally in scraps and most of it was falling off. We traced all the paintings using tracing paper and then added other details to it like the combination of colors used, the ornaments, the flowers and the fauna and so on to each painting. We compiled the tracings into a file and gave it to the temple administrative office. The repainting of the lost art was started only in 1986 though and by then most of what was left of the paintings was nearly flakes. It was at that time that I developed this idea of preserving whatever was left of the old murals. There were only 3 paintings we could save of what was left. The rest were almost completely destroyed and by then repainting work had started. We used certain chemicals to peel of the paintings and then mounted them on to special frames, a wall like surface we developed and framed it. And then you can say this process of preservation started to grow in me. As of now, my team and I have managed to preserve 114 ancient mural works across Kerala. We scout for temples where such old mural works exist. Mostly it’s during the time of temple renovations that people inform us about the old murals which are there.