Ravaged murals

Published : Aug 15, 2008 00:00 IST

Paintings of the Vijayanagar and Nayaka periods have been vandalised in temples across Tamil Nadu owing to official apathy.

Paintings of the Vijayanagar and Nayaka periods have been vandalised in temples across Tamil Nadu owing to official apathy.

SOME exquisite mural paintings that adorned Tamil Nadus temples are lost thanks to neglect and state-sponsored vandalism. These treasures, belonging mostly to the Vijayanagar and Nayaka periods (14th to 17th century), have been whitewashed or sandblasted in the name of temple renovation or kumbhabhishekam (a consecration ritual). Officials of the State Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR and CE) Department have allowed the whitewashing or sandblasting of the murals to present a clean surface to devotees. What is even more appalling is that they justify the acts, which disregard the canons of art conservation, by claiming that devotees do not like to see faded paintings.

In what conservationists describe as a classic example of murder of art, these paintings are reportedly repainted by signboard artists who merrily use modern poster-colours to re-create them. The State Archaeology Department used artists who are not familiar with the conservation or restoration of ancient murals to repaint the murals found on the ceiling of the Trilokyanatha (Jaina) temple at Tiruparuttikunram near Kancheepuram. As a result, the murals now dazzle in bright colours.

In some cases, it is ignorance that has led to the neglect of these works of art. Soot from oil lamps settles over the murals; electrical cables and switchboards are installed over them; or cracked ceilings allow water and sunlight to seep in and spoil the murals.

The temples where the few surviving murals have been mindlessly whitewashed include the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, the Arunachaleswara temple in Tiruvannamalai, the Siva-Vishnu temple at Tiruvellarai near Tiruchi, the Varadarajaswamy temple in Kancheepuram, the Siva temple at Tiruvalanchuzhi near Darasuram, another Siva temple at Pattiswaram near Darasuram and the Lakshminarasimhar temple at Sevilimedu near Kancheepuram.

Dr. David Shulman, an Indologist who has studied mural paintings of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, said: The problem is very urgent. If action is not taken immediately these treasures of Tamil Nadu, which are part of the national heritage, will disappear. Shulman, a scholar in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit literature and arts, is shocked that the 17th century masterpieces about Muchukunda Chakravarthi on the ceiling of Devasiriya mandapa in the Thyagarajaswamy temple at Tiruvarur have suffered from shameful neglect.

He said: They are masterpieces of South Indian painting. The ceiling of the Devasiriya mandapa is in miserable condition. The mandapa has a special place in the history of Tamil Saiva literature. That is where Sundaramurthy Nayanar [Saivite saint-composer] had a vision of all the 63 Nayanmars [Saivite saints].

Today, people are using it as a godown. It is filled with all kinds of junk, logs, rusting nails and even dead rodents. It is a terrible situation. Shulman is currently Professor, Department of Indian, Iranian, and Armenian Studies, Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

Prof. G. Chandrasekaran, Principal, Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai, suggested that organisations such as the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) should consult tradition-oriented artists before taking up conservation of existing murals.

Palaces, forts, colonial bungalows, monasteries and churches in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir and Goa face similar defacement.

A four-day international seminar titled Painting Narratives: Mural Painting Traditions in the 13th-19th centuries, held near Chennai from January 23 to 27, focussed on the magnitude of the problem. The Madras Craft Foundation, Chennai, its heritage museum DakshinaChitra, and INTACHs Indian Council of Conservation Institutes (ICCI), Lucknow, organised the seminar.

The participants presented papers on a range of topics such as Nayaka Murals in Tamil Nadu, Wall Decorations in the Juna Mahal of Dungarpur, Rajasthan, Lingering Traces, Rising Concerns: 12 noon thoughts on the surviving murals in Punjab and the issues they raise, The Matrix of Mural Tradition in Kerala, Mural Techniques of Medieval Tamil Nadu, Murals from Sri Kurmam, Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh, The Tradition of Wall-painting in Kutch, Gujarat, 18th-20th Century Murals in the Tamil Area, and The Murals of Ladakh, Spiti and Kinnaur (Himachal Pradesh). It was a composite seminar where art historians, archaeologists, conservationists, photographers and academicians participated.

Dr. R. Nagaswamy, former Director of the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, pointed to the existence of hundreds of painted, wooden sculptures in temples. The temples have vahanas (vehicles) for deities which are painted elaborately. Village deities such as Ayyanars are also painted in rich colours.

O.P. Agrawal, Director-General, INTACH-ICCI, and Dr. B.N. Goswamy, Professor Emeritus, Department of Fine Arts, Panjab University, Chandigarh, underscored the need to prepare an inventory of all the surviving murals in India. This list would help in undertaking immediate conservation efforts. Our country is full of wall paintings. In every State, there are hundreds of [wall] paintings, which are not so well known, but [are] equally important. Earlier, people thought that there were no murals in Uttar Pradesh except in two or three sites. But we discovered large numbers of murals in the State, said Agrawal.

Goswamy said a national register of murals was under preparation but the magnitude of the work involved was staggering. An exhaustive list would help reduce the problem of identifying what can be saved and what cannot, he said. In South India, mural paintings are found mostly in temples which are still used for worship. There are about 35,000 temples in Tamil Nadu. Of them, 10,000 are important ones. The estimate of temples where murals are found varies from 40 to 75.

K.T. Gandhirajan, who has studied murals in 35 temples in Tamil Nadu over a period of six years, said: In Tamil Nadu, the mural paintings have a long, rich and continuous tradition, originating from the Pallava period to the Nayaka period. There are patches of paintings in an unfinished cave temple at Mamandur near Kancheepuram. Even in the niches of the Shore Temple at Mamallapuram, you can see patches of paintings. Besides, Arjunas Penance, the largest bas-relief in the world, was originally painted. The best example of the Pallava tradition of painting is available at the Kailasanatha temple in Kancheepuram, where there are small paintings of Somaskanda in the kulikas.

Pandya period (9th century A.D.) murals are found at Sittannavasal near Pudukottai. Those of the Chola period (11th century A.D.) exist in the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur, the Vijayala Choliswara temple at Naarthamalai near Pudukottai and at Tirupulivaram near Uttiramerur. It was during the Vijayanagar and Nayaka periods that the art of painting in temples in Tamil Nadu flourished. Most of the murals in the State belong to the Vijayanagar and Nayaka periods. A few belong to the Maratha period of the 18th century.

S. Subbaraman, who retired as Superintending Archaeological Chemist from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Hyderabad, explained why it was important to preserve these paintings: These mural paintings are not only great works of art but serve a historical purpose by throwing light on contemporary society through dresses, ornamentation, hairstyle, musical instruments, arms and armoury, and a host of other details depicted in them. Some of the murals are about actual historical events such as battles, trading and missionary activities, although the great majority of them deal with mythological themes, including the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Bhagavatha. A comparative study of the styles and techniques in different periods can take us through the process of development of the art of mural painting at different stages in the past.

What happened to the paintings on the short wall around Pottramaraikulam (pond of the golden lotus) at the Meenakshi temple in Madurai borders on the quixotic. The murals belonged to the Nayaka period and portrayed episodes from Tiruvilayadal Puranam, that is, the holy games played by Siva to test the devotion of his devotees and his rewarding of them. The vandalisation of these murals took different turns: first, they were copied on wooden planks that were fixed on the original paintings. The planks with new paintings were subsequently removed and kept in the thousand-pillared mandapa. In the mid-1990s, temple administrators whitewashed the murals. Then they remembered the wooden planks with copied paintings. So artists were engaged to repaint the murals on the plank.

The officials turned their attention now to the whitewashed wall. They employed an artist from Kerala to repaint the murals on the wall. The repainted murals resemble neither the style found in Tamil Nadu nor that of Kerala, commented an art historian. The repainting work is incomplete.

In total violation of conservation norms, the State Archaeology Department repainted the 14th and 17th century murals on the ceiling of the Trilokyanatha temple at Tiruparuttikunram. The repainting was done allegedly by untrained artists. These murals tell the life-story of the Jaina Tirthankaras Vrishabhanadha, Neminatha and Mahavira and depict the Krishna Leela because in Jaina mythology, Krishna is related to Neminatha. Shulman called the repainting of the Tiruparuttikunram murals a disaster.

He said, The paintings have been ruined by overpainting. This is quite a common thing in Tamil Nadu. If you repaint it instead of conserving it, the subtlety will be lost, the old colours will be lost. This is disaster. These paintings have to be preserved as they were at their height. The way people do it in Europe.

Gandhirajan likened the repainting of murals to doing an eye surgery. He said: Only experts can do that. The State government should give up repainting the faded murals because there are not enough trained artists to do the work. Instead it can use the resources to conserve them.

The 16th century murals at the Siva-Vishnu temple at Tiruvellarai are lost because they have been whitewashed. They dealt with episodes from the Ramayana. At the Siva temple at Pattiswaram, paintings were sandblasted in 1998 in the name of cleaning the surfaces on which they were painted. They portrayed Siva providing a palanquin studded with pearls to the Saivite saint Thirugnana Sambandar because he could not bear to see his devotee walking in the sun.

Another series of paintings narrated the tale of a mythical king who had no child but was blessed with one after praying to the deity at Pattiswaram. These paintings were also sandblasted.

At the Siva temple at Tiruvalanchuzhi near Pattiswaram, paintings belonging to the Vijayanagar period depicted the life-story of the Tamil Saivite saint Iyarpagai Nayanar. These masterpieces have been completely whitewashed, an art historian said.

The murals of the Lakshminarasimhar temple at Sevilimedu near Kancheepuram have also been whitewashed. Murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana found on the left wall of the first prakara of the Varadarajaswamy temple and at the mandapa opposite the unjal mandapa have suffered the same fate.

In a couple of cases, the whitewash could be peeled off to reveal the murals. Subbaraman, who devised a technique to strip the Nayaka murals painted over the Chola murals at the Brihadisvara temple, said, I had a rare opportunity of uncovering Vijayanagar period paintings of the 15th century, depicting Krishna Leela scenes, on the two opposite walls near the entrance to the Varadarajaswamy temple, by removing the overlying lime-wash very carefully, inch by inch, some 17 years ago. It was a highly rewarding experience to see the beautiful paintings emerge, bit by bit, from behind the whitewashed screen!

The ASIs Chemistry Branch, headed by Subbaraman, also exposed with painstaking effort the paintings in the cells at the Kailasanatha temple at Kancheepuram. Since mechanical removal is the only possible means of removing the whitewash, it had to be done with great patience, not just skill, he observed. It was also exciting to unravel the massive painting of the Vijayanagar period at Lepakshi in Andhra Pradesh by removing the thick soot covering it. A ten-handed, highly ornamented figure of Veerabhadra, 16 feet in length, all but invisible under the thick layer of soot, made a spectacular reappearance in all its details and bright colour, when the soot was removed, said Subbaraman.

Officials of the Arunachaleswara temple at Tiruvannamalai whitewashed exquisite paintings at ezhuthu mandapa depicting stories from the Ramayana and Kandapuranam. A more cruel fate awaited the murals about Krishna Leela on the ceiling of a corridor in the same temple. They were whitewashed and sandblasted.

How can these murals be preserved? The key to the solution lies in creating an awareness among the temple officials and the devotees on the value of these murals. Dr. T. Satyamurthy, former Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, said his experience was that while the public always cooperated, it is the temple administrators who were a problem. At the Srirangam temple, Satyamurthy said, the paintings on a ceiling were whitewashed by a group of [temple] trustees.

Satyamurthy, who is one of the founders of REACH, a Chennai-based non-governmental organisation set up to conserve heritage sites, said the organisation would undertake a project to conserve more than 200 paintings in the 13th century Sathya Vageeswara temple at Kalakkad in Tirunelveli district. He calls the murals found on the inner walls of each of the nine tiers of the temple gopuram an amazing art gallery.

The animation in these murals is so superb that they look like modern visuals. The rishis are shown wearing many types of headgear. Some of the murals have labels belonging to the 17th century, he said. The inner walls of the tiers were first covered with lime plaster on which drawings were first made and then the murals were done with vegetable colours and minerals.

He discovered the paintings when the temple committee approached him for the conservation of the gopuram. The paintings depict scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and Tiruvilayadal Puranam, among other Puranic themes.

Agrawal underlined the need to create public awareness. Echoing his views were Subbaraman, who said, Creating awareness about the importance of the murals among the temple officials and the devotees is a primary concern. He suggested that the ASI be made responsible for preserving the murals at sites under its control.

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