Preserving traditional strokes, the couple style
Seated amidst an assortment of paintings, books and paintbrushes, artists K Shyamalakumari and G Azhikode are more than happy to retell the tale of their association with one of the most graceful yet painstaking art forms: mural paintings. These paintings, portraying tales of Hindu mythology and folklore, are composed of intricate details and carefully calculated symmetry, paying attention to b
KOCHI:Seated amidst an assortment of paintings, books and paintbrushes, artists K Shyamalakumari and G Azhikode are more than happy to retell the tale of their association with one of the most graceful yet painstaking art forms: mural paintings. These paintings, portraying tales of Hindu mythology and folklore, are composed of intricate details and carefully calculated symmetry, paying attention to both pose and story depicted. Therefore, mural paintings are anything but mere nebulous sketches.
Over the past couple of decades, Shyamalakumari and Azhikode have carved a niche for themselves in this field having displayed their works at various cultural centres and exhibitions in India. Most of the mural artists in the city today are their disciples. They are among the few artists who, even in the era of contemporary art, still promote and preserve the traditional flavour and style of mural paintings. Moreover, they have been instrumental in reviving and popularising the art form in Kerala.
Maintaining the traditional style of mural paintings, as they do, is indeed a Herculean task: starting from cleaning of the wall to sourcing stones and roots to extract pigments, everything requires manual labour. Traditional mural paintings use only five shades - Indian red, yellow ochre, sap green, indigo and lampblack - all extracted from natural ingredients. Furthermore, conventionally dot shading is done, which is much more time-consuming than the simple colour wash.
Commenting on his initial phase in this field, Azhilode says, “I trained under the famous Mammiyoor Krishnankutty Nair who was very passionate about preserving this art form. Many of my colleagues left painting and pursued government jobs, as mural paintings had no scope back then. However, due to the efforts of my guru, the art form prevailed and we have carried on his legacy.”
Azhikode, also a member of Kerala Lalit Kala Academy, has penned several books on fine arts and is currently working on a book documenting 50 years of Kerala's art history.
Noteworthy in this respect is also the growth of K Shyamalakumari as an artist during this period. She holds a diploma in Fine Arts. Learning the art of mural painting from her husband, she came to the forefront at a time when the field was entirely male-dominated. “Considering the social scenario of the late 1900s, there were no female artists in this field. Women would not show interest in drawing wall paintings not just because of the stereotypes involved but also because it was physically exhausting to stand for hours together at an elevation and draw sharp details," says Shyamalakumari.
She became the first female artist to work inside a temple, in 2003, the then titular Maharaja of Travancore Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma invited them to refurbish the wall of the Navaratri Mandapam of the legendary Padmanabhaswamy Temple with mural paintings, impressed by Doordarshan's documentary on the couple and their work. The duo catapulted to fame after this work, which received considerable media coverage back then. The 110 square feet depiction of Mahabharata’s “Vishwaroopam” in the South Zone Cultural Centre in Tanjavoor is also one of their most noted works.
Post this, Shyamalakumari, particularly, was praised for her works exhibited at the SAARC Trade Fair in Bangladesh. She had also conducted a twenty-day mural teaching workshop in Wayanad, which later empowered more than twenty families who now sell mural painted bamboo articles, sarees, keychains etc, for a livelihood.
Her journey from then until now has been quite remarkable, with her latest accolade being the Nari Shakthi Puraskar. This award, constituted by the Government of India in 1991, recognises the efforts of individuals and organisations that have been exemplary in the area of women’s empowerment and have contributed to tackling women’s issues. Shyamalakumari, being a trailblazer for women in this field, was honoured with the award in 2017 by President Ram Nath Kovind.
Even today, their works are much in demand as they draw murals retaining the characteristic features of the traditional art form. In addition to this, they also take painting classes at their residence.