The earthy shades of crimson and sienna complemented by ochre, Prussian blue and sap green adorn the outer walls of the Pazhassi Raja Smriti Mandiram at Pazhassi near Mattannur. Narrating the story of the Pazhassi Raja (1753-1805), these are 22 Kerala-style murals spread over an area of 1,000 sq ft at the structure built as the ruler’s memorial by the municipality. Inaugurated in 2015, the building housed no relics or memorabilia connected to the warrior prince. So, former municipality chairman K Bhaskaran came up with this idea to portray his life through art.
“We only had a few letters about the king and that too in a 200-year-old language. We thought art would be good way to connect people to the history. Renowned artist K K Marar assisted us in shortlisting a few accomplished artists to carry out this task,” Bhaskaran says.
Finally, K R Babu and his team of seven mural artists were chosen to accomplish the task that was completed within 17 days. “The work might have taken only a little over two weeks but the preparation had started a couple of months before,” says the Kozhikode-based artist. And the mandiram was thrown open to public in July.
The building has been constructed on a platform supported by pillars driven into a huge pond, which is believed to be an integral part of the Pazhassi Fort before its demolition by the British.
A detailed study had to be done about the life and accomplishments of the king. The group read history books and had discussions with historians. “We had to understand the enigma called Pazhassi, hence we also interacted with the locals who had a number of folklores to recount,” says the 50-year-old.
Looking back, Babu says that it felt like it would be a cumbersome task to sketch out the life of a king who is reverred and immortalised. “A number of events in Pazhassi Raja’s life and struggle for freedom were brought up, but we had to fine-tune them. What we have now is a condensed synopsis,” he says.
The sequence starts with a painting of the Muzhakkunnu Mridanga Shaileshwari Temple—the family temple of the Kottayam royal family—and the early life of Kerala Varma where he is a martial arts disciple at the Pindari kalari. Events that led to his rise as Pazhassi Raja are depicted in the next few paintings. Then there is a painting in which the Raja of Kottayam is fleeing to Travancore as a result of the siege by the Mysore Army under Haider Ali, followed by the one showing conflict with the colonisers that led to a guerrilla war from the forests of Wayanad.
The northern walls of the building highlight the collapse of the resistance led by Pazhassi and his death. “Painting the death of the king was most difficult because there are three versions of how he died,” says Babu. One version says he swallowed the diamond on his ring, the second was that he shot himself and the last was that he was shot dead by the British. “We had to choose one of the three. However, after discussions we came to a conclusion that we have to pacify all the three sections. So, the death is just shown with minimalistic colours,” explains Babu.
Another difficult part for the artists was painting demolition of the Pazhassi Fort. “We were so immersed in the life events of the king that the final few pictures were an emotional upheaval. While painting the king’s death and breaking down of the fort, the atmosphere was sombre and it was like we were bidding adieu to one of the prominent rulers who ignited the sparks of freedom struggle in the minds of people,” says Babu.
Walking around the memorial, one is transported to the bygone era. And the air in the sleepy village of Pazhassi comes alive with the centuries-old call to victory, ‘hail the King Pazhassi’.
Who is pazhassi
Born as Kerala Varma on January 3, 1753, Pazhassi Raja was one of the earliest freedom fighters in India. He was a warrior prince and de facto head of the kingdom of Kottayam. His struggles with the British East India Company is known as the Cotiote War. He was the only person to defeat Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.