KOCHI: Saju Thuruthil is the first Malayali artist to acquire a doctorate in Kerala mural paintings. Tête-à-tête reaches out to the artist, who is the head of mural painting department and assistant professor at Sree Sankara Sanskrit University, Kalady
Nestled on the banks of Periyar, amid coconut trees and Chinese fishing nets, the artist residency cum gallery Art and Mind is one of a kind. Its founder Saju Thuruthil is sat in the gallery downstairs, surrounded by many paintings, speaking about his recent achievement — completing a doctorate in Kerala’s mural arts.
“It was a long journey. I wanted to start my thesis and complete the doctorate for many years. But not many places offer it in our country. Finally, five years ago, I was able to join Kerala Kalamandalam for my research,” says Saju. However, after starting his research on the subject, he found it was an enormous task. “There aren’t many materials or books available for reference. There are, maybe around 50 books on Kerala mural arts that offer information. But the subject remains vast and mainly untouched,” says Saju, who has an experience of more than 30 years as an artist.
He visited around 1,000 temples, seven churches and numerous palaces in Kerala with traditional mural paintings. As a thesis cannot include them all, he picked five such places — the Mattancherry Palace, Pazhoor temple, St. Mary’s Orthodox Church in Angamaly, St George Orthodox Church in Cheppad and Elamkunnapuzha Temple. “Everyone knows about Mattancherry Palace and the incredible murals there. But Pazhoor Temple, which is not very far from it, is not found in many books. The works there are also equally important and detailed. If we only take into account places that are already famous and easy to reach, many such works will be lost to us,” the veteran artist says.
Saju traced the life of his teacher Mammiyoor Krishnankutty Nair to get an idea of the history of mural arts. “The craft was passed on to him from his teacher, who in turn got it from his teacher. That’s how information and practice of mural paintings were passed on. As such, there are not many written records,” Saju says. His thesis on Kerala Mural Paintings and the Concept of Beauty is the first research document dedicated to the subject.
“I used to paint since I was in school. But studying it was never part of my plan. After I finished school, one fine day, a friend asked me whether I plan to study painting. He said there is an ad in the paper about a mural institute in Guruvayoor. The next day, he gave it to my mother. The national diploma course of five years offered selected 10 students a stipend of `250. So we set out to Guruvayoor and after the test, I was selected. That’s how I became a student of the first batch at the Institute of Mural Painting by Guruvayoor Devaswom in 1989. We were all taught by Mammiyoor Krishnankutty, the founder of the institute,” says Saju.
The idea was to make murals out of the temples and make them more accessible to the public.
Soon after he completed the course, he got the opportunity to restore the traditional and historical mural paintings in temples across the state. He has worked at 12 temples in and outside Kerala.
When Saju decided to build a home in Kalady, he wanted to add a gallery space there. “I built a residential gallery in my home in 2000. Anyone can visit and view my works here. This was the first residential gallery in Kerala,” Saju says. Currently, Saju is working on creating a mural work on a poem by K Ayyappa Paniker. Previously he has completed works inspired by O V Vijayan’s Khasakinte Ithihasam, a mammoth painting of the complete Ramayana etc. The majestic mural work of Vishnumoorthy theyyam at Kannur International Airport is also a work of Saju.