Date:02/04/2006 URL:
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Vanishing wall paintings


Neglect and insensitivity have taken their toll on the 17th century Nayak murals, spread across 35 temple sites in Tamil Nadu.

LOST NARRATIVES: Panels of Nayak paintings from Srirangam. PHOTOS: A. SRIVATHSAN

A PLACE under the temple gopuram, partly sunk under the street and with a dusty road at the eyelevel is not our idea of a tailor shop. But to Mani and his wife in Srirangam, this 12 sq. ft. shop comes cheap and, if it is any consolation, has the best view of the 17th Century mural paintings on the ceiling. If you want to have a good look at the painting, you have to step down into their shop, crouch between two sewing machines and look up between the vehicles that whiz past. Even then, you may not get to see the splendour of colours or the figures of the paintings. These 17th Century Nayak paintings were once brightly painted and splendidly detailed, but they are now covered with soot and moss. To add to the woes, electrical lines are anchored on the painting and tube lights fixed right in the centre of the panel.

To some, heritage seems worthy only if it is ancient. In India, any art or architecture that is less than two hundred years old does not seem to draw attention unless it is colonial. While ancient and medieval art have been extensively looked at and cared for, the post-15th Century art languishes. One of the worst cases of neglect is the murals of the Nayak period in Tamil Nadu.

The Nayaks were military generals appointed by the Vijayanagar kings. They were located in Madurai, Vellore, Ginjee and Thanjavur to administer the vast territory. When the Vijayanagar kings were decimated in the battle of Talikota in 1565 C.E., these generals became powerful and autonomous. They ruled the many kingdoms till the end of the 18th century.

Signifcant contributions

The Nayaks made many contributions to the art and architecture of Tamil Nadu. The most significant of them are the sculpture-columns and labelled murals. Prof. Balusami, who is currently involved in the documentation and analysis of Nayak paintings, estimates that there are hundreds of murals spread across 35 temple sites. Well-known amongst them are Srirangam, Chidambaram and Kanchipuram. But there are hosts of lesser-known places like Tittakudi, Thirupudaimaruthur and Natham.

The word "mural" takes its meaning from the Latin root murus which means wall. It is used as a prefix to distinguish wall paintings from others. Traditional Indian texts has a three-fold classification: bhumika, bhitti and prastara — floor, wall and ceiling respectively. Murals in South India, for that matter in India, are not the fresco type of paintings. The term fresco usually refers to the buon fresco, or "true fresco", where colours mixed with water are painted directly on wet plaster. When the plaster dries the painting becomes part of the structure. The other is called fresco secco, or "dry fresco". The painting is made on a dry plastered surface. Here, the painting, though done on a wall, is a separate layer and not as permanent as the true fresco. Most of the Indian murals, including the Ajanta murals, are painted on dry plaster.

Nayak murals are on various themes. In a few places, they illustrate stories from the Puranas. In a few others it is the temple festival. In temples like Srirangam and Chidambaram, the origins and the plan of the temple are drawn. Hagiographical accounts of saints and processional vehicles of the temple are also frequently painted.

Tending towards a folk style

Nayak paintings tend to be folk in style. The human figures do not seem to follow classical proportions. Men appear with potbellies and almost real-like. They are also excessively decked with ornaments. In a few paintings, the figures have their eyes extended in a peculiar way, jutting out of the profile. The trees and foliage are kept simple and the background kept minimal. The story is narrated in a series of panels, separated from each other and laid in sequence. Most of the paintings carry either Tamil or Telugu labels. The sequencing and layout of the panels appear like filmstrips ready to roll.

These paintings were done on fine plastered lime wall. The brick or stone surface were plastered in two layers. The top-most layer was finished fine and the painting was done after the plaster dried. Vegetable and mineral colours were used along with vegetable gum for binding. The brushes were presumed to be bristles made from banyan roots.

Substantial damage

Most of these paintings have been damaged substantially. The worst affected are the ones on the ceilings. Dr. Jeyaraj, Curator, Chemical Conservation and Research Lab, Madras Museum, attributes four reasons for the damage: salt action, abrasion, smoke from rituals and moss created by the dust and humidity. The salt action is due to water seepage through the gaps in the stone ceiling. Abrasion results when the paintings are cleaned using hard brooms or sand blasting.

But, insensitivity and neglect cause the maximum damage. Many temples and their administrators are not aware of the value of the paintings they posses. At times, temples resort to white wash as a quick method of cleaning up. This damages the painting for good. Recently, the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department has taken initiatives to educate their executive officers about the heritage value of these paintings. What need to be followed are a detailed inventory and a conservation plan.

Restoring these murals would amount to restoring art to the public realm. In a world where art is something one buys, pubic art such as these are precious not only for their historical value but also for what they can do — enthrall, entertain and inform a larger public.

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