Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Frescoes from Kerala

By K. V. Ramachandran

It was the writer's good fortune, in the course of a sojourn in the Cochin State, to light on the picture of a human figure, of superhuman size and proportion, singularly graceful of form and posture, with quadrangular face and lion torso, and arms that held strength in reserve but did not exhaust it in any specific manifestation, and nose and lips of winsome shapeliness, and eyes the most wistful and tender–the art-type, in a word, which Ajanta has familiarised us with, miraculously transferred to the walls of the Siva shrine at Trichur. The wonder was, there were frescoes of the same order of merit, and perhaps the same age, in greater numbers, at the neighbouring shrine at Tiruvanjikulam, the reputed capital of the early Cheras:–full length portraits, for instance, of what looked like the thirty-three Devas, spread over an entire wall; a king or god, on a divine steed, with the most exquisite arch of neck and beautifully caparisoned; a Venugopala ‘no elder than a boy’ of full sensuous lips, making, soft music on the flute, a bunch of comely women nestling close; a Rama gorgeously crowned and costumed, yet sad with the presentiment of a second separation; Sita smiling enigmatically, and Lakshmana looking far away, in thoughtful reverie–pictures enough, one felt, to make up a Brahminical Ajanta in miniature. It was the same haunting perfection of form as at Ajanta, the same unmistakable idiom, and magnificence of drapery and ornamentation, and spontaneity of disciplined expression; the same imaginative use of tone and tint, and intolerance of the obvious; the same passionate adoration of woman, through whom Beauty chose to reveal herself, and whose glances and turns of head and hand it was the duty of art to reproduce. The loveliness of woman is an eternal preoccupation with art, not only at Bagh or Ajanta or Belur and Bhuvanesvar, but also wherever Brahminical influences have prevailed, from Khotan to the ends of Indonesia.

A later group of pictures were at the Siva shrine at Trichur, dating from the 11th century, (if the inscription may be believed), subscribed by a Brahmin disciple of an Achyuta Variar, betraying signs of a fall from the idealism of the older series, but with a new compensating power of dramatic visualisation that lifted the Pauranic narrative to heights of creative interpretation. The series began with a coronation group of Rama, rather feeble in comparison with the older composition, but far above a similar group at Irinjalakuda–the ancestor of the conventional Rama group of the glass-painter and folk-art. The next was a Kuchela, regally welcomed and honored by Krishna, who is graciousness itself and unbends in terms of a supreme courtesy, but unfortunately, the hero has all but faded out of the composition. There were, in addition, a Lakshminarayan, a Narasimha, a Vishnu on the serpent couch, surrounded by the heavenly musicians–all considerably damaged, except for stray minor figures, and a vivid Prahlada in profile. The most powerful composition of the series, however, is the descent of a many-handed Narayana on Garuda, followed by a rain of paradisical flowers, as the gods adored the vision from a distance. Above this picture, a little to the right, is the outline of a woman in the middle of the dance movement called Karihasta, which the artist apparently did not live to complete. The outer walls of the three inner shrines were once lavishly painted over, since repainted and vulgarised by some ignorant renovator; the fane of Sankaranarayana, which has somehow escaped his attentions, retains views of the horse, elephant and chariot, discharging hails of arrows and fantastic missiles against a red -ground–the theme of a battle-scene, as vigorously handled as the war-reliefs at Angkor, though on a very much smaller scale. Here was an artist who was no admirer of repose, but revelled in action, of which he gave such spirited presentations.

Thus far, a hurried review of the material; it is not improbable that some of the minor identifications have to be revised, because the pictures have been reconstructed mostly from memory. The outlines published now relate to the older series; exigencies of space are responsible for the none-too-happy method of exhibiting them piecemeal, but it is hoped that the Cochin State would, before long, undertake preparation of faithful copies, with the help of painters who have specialised in this class of work, because the pictures are no mere local curiosities but relics of an art that counts votaries in every part of the world.

It will be noticed that this art, like every other Indian art, is conventional, in the sense that the convention is the limitation of Form, through which the artist revealed himself, a medium of expression, which, like the Raga, inspired, but did not cramp, and allowed freedom for an endless series of ever fresh presentations; it made no call on him to invent his medium, which tradition had already defined and perfected in the epic figure-types of Hamsa, Bhadra etc., and their feminine counterparts, in terms of which he had to express himself; or the strangely beautiful eyes resembling fish, neck modelled after the conch, and arms sinuous as the creeper and fingers more delicate than flowers, -of an aesthetic that recoiled from the anatomy of Life on account of its imperfections, and created its own, from the very material out of which Brahma fashioned Tilottama and in the very manner. It is clear that, here, as at Ajanta, the line is the principal means of expression, not descriptive or subsidiary, but definitive, vital–line that siezes everything, from the humblest flower or trinket to the massed girth of male anatomy, or the rounded breasts, attenuated waist and expansive hip of woman–line that has survived to this day in the ornamental scroll of the brazier, or floor decoration of the housewife, and whose importance the grammarian proclaimed, when he ranked it first among the resources of good painting and declared that it was beloved of the Masters; reinforced, as at Ajanta, by an unobtrusive, yet effective shading, and a color-technique that was realistic in its visions of the elephant and lotus and Nature generally, descriptive or classificatory when the burden was human, and symbolic in its treatment of the super-visual, but suggestive always and significant. Together with this fully-developed articulation, is evident an uncanny mastery of the laws of fore-shortening (Kshayavriddhi), and proportion (Pramana), and sensitiveness to visual appearance and optic effect, and precision in recapturing them, and intimate knowledge of Dance–its attitudes, movements and gestures, on which the visible arts were grounded, and from which they derived their true sustenance of rhythm. It is the alliance of Dance and the visible arts and the refinements of facial expression (Mukharaga) that lift Indian art to heights where neither Greece nor modern Europe dare follow.

Two kinds of painting there are: one renounces detail, and favours simplicity; its silence is more expressive than song, and space more eloquent than figure; the other pines for exuberance, that is Chopinian, and covets ornament as part of its very life, and bodies itself in it–a profusion that neither offends nor distracts, but pleases always. The Kerala pictures undoubtedly belong to the second class. Here are jewels that are no capricious superfluity, but integral parts of the figures and irremovable. In the sketches, these have been largely omitted, a deficiency we have attempted to make good by the reproduction of a bronze Dwarapalaka,1 from the Trichur Museum, as a classic example of the tendency. Witness the workmanship of the magnificent crown–the same kind as the Mahapurusha at Sittannavasal wears; or the complex scheme of pendants and clasps, and wreath of flower and leaf that undulate over the contours of flesh. Like-wise does the Kerala painter make raiment interpret body and tilt of earring, or crown accentuate the toss of head; likewise does he revel in decoration that is lavish, and which compels homage by its very luxuriance. One has to distinguish art like this where ornament is the symbol of vitality, and the artist has not learnt to curb his fancy but lets it spend itself as it would, from that mature art which is always more reticent and gets its effects by quite an opposite method, or that decadent art, as extravagant as futile.

But whence came the jewellery? The term Silpa meant cleverness, cunning, that inhered in works of art, and it was stretched to include the arts themselves, which revealed the quality. The arts were many and included, in addition to the arts of dancer, musician, carver, painter and architect, those of the worker in bronze, inlayer, garland maker, goldsmith and even the humble potter and weaver. The many-crested crown, necklace, bracelet, girdle, anklet, etc., minutely described by Bharata and Kasyapa, were the perfected handiwork of the master-jeweler, and all that the visible artist had to do was to transfer them to his figures–an instance of one art lending its treasures to another; or perhaps it was the painter and sculptor who fashioned these in the first instance, which the gold-smith reproduced later, and it was perhaps Life, as Wilde said, that copied Art. In Kerala, at any rate, Life does copy Art, not only in the archaic jewellery and coiffure of the women, but in the women themselves, who are the nearest earthly approach to art-types and appear in truth to have stepped out of the frescoes. Whatever the origin of the ornaments, it is beyond dispute that they played an important part in the technique of the ancient painter, along with line and color, to which the author of the Chitra Sutras draws attention and reiterates by the naive axiom that ‘women preferred jewellery’, as contrasted with those who preferred Vartana (modelling) or those that were enslaved by color. But the Masters, as stated already, prized the line.

There is no doubt that there are a number of other old temples in Cochin and Travancore, containing paintings similar to these, but the writer has not had time to examine them; it would therefore be rash to generalise from the present limited data, but it may be safely asserted that, in the 11th century in Kerala, we are at the parting of ways: the classical art has reached its climax and commenced to race downhill and is becoming increasingly ‘popular’ till at last it merges indistinguishably in folk-art. The process is full of interest to the historian, in that it establishes the interconnection between the two schools; a similar process in all probability was responsible for the ‘popular’ paintings at Madura, Tanjore and other cities, an inference strengthened by the early Hindu poem Silappadikaram, which is familiar with the terminology of the classical painter, and a Paripatal, still more ancient perhaps, describing a portrait gallery at Tirupparankunram, which included, among others, the picture of an uprisen Ahalya. Certain it is that, during the golden age of Indian art, it was the universal practice to assign special walls for the use of the painter, who filled them with the choicest specimens of his art, that have survived in most disused temples; it is equally certain that, in temples not so abandoned and in ages when the classic art had been long forgotten, the same walls came to be covered by paintings of a less exalted range, as in almost every Hindu temple, except those which have, as in Kerala, been providentially spared.

From the foregoing, it is obvious that the modern view, that the art of painting was alien to the Hindu genius, which rather delighted in sculpture by preference, and that classical Indian painting was largely, if not exclusively, Buddhistic, requires to be seriously reconsidered. The discovery of early paintings–in the Hindu temples at Ellora and Kanchi conclusively proves that the painter's art was India's common heritage from very remote periods of her history, which Buddhism along with Jainism shared in, though neither of them originated it.2 This art was, like sculpture or architecture, primarily an art that sought an imaginative mode of presentation instead of merely copying Life, and with a medium of expression as elaborately refined as the Sanskrit language, and that did not vary with the localities in which it was practised, and which voiced Brahminism no less than Buddhism or Jainism. Dynastic or chronological terms like Gupta, Pallava or Chalukya, while they fail to illuminate the art to which they are applied, have successfully created an impression that Indian art is a babel of confusing traditions, a veritable forest of school and style! Thus has modern scholarship obscured the essential unity and homogeneity of Indian art. But the truth is, there is only one school of Indian classical art, and its creations are not confined to anyone age or clime and are met with right up to the end of the Hindu period. And, as at Ajanta, this art was never preponderantly religious but accepted any motif, holy or lay: the austere renunciation of Bhagavan Buddha, no less than the riotous life of sense and courtly pomp of the hedonistic Andhra or Vakataka kings.

Note. -Itis with diffidence, and hesitation considerable, that the outlines are published, because one at least of the drawings has undergone mysterious transfiguration in the hands of the block-maker. The Indian reader cannot do better than visit the places which are within easy reach and judge for himself.

1 See the Frontispiece.

2 Additional proof is forthcoming from an unexpected quarter; Mr. Govindaswamy of Annamalai University reports discovery of Chola paintings on the inner walls of the big temple, Tanjore.

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