Department of Cultural Affairs, Government of Kerala

Evolutionary History

Before becoming a modern state, Kerala had a very long history of social unrest that lasted several centuries due to the constant wars and bickering between local fiefdoms which Kerala was till the 19th century. Focusing largely on wars and protection of territory, the chieftains and kings of Kerala seem not to have found enough time and space to promote visual artists that needed preservation of the tangible objects. As art has always been seen as a part of the religious and textual realities and fantasies, the promotion of religious spaces as temples, later in churches of Kerala, automatically reserved some space for visual art not only in terms of embellishment but also in terms of imparting the moral lessons through visual modes. The early sculptures in Kerala too are found as intricately connected to the general designs of the architecture done in permanent and impermanent materials. The social hierarchy was so strong that the houses of stone were reserved for Gods and His representatives (Brahmins), wooden houses for the Kshatriyas and the clay houses for the Vaishyas and huts for the Soodras or the downtrodden. Hence, it is logical to see art only in the religious structures as they were permanent in nature and had enough ‘wall space’ to accommodate ‘art’. The people who belonged to the lower rungs of the society satisfied their need for art and beauty by practicing folk art, which are intangible, impermanent and performative in nature.  It took a social revolution over a period of time, through both education and struggle, to change this world view and to spread art as something that could be practiced and enjoyed by all equally.

What happened to the guilds that painted the mural paintings on the temple and palace walls remains a question yet to be answered. Though the tradition is continued through the efforts of the late Mammiyoor Krishnankutty Nair and various institutes established both in the government and private sector to promote mural art, we do not know whether the artists who worked in the ancient murals till the arrival of the colonial masters including the Dutch, French and the British in Kerala, continued to do so or got absorbed into the new art styles forwarded by the colonial masters. If we use the logic that worked in the education and practice of the ritual arts and other temple arts like Kathakali and Thullal, we could say that most of the artists were from the farming class and they practiced art forms only when their farm work was over and done with for the year. That means, the painters also might have come from the same working or farming class and with the dissipation of the patronage, they might have gone back to their farms and menial craft jobs. Historical evidences tell us that though the British introduced a new art education system in India in order to revive the crafts tradition and impart modern technical education to the craftspeople in India, it was the Princes and Princesses who became ‘painters and artists’ in the modern sense as we see in Raja Ravi Varma and other painters of his time. Also we see that most of the painters who got a name in the history of visual arts in Kerala in the early 20th century hailed from the upper classes/castes. This again shows that the artists who practiced art independently came into being because they could ‘afford’ to do it as a vocation or hobby.

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