Archive for March, 2013

Paintings that Critique Culture and History: The Subversive Visual Narratives of Chitrakaran T Murali

// March 28th, 2013 // No Comments » // Cultural Politics

Vernacularising the Viratpurusha: Krishna by Chitrakaran T Murali

Vernacularising the Viratpurusha: Krishna by Chitrakaran T Murali

A cowherd is playing the flute, leaning onto a human like buffalo.  The Channar woman with a brave heart defends herself against the heinous attackers who try to strip her in public.  The cosmic dance of the lord is done over a dark and animalized body of the racial and religious other.  A woman cuts off her breasts as the monarchy and priestly patriarchy sit dumb.  The shadow of a modern sage is rendered as the image of an ancient reformer.  The images and visual narratives in the paintings of Chitrakaran T Murali are articulate and contrapuntal.

The legacy of Ram Rajya:  The Murder of Sambuka by Chitrakaran

The legacy of Ram Rajya: The Murder of Sambuka by Chitrakaran

Murali’s paintings have emerged as serious cultural critiques of Kerala history and society in myriad ways.  Through the visual depiction of hegemony and cultural elitism in subversive ways on the canvas in acrylic and mixed media his art practice and unique political aesthetics have provided a vantage and perspective for critically and ethically rethinking the past and present of Kerala and its composite culture.

Cosmic dance and Sarwajna Peedham:  Glorified slavery by Chitrakaran

Cosmic dance and Sarwajna Peedham: Glorified slavery by Chitrakaran

T Murali hailing from Malapuram district of Kerala became renowned as Chitrakaran or the painter through his illustrations and drawings in various popular periodicals including the Matrubhumi group of publications.  Later he established his own art institution that deals with commercial art and advertisement in Kannur.  Along with this endeavors he has also successfully continued his creative and critical fine arts practice and has produced  dozens of canvases that specifically engage with the visual culture and social history of Kerala.

Change from Nanjinad and the resistance by women:  Channar Woman by Chitrakaran

Change from Nanjinad and the resistance by women at the wake of colonial modernity and missionary acts: Channar Woman by Chitrakaran

The critical content and counter hegemonic thrust of his paintings are remarkable and distinct.  Unlike the popular and celebrated artists who romanticized and exoticized the elite aspects and the Savarna visual imagery, Murali has scathingly critiqued and resisted the hegemonic hangover of Brahmanical and Savarna aspects of our semiology and cosmology.  His works strategically questioned and challenged the Vamana and Padaja  ideology and discourse in the cultural history and polity of Kerala.  He has also recovered defiant voices of resistance and subaltern speech in Kerala history like the sacrifice of Nangeli at the Mulachiparambu of Cherthala.

Bold act of an Avarna woman diminishes the grace of the Padmanabha: Sacrifice of Nangeli-I by Chitrakaran T Murali

Bold act of an Avarna woman diminishes the grace of the Padmanabha and his holy state Travancore: Sacrifice of Nangeli-I by Chitrakaran T Murali

Nangeli cut off both her breasts and presented it before the tax collector of the Travancore state in a plantain leaf before the lighted traditional lamp or Nila Vilaku in true conventional but subversive way.  This paramount sacrifice by a brave Avarna woman forced the caste ridden regime to withdraw its infamous Mula Karam or breast tax.  With extreme poise and subtle sensibility Murali has depicted this immortal act of talking back by the Ezhava woman in south central Kerala against priestly monarchy, caste feudalism and Brahmanic patriarchy.

Like Kannaki's act the breast sacrifice of Nangeli becoming a curse on the Travancore state, its kings and the priestocracy:  Sacrifice of Nangeli - II by Chitrakaran

Like Kannaki’s defiance the breast tax of Nangeli becoming a curse on the Travancore state, its kings and the priestocracy: Sacrifice of Nangeli – II by Chitrakaran

Chitrakaran has also visited the place in Chertala and has presented a replica of the painting to the relatives of Nangeli near Mulachi Parambu. It is also vital to remember that  Kandapan her husband who immolated himself in her pyre has also created another history as the first recorded incident of male Sati or widower sacrifice.  It is also remarkable that his paintings vernacularize the meta-narratives of Hindutva and provincialize the icons like Krishna.  His work on Kerala history presents Narayana Guru as a modern day Boddhisatva akin to Gautama Buddha, providing stark parallels to the verses of Sahodaran Ayyappan who coined the poetic phrase “Narayana Buddha” in early 20th century at the heyday of Kerala renaissance struggles.

Old and neo buddhas of Kerala; Yaga Vedic culture of Vamana ideology or Brahmanism taking over by cheating Maha Bali in the background:  History of Kerala by Chitrakaran

Old and neo buddhas of Kerala; Yaga-Vedic hegemonic culture of the Vamana ideology or Brahmanism taking over by cheating Maha Bali in the background; Kerala renaissance through Nanu Guru: History of Kerala by Chitrakaran

His visual critique of the cosmic dance of Siva that is done by stamping down a dark and dwarf demonic figure at the feet and the Travancore dynasty are insightful and enlightening.  Murali’s rendering and subaltern appropriation of the image of Krishna as a buffalo boy with a reed is illuminating and emancipating.  In such strategic subversion and iconic twists Chitrakaran educates and liberates the people in emancipating ways.  There are popular aspects of  mimicry, irony, caricature and visual satire in his strokes.  He improvises with tone and texture to create an appealing visual and formal effect in dexterous ways.

The hierarchy and compartmentalization of caste system:  Indian Blindness by Chitrakaran

The hierarchy and compartmentalization of caste system: Indian Blindness by Chitrakaran

Paintings like Channar woman and Kerala History are deeply engrossing to every sensitive being in our society.  These paintings are also tributes and critiques of Kerala renaissance and Kerala modernity in multiple ways.  They trace the erasures and repressions that dominate the mainstream soceity and the Savarna Hindu common sense that monopolize every sites in the present.  They also try to build up a parallel referential structure of dalit bahujan semiotics and imagery that can decolonize and de-Hinduize the Avarna people in Kerala and India.  It is also remarkable that his paintings create inter textual linkages with the works of dalit bahujan writers and theorists like Ialaiah, Omvedt or Guru.

Contemporary reality of the stratified soceity and lingering hegemony:  Newspaper by Chitrakaran

Contemporary reality of the stratified soceity and lingering hegemony, a critique of media culture as well: Newspaper by Chitrakaran

The visual critique of Chitrakaran is also deeply sensitive, sensual, ethical and spiritual.  They create an earthiness in sensual perception through the use of muddy and organic hues. The color tone and decentered visual treatment of the subjects are empowering and democratic at large.  The human figures and bodies emancipate and spiritually engender the viewer and the passing onlooker with an organic gut feeling and deep rooted bio politics.

Explosive and subversive potentials of art:  Man with Bomb by Chitrakaran

Explosive and subversive potentials of art:       Man with Bomb by Chitrakaran

Chitrakaran T Murali’s artful acts systematically deconstruct and undo the hegemonic visual narratives in our temple murals or in the elitist art practices that are popularized by the mainstream media and academia through a sustained sense of subversion and critical and creative renewal.  They are powerful narratives in visual cultural politcs and therefore are able to lure the popular gaze  in a lingering fashion.  The paintings of Murali is certainly going to captivate and guide the people in the times to come as fascism and fanaticism of various kinds are trying to appropriate, manipulate and mutilate the public art practices and visual culture in several hidden ways.

Link to Chitrakaran’s home page

 

The Sacred Grove in Tozhuvanur: Metamorphosis of Siddha into Durga

// March 26th, 2013 // 1 Comment » // Culture and Ecology

Tozhuvan figure at the base of the stone lamp post before the Tozhuvanur temple, Kavumpuram, Walanchery.  It is similar to the Siddha idol of Kayikara in posture and in attire.

Tozhuvan figure at the base of the stone lamp post before the Tozhuvanur temple, Kavumpuram,Valanchery. It is similar to the Siddha idol of Kayikara in posture and in attire.  Siddha is a saintly figure in Tantra traditions.

Tozhuvanur means the land of the Tozhuvan or the one who is in the Pranama posture.  There are place names in south Kerala after the mysterious Tozhuvan as Tozhuvankod and Tozhuvankonam.  In the Malapuram district in Malabar there is a place called Tozhuvaanur a few miles north of Valanchery.

This ancient sacred grove is situated near Kavumpuram on NH 47 between Valanchery and Kanjipura.  Kavumpuram literally means the periphery of the sacred shrine as Kutipuram is the periphery of the Kuti or Kottam or Vattam (a Jain or Buddhist shrine).

The western gateway of Tozhuvanur Durga temple.  The ancient trees and creepers are still growing in the Kavu or ancient sacred grove in the memory of a nun.

The western gateway of Tozhuvanur Durga temple. The ancient trees and creepers are still growing in the Kavu or the ancient sacred grove in the memory of a nun.

Kavu is a sacred grove in Kerala named after the Kanya Kavu or the Buddhist nun as Buddhist nuns planted and nurtured the culture of Sangharamas or sacred gardens and groves in Kerala through their literacy, healthcare and conservationist missionary work as the ecological and ethical base of their mission or the Sangha.  It was Sangha Mitra the daughter of Asoka and a leading nun who carried the layered cutting of the Boddhi tree from Gaya to Sri Lanka and planted and nurtured it in Anuradhapura.

It is clear from the place name Kavumpuram that the place housed a big Kavu or sacred shrine grove from the ancient times onwards.  Now a Durga temple or Bhagavati temple is situated amidst this ancient grove with numerous old world plants.  This is also counted among the most sacred group of 108 Durga shrines in Kerala.

The southern entrance to the temple and the ancient stone lamp post in the foreground.  The shrine faces south unusually. 25 march 2013.

The southern entrance to the temple and the ancient stone lamp post in the foreground. The shrine faces south unusually. 25 march 2013.

In the stone lamp post or Kalvilaku before the shrine that faces south, there is a bass relief of the Tozhuvan or a human figure in Pranama at its base.  This is very similar to the Tozhuvan or Siddha idol of Kayikara south of Varkala that is associated with the Vajrayana school of Buddhism in Kerala.  It is clear that this place got the name from this Siddha figure in Pranama and this ancient shrine grove was a Tantric Buddhist shrine at some moment in the past, most probably up to the early middle ages.

It is also interesting to note that Tozhuvankod temple near Trivandrum belongs to an Avarna Kalari household.  They were the Kalari Gurukals (martial arts masters) of the infamous Ettuveetars (Ettuveetil Pillais) who were ruthlessly annihilated by Marthanda Varma in the 18th century in Travancore.  Tozhuvankod literally means the cornering land strip of the Tozhuvan.  It is the family temple of an Ezhava Kalari household.  It is also vital to note that there was no caste or religious restriction in the access to the temple from ancient times onwards.  The lack of caste untouchability and inclusion of all and the practice of health care and self defense prove the Buddhist connection and antiquity.  I am thankful to my friends Srilal and Stanley to point out this after reading my early draft.

Tozhuvanur Durga temple, Kavumpuram, Valanchery.  The huge banyan is seen in the back ground in the north eastern corner.  It is a museum of rare plants and a memorial of local history.

Tozhuvanur Durga temple, Kavumpuram, Valanchery. The huge banyan is seen in the back ground in the north eastern corner. It is a little sanctuary of rare plants and a cultural memorial of local history.

There is a banyan on the north eastern corner of the grove above the current temple and a Pipal towards the south beneath.  The idol is said to be self incarnate or Swayam Bhu.  As in Kadampuzha or Chamravattam there is a pit in its place.  It is evident that the original installation or the early Buddhist idol was removed and a subsidiary escorting goddess was substituted later in the middle ages .  There is also a legend about Vilwamangalam Swamiyar checking the power and grace of this grove.  So it is clear that the shrine was originally Sramana and was later appropriated by Brahmanic Hinduism by removing the main idol and raising the sub deity into prominence.

Siddha idol at Kayikara in Pranama posture also called Tozhuvan.  This traditional deity is locally called Chithan a vernacular version of the Siddha.  See the resemblance in the posture, broad shoulders and the loincloth.

Siddha idol at Kayikara in Pranama posture, also called Tozhuvan. This traditional deity is locally called Chithan a vernacular version of the Siddha. See the resemblance in the posture, broad shoulders and the loincloth. The image of the Siddha was central to Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism in Kerala

In Kadampuzha it was Sankara who did the re-installation according to legend.  In Chamravattam it is said to be a Sambara Maharshi and in Tozhuvanur it could be Vilwamangalam.  This kind of metamorphosis or disguise or forced formal transformations have occurred in plenty of ancient sacred places in Kerala including the Andalur Kavu in Talassery, Kallil temple near Perumbavur and Paruvassery Pallyara near Vadakanchery.  The sacred grove at Tozhuvanur still has rare and medicinal plants and shrubs and needs protection from the local people and the temple goers.  This ancient treasure house of natural and cultural history can tell us a lot about our society and its ancient foundations.