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

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


An Ancient Kalari in South Kerala: Cheerappanchira

Cheerappanchira Kalari, Muhamma, Cherthala, May 2011

Kalari is a traditional school of learning, martial arts and indigenous medicine in Kerala.  Though its dominant,  Sanskritized and violent  applications by the Savarna or upper castes are linked to the militarization and feudalization of Kerala during the middle ages that established the Savarna high culture and hegemony in Kerala; its popular and Avarna or subaltern versions are part of people’s resistance, health care and self defense against oppression, invasion and domination.

Eastern block of the old Nalukettu at Cheerappanchira

The ancient Kalari at Cheerappanchira of old Karappuram or current Cherthala in Alapuzha district lying on the western banks of lake Vembanad to the west of Kumarakom and Pathiramanal  island is renowned for its legendary warriors and inclusive martial arts masters who even got the prestigious privilege of teaching their life saving arts to the mythical Ayyappan of Pandalam dynasty now enshrined in Sabarimala according to folklore and popular belief. It is interesting to note that Ayyappan also known as Dharma Sastha (a synonym of the Buddha) is also associated with the Buddhist past of south India.

A new house at Cheerappanchira

It is evident that the family heads called the Panickers of Cheerappanchira household traditionally practiced Kalari and were chiefs in the army of Karappuram kings from the early middle ages onwards.  It could be well assumed that their inheritance of letters, health care and martial arts is a lasting legacy of the shared Buddhist and Sramana heritage of Avarnas in Kerala who were treated as untouchables and out castes under the hegemony of Brahmanic Hinduism later as rebellious and resisting marginal people who never submitted to Brahmanism and refused to offer martial and sexual slavery to the ”twice born lords of the land” who could easily lure and convert kings and queens and some of the power hungry opportunistic sections who instantly served them to establish the regime of caste and untouchability.

Temple complex and pond at Cheerappanchira

Those who submitted to Brahmanism and offered it life long service and the notorious sexual colonies were absorbed in the hierarchical Varna system as Sudras, the fourth and subservient Varna in Chathurvarnyam and those who never submitted to the ideological and physical pressure of Brahmanism to become sex slaves and menial servants, foot soldiers/militia or henchmen were condemned as Chandals or Avarnas or those without any Varna or caste (those who are outside the Varna system).

Shrine of Ayyappan or Dharma Sastha at Cheerappanchira

According to legend Ayyappan the crown prince of Pandalam (a Pandya diasopora from Madurai) developed an attachment  with a young daughter of his master at this Kalari and she became enshrined as the Malikapurathamma at Sabarimala later at some period in the early medieval era.  It is clear that this ancient Avarna family of Ezhava community enjoyed remarkable familial connections with not only the Karappuram kings but also with the Pandalam dynasty and their western ghat regions as well at least from the 14th century onwards.

Blue Tiger butterfly on a yellow blossom at Cheerappanchira, May 2011

During the early and mid 20th century pioneering Marxist leaders like A K Gopalan from Malabar were given confidential asylum in this ancient household during their anti state campaigns from underground and he married a young woman from Cheerappanchira called Suseela who later became an early revolutionary woman leader of the Marxist party in Kerala and India.

Current head of Cheerappanchira household: Somasekhara Panicker

The current head of the household Mr Somasekhara Panicker has been involved in reviving the ancient Kalari for the last few years and is preserving the greater legacies and cultural heritage of the region and the household that has an important place in the cultural history of Kerala as a vital center of learning and life defensive skills in the vulnerable margin of Kerala that disseminated everyday knowledge among the people or the subaltern successively and successfully for centuries.

Wood carvings on the verandah of the Kalari house

During late May 2011 I visited the place and talked to this martial arts guru about the history and cultural pasts of the family and their indigenous practices for generations across centuries defying various waves of invasion and hegemony.

Wooden carvings on roof structure: Kalari house, Cheerappanchira

The discussion revealed the key role played by the family and the community in preserving and popularizing the native practices of physical medicine and health care among the untouchable and Avarna people of Kerala especially in the marginal coastal land of Muhamma, Cherthala and Alapuzha in general.

Pathiramanal island in Vembanad lake to the east of Muhamma

This great resistance legacy of the people at the bottom under extremely challenged conditions of nature and culture must be studied and analyzed in depth to reveal the omissions, erasures and silences in the cultural history of Kerala and south India.

Metal work on wooden door at Cheerappanchira