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


Breast-tax in Kerala History: Nangeli and Mulachiparambu

Kerala’s Breast-tax. 2012. Bitmap image/Digital Painting by Ajay Sekher

Mulachiparambu is a northern suburb of Cherthala town in Alapuzha district of Kerala.  It means the plot of the Mulachi, where Mulachi signifies a woman of breasts.  We may also call her the woman of brave breasts. At the beginning of the 19th century there lived a brave woman called Nangeli or Nancheli (the beautiful one) in Cherthala.  She sacrificed not only her breasts but her precious life itself in protest against the inhuman breast-tax of Travancore that formed the southern part of Kerala in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cherthala Angadi or market. 26 August 2012

The princely state of Travancore established by Marthanda Varma in the mid 18th century with the bloody expansion into the neighboring kingdoms as in the pogrom at Kayamkulam, was thriving with various barbaric taxes like Mulakaram and Talakaram.  There were more than 100 infamous taxes imposed on the Avarna or former untouchable people in particular. Most of that went into the vaults of Padmanabha temple along with the tax on pepper and other spice trade.  It is very important to remember that the loot from the neighboring kingdoms and revenue from heinous taxes on the Avarna population constitute the chunk  of Padmanabha “treasure” today. Avarnas were casted away and humiliating untouchability practices were imposed on them because of their Buddhist genealogy and resistance to Brahmanic Hinduism.

Avarna women were not allowed to cover their bosom in public.  It was part of the humiliating, dehumanizing and degrading practices associated with untouchability and caste that were targeted specifically against the former Buddhist population of Avarnas in Kerala.  There were protests against such Brahmanical casteist social suppression in nineteenth century itself in places like Kayamkulam in the south under the leadership of pioneering champions of human rights in Kerala like Aratupuzha Velayudha Panikar who founded schools, libraries and temples for the untouchables, even before Narayana Guru.

Cherthala market. 26 August 2012

In Cherthala it required a woman martyr like Nancheli/Nangeli to stop the Breast-tax altogether, all of a sudden at the wake of the 19th century.  Ezhava women like Nancheli used to suffer this  public shame in the name of brutal laws in a barbaric feudal state. It was also enforced in the name of Brahmanic religion and caste system. But Nancheli cut both her breasts off and presented it to the Pravarthiar, the ‘revenue’ collecting village officer of the Travancore state as he rushed to her house to collect the breast-tax on hearing that she was covering her bosom in public.

The very next day the tax was withdrawn by the Maharajah of Travancore  fearing public agitations following the death of Nancheli.  She literally bled to death after seriously suffering from the open wounds.  Her husband Mr Kandappan who was away during the gruesome incident, after returning killed himself on her pyre .  It is the only instance of a man ascending the pyre of a dead wife in the whole of human history.  This overwhelming self sacrifice by the Avarna Ezhava couple gripped the land and its regime forever.  The place became known as Mulachiparambu ever since.

Location of Mulachiparambu. Now known as Manorama Kavala in Cherthala, Alapuzha district of Kerala.

This kind of a self sacrifice and furious protest are unique in the world regarding women’s liberation movements any where in the world.  Gayatri Spivak talks about the suicide of Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri in her periods as an act to rewrite the text of Sati or widow sacrifice in “Can the Subaltern Speak”.  Here you have the sacrifice of a woman and the equally selfless and valorous response by her husband that literally rewrote the patriarchal elitist textuality and practice of Sati in early 20th century Kerala.

Further studies are required to theorize this unparalleled event in the history of human liberation especially in the context of Brahmanic patriarchies in India and Kerala. Gender and caste readings of this event from various subject positions are inevitable.  It is really unfortunate that even local people are forgetting this illuminating episode in the long fight for human rights, dignity and equality in Kerala.

Mulachiparambu is now divided into more than five plots near the current Manorma Kavala in Cherthala

On Sunday, 26 August 2012 I talked to various people in Cherthala town and market but unfortunately none of them remembered the incident and the place.  After hours of searching an auto driver reminded me to contact the S N D P Union office near the X-ray Junction.  The president of Cherthala Union gave me the details of the place.  Now it is divided into five or six plots and the topography has changed entirely.  Now the place is known as Manorama Kavala.  The old S N D P Union office and Maruti outlet stand near the spot.

Nangeli's Sacrifice. Acrylic on Canvas by T Murali
Nangeli’s Sacrifice. Acrylic on Canvas by T Murali

It is a serious instance of public amnesia and collective repression of vital public history and memory.  Savarna (elitist and upper caste/Brahmanical) media culture, pedagogy and academia play an important role in this conscious erasure of recent vital incidents in Kerala history that happened just a century ago.  It is also an instance of sanctioned ignorance if you use the vocabulary of Spivak. Instead of such crucial moments of protest and struggle that democratized Kerala society at the grass roots the state and its textbooks are creating hagiographies and monuments for the fabricated feudal champions of patriotism and pseudo nationalism.

T Murali's another painting on Nangeli's Sacrifice. Acrylic on Canvas
T Murali’s another painting on Nangeli’s Sacrifice. Acrylic on Canvas

The government and the new vocal women’s organizations in particular must take immediate steps to record and rehabilitate the memory of the great sacrifice by the Avarna woman Nangeli at the earliest.  Such glorious episodes of subaltern speech and resistance must be taught in schools itself and not just in universities to the upcoming and growing minds in Kerala.  That could be an apt check to the Savarna elite pedagogy and mainstream media culture in Kerala today.  Let the people, women, students and children in particular know about their land, culture, real struggles and real histories.

ajay sekher