Monday, May 12, 2014

Painting for Nature, Artists Move In

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As children swam in the waters of the river Pampa down below, the lone boat man ferrying people across the river sang a song. On the banks it was a group of eminent artists giving forms to formless feelings, fears and the pain of seeing a bruised nature. At the tent erected on the lawns of the ancient inn, the historic Aranmula Sathram, were some of the well known artists of Kerala, also the young ones. They were here joining hands with the villagers of Aranmula struggling against an airport project. It was a three day camp when artists from across Kerala came together and camped at Aranmula. It was a passion that drove them, young and old, famous and not so famous, a passion for nature, heritage. They painted the river, the boat, wounded mother nature, hills sliced and eaten, the pathos of the farmers and farm laborer. Aptly named 'Aranmulayude Nirakkoottu', the Aranmula Collage, land of the snake boat pageantry was in to a new chapter. Many poets, writers and film artists had come, this time it was the artists and it became a historic occasion for Kerala art scene.   

In the evenings as the brush strokes made magic on canvas the river banks echoed with the chants of folk songs, sung by those with their placenta ties to mother nature. They sang of how they planted seedlings, harvested, the agonies of oppression, there were also songs about how god created the world, how it shall be repaired.  And then the paint brushes were down and the artists danced, it was a rare scene unfolding at Aranmula. Earthy songs and earthy artists were in fusion. Some of the artists did draw with fine clay, taken from the fields that once were fertile, paddy growing in plenty. It was the water and clay of the threatened temple village famous for the boat pageantry, what looked like an ancient fertility cult, what is nature but the woman principle. And one of the artists in the camp Sajitha Shankar was pretty courageous in painting the narrow strip of Kerala as womanly. With the nature and womanhood used as metaphors in India this was an image that stood out, naturally endowed Kerala could very well stake that claim. Indeed history has left stories that it was a women centred culture that Kerala once had, before the patriarchal models took over.

The Artists Camp 'Aranmulayude Nirakoottu'  was the first of its kind with the doyen of Kerala art scene Kanayi Kunjiraman taking the key role. It was also a bold step as the artist community in Kerala have so far not involved themselves in environmental issues, keeping a safe distance. This time it was different and in the words of N N Rimson, another lead figure in Kerala with a global presence, the avoidance of such crucial issues has also alienated arts from the mainstream. These are, apart from being existential issues of every one, including the artist, it is for the artist an organic part of his larger self. Not acknowledging that bottom line, the responsibility to the nature around was part of Kerala art scene for the last half a century, as he said, a aberration. Visual Art thus has come to have no more a space that the common people related to. This is a corrective step. Even in the big historic agitations to protect nature artists were not visible except as isolated individual cases in stray cases. Landscape art has perhaps failed in making the Malayali conscientious about the priceless reality around. Presently terrible violence is being inflicted all over Kerala, the forest hills, rivers, paddy fields, rock formations, are all under attack. Caught in canvas works by Swiss artists like Jacques Laurent Agasse must have influenced policy changes in Switzerland where today aesthetic violation in nature are offenses as the participant artists felt. Artists, just as farmers and others, cannot remain witnesses to the wrong doings around and that will be to their peril too. Many of the senior artists present like T A S Menon, expressed the need for active involvement of artists, also more focus on the damage to the beautiful landscape of Kerala.

A good majority of the big names in the Kerala art scene graced the occasion and it was obviously a bold statement, of aligning with those struggling for the beautiful nature, with heritage and the colourful native idiom of culture and faith. As some of the artists said, self alienation, disowning whatever is one's own, perhaps a post-colonial strategy of recolonization,  had caused havoc in Kerala.  In the rainy evenings on the banks as nature wove magic designs in the horizon the Pampa banks echoed with the chants from the temple. Further east the Sathyagraha was on, people from Pattambi, Palakkad and Trissur were in Aranmula these days. When the folk songs were sung the artists jumped in with their own regional folk songs.  For poet and folk song expert Mohan and team it was a moment of jubilation, many of the youth, many of them Bob Marley fans, here was a native breed of Bobs and as potent songs. All lying undiscovered.  And then then they sang in a chorus, a rare scene was unfolding at Aranmula. The earthy folk songs and earthy artists were in fusion. It was also a war cry of sorts, powerful, subdued though and reinventing the own idiom.

The folk songs were of celebration, of agony and oppression, of small joys and hurts of everyday life, more than all it was all addressed to the elements around. It was also the theme of the paintings taking shape, here was a silent communion. The river, hills and trees, birds and animals and for the singers they were all part of their being. They called out at the reigning Lord of Aramula who had guarded all these for all these years, why are you not not seeing all the violence now. The river Pampa, daughter of the Sahya mountains, fed breast milk by the hills, now  as a maiden she is bruised and is weeping, crying aloud that she is being violated. With the fast drum beats and cymbal clangs the prayers seemed being heard by the Pampa down below, newly charged by the recent rains.

Perhaps it was also the place and its energy, a big stock of wonderful works were completed by
the participating artists. More than fifty in all, by the most eminent to the lesser known, even children who came visiting took to the brush. Some of them were seen being guided by well known artists, Sajitha Shankar, a star attraction with her big bindi and unconventional ways for a temple town, was seen asked by naive visitors if it was her daughter. Fired with earthy energy Kanayi Kunjiraman waqs seen echoing the mood of the people, when he said that the first people, their nature worshiping culture, rituals ought to get their place in the scheme of things, what was lost interim. The barren paddy fields, now threatened with high rise malls and an airport, were silently listening nearby. It was time for asking pardon, for taking things for granted, for neglecting, Mother Nature. And the canvases told what people thought about. The lone naked man clinging on to a dead tree, a work done by young artist Sourav Kesar, had that message eloquently said. N N Rimson used only black color in his work, it was an artist's way of telling the enemies what he felt. It was also what the
people had to say. It was a fragmented world, going to pieces, a black mask hiding those behind, evil, threatening from above. A disturbing work, of the huge pillar of India's identity breaking down, conveyed the deep rooted fear of every Malayali. The inroads they are making in to the most intimate spaces of the Malayali culture and belief are not going without notice, this work seemed to tell. The image of dragon flies, as representing the ecosystem, was seen in many canvases. This made huge and opposing an airplane, reduced to the size of a toy. The immense possibilities of human effort, what the villagers of Aranmula were doing in real life, so big was the size of the enemy as the clever made it, when presented, but that did not work. Simple people became bigger and it may become bigger still. The artist as if in a magic reflected the pulse. The protesters had organized various programs here one of these was Pampa Arathy, what is ritually done at the upper reaches of the river for the Sabarimala Ayyapa temple festival.  Poets, intellectuals, cine artists have all come to Aranmula and this time it was the artists.

Nemom Pushparaj made a quick work, bold in theme, camels and grey deserts taking over the space of native green valleys and snake boats, locally called the chundan vallams, boats with a beak.   The household farm implements able to shovel away airplanes gave a powerful visual statement, of simple people's resolve. Speaking at the event Tensing Joseph said that it is their duty to the land that they stand for the nature, support those in the struggle at Aranmula.  Tesing Joseph, T A S Menon, Karakkamadapam Vijaya Kumar, K V Jyothilal   and others gave enormous energy to the large number of new generation artists. This was the first time that an Artists camp was being organized with the support of a village, in a 
village where an agitation was going on, said Parthasarathy Varma, from the family lineage of the legendary Raja Ravi Varma, who was also a Coordinator of the Camp. The general mood of most canvases was gloomy, it reflected the Kerala nature, mind of the nature loving Malayali, under kind of alien attack. The green hills being sliced like
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birthday cakes, as the farmer women look on, trees ambushed across, the dark bulls from the devastated ecosystems trying to reach out to the last remaining green lands, the themes were vast and the portrayal pretty sharp, that at a small span of time, just two days, the ceremonies took up the rest of three days. Those from the native school of mural arts, the Aranmula temple has in its sanctum mural works, it was a mad rush to finish as they said. Murals, with intricate details and an Indian way of depicting unlike the western portrayal, take several months to make. Satheesh Kumar, a mural artist from Adoor, wanted some more time, was seen working day and night. 

Satheesh had filled in in the biodiversity of Kerala, trees, monkeys, elephants, tigers, in to his canvas, all in harmony, what is only possible for mural artists.   The list of those who participated reads like a who is who of contemporary Kerala art scene and it was also a consolidation of the saner minds of the land. What should give great support to the ongoing movement to protect the nature and native culture of Kerala. With the increasingly senseless and commercialized socio-political order indeed the artists are also under threat. The paintings are to be taken around the Kerala cities as the chief Coordinator Kanayi Kunjiraman said, later kept at a  museum that is to be established for heritage. There shall also be a Camp for sculptures in the coming days as he said. Kanayi, whose land mark works in Kerala like the Yakshi at Malampuzha gardens, Jala Kanyaka at Thiruvananthapuram beach, and many others besides, is one who always helped bring art to the common man. And these are the small spaces for the  conservative Kerala society with its hesitations and taboos about the human body to breathe.

It will be a landmark event in Kerala art scene said most of them who participated, what was also echoed by N N Rimson. For the land of the boat pageantry, one of the most priced symbols of Kerala and now under threat by the lumpen groups, it was an occasion to celebrate and the large number of villagers who came to see the artists in the creative work it was a rare treat. For usually remaining in cities these are not accessible to ordinary villagers.  Some of the other participants were R Prakash, Ajithkumar, Saju Mannatthoor, R Satheesh, Devadas Thankappan, T R Sunil Lal, Muralikrishnan, Pramod Kurampala, M S Vinod, Sreeji Eezhezha, K G Anilkumar, Vinu Baby, Suresh Kootthuparambu, and others. Kummanam Rajasekharan, spear heading the protests at the temple village, welcomed the artists and Pradeep Ayroor offered the vote of thanks.  


  1. This artwork is beautiful and inspiring, it is helping to heal the wounds to nature. And I am delighted to hear that the environmental clearance for the airport has been revoked.

  2. Delighted to read this blog after 3 years! Thanks Pradeepetta, for the tickle.