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The tribal temple art of kalamezhuthu

The ancient art is re-entering the limelight in Kerala. We chat with an artist who’s on his way to teach Chennai

Perched on the floor on his haunches, with a half-cut coconut shell in hand, a saffrom mundu-clad artist is busy at work. As his hands move in lines and curves, I realise that he is trying to visualise a form. The temple is now riddled with devotees, who slowly gather around the man. He pinches a small portion of what appears to be white powder from the shell and begins to spread it on the sandy floor. With precision, he draws the outline of a crown. Before long, the form of Bhagavathi attains its final form — decked up with embellishments of all colour from yellow and green to red and orange. But that’s not all, soon the artistes will sing aloud in praise of Bhagavathi, to the crisp background tunes of the nanthuni, a traditional string instrument.

The art form kalamezhuthu is an hours-long process, and a performance in itself. A ritualistic tribal art that took shape in Kerala, it is traditionally performed in temples as a means to impress the presiding deity, as and when devotees demand. Kerala-based Sarang Cultural Ventures brings this traditional artform to Chennai, by organising a workshop helmed by Hareesh Nagalassery, a 29-year-old Kalamezhuthu artist from Nagalassery, in Palakkad.

Early start

Hareesh takes me through the process, in his heavily accented Palakkad dialect of Malayalam, as I take copious notes. He was introduced to kalamezhuthu at the age of 11. “As a child, I used to go to temples with my guru Baby Kurup (an artist who has been practising the form for more than 35 years), to observe. In fact, my father used to send me with him,” says Hareesh. Kalamezhuthu is usually deemed as an inherited artform, but it was different for Hareesh. His grandfather was a kalamezhuthu artist but his father strayed away. Now, the baton is held by the 29-year-old who did his initiation ritual at the Chandanakkavu temple — “called ‘podi kudayuka’ in Malayalam” — at the age of 15.

He belongs to a community called the ‘Kallattu Kurup’, that practises the form exclusively for Shaivite gods like Bhagavathi, Ayyappan and Vettakkorumakan (Siva putra). “We tend to almost 18 gods,” continues the artiste who performs in ancestral homes as well. Legend goes that after slaying Darika, Bhadrakali visits Shiva shaking in anger, and draws a figure at the entrance of Kailasa — this is recreated in performances. Kalamezhuthu is predominantly practised in Palakkad, Malappuram, Thrissur and Kozhikode.

The stage is set

After the paattu mandapam (performance space) is prepared, a four metre-long silk cloth is run across its centre — this is the first ritual. Then, the singing and puja called ‘uchapaattu’ is carried out. The illustration process begins only after that. Some of the rituals may change, depending on the deity. “The songs are a mix of Malayalam and Tamil — what some words mean, are still not clear,” he says. He is also part of a group of artistes who travel across the country.

The artiste now begins to explain the process of drawing a kalam: beginning with one line from East to West. The thirumugam (divine face) is drawn first. The crown is fleshed out next, following which half the face is filled out. “After finishing the detailing on the face, we move to the embellishments and ornaments, and then to the body of the deity,” he says. A linear vertical pattern (from top to bottom) is followed. The outlining is done with rice powder while the colours are filled out with turmeric, umikkari (charcoal from rice husk), dried manjadi (lucky red seed) powder, and a mix of turmeric and lime.

After all the rituals are carried out, the kalam is erased by the artistes themselves. Hareesh says that most people comment on the temporality of the form, but the erasure, according to him is part of the ritual. “It doesn’t affect us as artistes, and with more people calling us for displaying the form in colleges and schools, kalamezhuthu is getting more exposure. This makes us happy,” concludes the artiste, who is currently under a two-year scholarship provided by the Central Government where he is experimenting with the Dasavatara forms in kalamezhuthu.

Brought by Sarang Cultural Ventures — a firm that aims at the propagation and exchange of different cultures — and hosted by Soul Window, the workshop by Hareesh will be on May 19, Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm in Spaces, Besant Nagar, Chennai. For registrations, call 9790898264.

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