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Deprived of original élan

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

In the name of restoration, the murals at many ancient temples in Tamil Nadu have been ruined by being painted over.

Photos: K.R. Gandhirajan and L. Balachandar

Revival or disaster?:The frescos in their original forms (left) and the murals newly painted over (centre and right).

(This is the fourth in a series of articles on the subject)

T he murals at various temples in Tami Nadu, which vividly bring alive the past, suffer three kinds of destruction or vandalism. The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR and CE) Department officials, who administer the temples, sandblast the murals out of existence, as it happened in the case of stylish Chola murals in the Vyagrapuriswara temple at Tiruppulivanam, near Uttiramerur in Kanchipuram district, the Siva temple at Pattiswaram and the Venugopala Parthasarathy temple at Chengam, near Tiruvannamlai.

The second category of destruction is the HR and CE officials whitewashing away the murals, either fully or partially, as it happened at Pundarikaksha Perumal temple at Tiruvellarai, near Tiruchi, the Vishnu temple at Mannarkoil in Tirunelveli district, the Siva temple at Tiruvalanchuzhi near Pattiswaram, the Varadarajaswamy temple at Kanchipuram; the Lakshminarasimhar temple at Sevilimedu near Kanchipuram, the Arunachala temple at Tiruvannamalai and so on.

But the damage most foul, according to conservationists, is repainting of these ancient murals with modern water colours, “poster colours” and so on. This is what exactly happened in the case of Jaina murals in the Trilokyanatha Jain temple at Tiruparidikunram, four km from Kanchipuram, another Jain temple at Karanthai, about 30 km from Kanchipuram and the Ramalinga Vilasam Palace in Ramanathapuram town.

What happened at the 1,000-year old Trilokyanatha/Chandraprabha temple complex is terrible. The temple complex has Tamil inscriptions of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman II and the Chola kings Rajendra Chola I, Kulotunga Chola I and Vikrama Chola, and the Kanarese inscriptions of Krishnadevaraya.

There are masterpieces depicting episodes from the life of Trilokyanatha or Rishabhadeva, Vardhamana, Krishna and Neminatha, Agnila and Dharmadevi that have been painted in the temple in one of the ceilings of the mandapam. The temple is a “protected” monument belonging to the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department. The HR and CE Department has custodial control over it.


Vandalised temple

The temple was vandalised first in the 1990s. Idols of Jaina mythology on the vimanam of the Trilokyanatha temple were pulled down and replaced by busts made of cement. New vimanams, made of brick and mortar, were built and they were whitewashed. All this in violation of Section 5 of the Tamil Nadu Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1996.

Then, the Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department and the temple authorities set their eyes on the beautiful murals in the temple complex. They wanted the faded paintings to be repainted with modern-day colours. So they engaged a retired official from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), who hired an artist who, in turn, hired another group of “artists” to do the job. The result was not conservation but repainting the ancient murals with dazzling new paints. These “artists” also created anew, using their imagination, paintings of men and women, which had almost seemed totally faded in the old murals. For instance, a painting of a woman chowrie-bearer, which had totally faded, was created fresh. Two specialists in art history, who visited the temple at the time when the murals were being gloriously repainted, were horrified that these unqualified “artists” were using modern-day water colours, poster colours and so on where mineral dyes had been used several centuries ago.

David Shulman, an Indologist and a scholar in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit literature and arts, called the repainting at Tiruparidikunram “a disaster.” In an interview to The Hindu, (published on February 10, 2008), he said, “It [repainting] definitely happened at Tiruparidikunram. The paintings have been ruined by being painted over. This is quite a common thing in Tamil Nadu. If you repaint it instead of conserving it, the subtlety will be lost. The old colours will be lost. This is disaster. These paintings have to be preserved as they were at their height…”

K.T. Gandhirajan, specialist in art history, who has studied murals in about 40 temples in Tamil Nadu, was sure that ‘poster colours' were used to repaint the murals at Tiruparidikunram. “No original colour was used. I saw bottles of poster colours and water colours being used” in repainting the murals. It was tantamount to “vandalism… to use new colours in faded paintings,” he said. The damaged portions should be merely cleaned and restored. “You should not re-paint at all. Not even a single [new] colour should be painted on these murals. You cannot draw a single line or put even a dot on the original artist's creation,” Gandhirajan asserted.

Dr. S. Balusami, who earned a Ph.D. for his research on the Nayaka paintings in 14 temples in Tamil Nadu, said, “If portions of a painting have peeled off, they should remain only in that state. You cannot repaint there. But you should conserve the remaining portions of the painting.” Dr. Balusami, who is an associate professor of Tamil in Madras Christian College, Tambaram, Chennai, argued that various colours in the ancient murals represented different emotions. “If a line is thin, it has one particular meaning. If a line is thick, it has another meaning.” He made it clear that modern-day chemical colours should not be used over the natural, mineral colours used in the murals. “These chemical colours, which cannot stick to the wall, cannot be used over natural dyes. Besides, the chemical colours will take away the quality of natural dyes,” Dr. Balusami said.

When contacted, N. Selvarehai, who headed the team of “artists” who did the repainting at Tiruparidikunram, claimed that “these people who make the allegations do not know anything about conservation.” He said he was only “an advisor” to the project and that the temple authorities asked him to “tone down the faded portions in the paintings.” So he merely “toned down” the faded portions with “water-based colours” because water colours were “reversible,” he claimed. But Selvarehai could not explain properly what he meant by “toning down.” The colours could be “reversed,” he said, by washing the new water-colours and revealing the original colours. This could be resorted to if anybody objected to the use of water colours. Selvarehai claimed that he did not use “enamel colours” because it is “not ethical” to do so.

Selvarehai also said that he “guided” artists to repaint the murals in the Ramalinga Vilasam Palace in Ramanathapuram town with the result the original subtlety of the paintings has been lost.

In his seminal book entitled, “Oviya Pavai” (Beautiful forms of Painting), first published in 1979 and republished in 2010 by the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department), R. Nagaswamy, its former Director, devotes 11 pages to describing the hundreds of paintings done in the palace. He asserts that the paintings were done around the year 1725 by the Raja of Ramnad, Muthu Vijaya Raghunatha Sethupathi. The paintings portray the battle between Muthu Vijaya Raghunatha Sethupathi and the Thanjavur Maratha king Serfoji, several portraits of the Sethupathi, his listening to the Ramayana being read out in Telugu, erotic scenes, women playing games and so on. “The paintings at the Ramalinga Vilasam are a treasure house of art and we cannot but appreciate the great contribution to this by Muthu Vijaya Raghunatha Sethupathi,” says Dr. Nagaswamy. But scores of these invaluable paintings were repainted by a team under the “guidance” of Selvarehai and so they are deprived of their original élan now. (The Ramalinga Vilasam palace is under the control of the State Archaeology Department).

Another team (not connected to Selvarehai) has repainted with gaudy, garish colours, the Jaina murals at a Jaina temple at Karanthai, near Kanchipuram. This team has reportedly vowed to repaint murals in many other temples in Tamil Nadu.

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