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Kavi Art of Coastal Karnataka

by Krishnanand Kamat

Paper published in 'Art and Architecture In Karnataka'
Editors: Dr. D.V.Devaraj and Dr. Channabasappa.S.Patil 
Published by the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Mysore 1996.

Also presented at the National Seminar on Archaeology 1985 held at Mysore on completion on one hundred years of Department of Archaeology

Typical murals that could be seen at Hampi, Hiriyuru, Lepakshi, Sibi, Sira, Sravanbelagola, Srirangapattana and other places are nowhere to be seen in the Coastal Karnataka, comprising Uttara and Dakshina Kannada districts. Similarly, gesso work of Mysore traditional painting has also not made any inroads towards the coast. This is understandable as these Districts receive more than 150" of rain fall during four months of monsoon, which makes the climate of the region wet and humid. The multi-coloured murals cannot stand this much of moisture for a long time; they peel off within a couple of years. Centuries ago, the coastal art lovers have overcome this difficulty by adopting what could be called as 'Kavi Art' for their murals. The term 'Kavi' (=Kyavi) is the local name for Indian Red (huramunji) which is the only colour used for the murals. Thus they have an appearance of silhouette photographs.

Temples and other buildings are cut-out laterite stones. Locally available materials are used for plastering. Snow white lime, obtained by burning sea-shells and clean sand from river-bed, are mixed with jaggery and allowed to ferment for two weeks. Then it is hand pounded to obtain a homogeneous mixture which gets hardened when applied to the wall and allowed to dry. Kavi pictures are to be etched when the walls are still wet, as in fresco paintings. A butter smooth mixture of lime and huramunji is applied with a steel trowel to the predetermined area. To cover a larger area, a wooden float is also employed. After an hour, engraving work is commenced. A well trained Kavi Art mason etches small murals without any aid. For geometrical designs he uses scales and compass. Large and complicated motifs are first drawn on a paper, perforated with pin holes and traced to the wall by dusting with dry lime. Kantha (steel bodkins) of different sizes and dimensions are used for etching. At this stage, any deformity in the murals could be repaired with ease. After a day's initial drying, water is sprayed on the murals, at an interval of four hours and continued for a week. After each spray they are polished with smooth pebbles from river beds. These treatments prevent any cracks and ensure that murals last as long as the building itself. An artistically drawn and well executed, red ochre mural, against sand-blasted white, is as attractive as multi-coloured painting.

There is no hard and fast rule as to where these pictures could be located. They could be seen on outer and/or inner wall of porches, mahadvara, navaranga, mukhamantapa, sukanasa (Pl. 2), sanctum sanctorum and other places. General appearance and architecture of these buildings are unique and impressive. They have several rows of doors, windows, ventilators and arches (Pl. 3). They are usually two storeyed buildings, the tops of which are covered by Mangalore or local tiles. Row of spirals, spades, semi-circles (Pl. 7), curves, spots are employed to decorate ridges, platforms and niches. Twin pseudo-pillars are ornamented with 'V' shaped parallel bands. Intermittent spaces are covered with big circular (Pl. 6), or other geometrical designs. Circles, semicircles (Pl. 8), triangles, squares, hexagons, octagons are used in such a way that they create a mosaic impression on the viewer. It is surprising that no two designs are identical.

The murals stand out from other engravings as they are usually located either on raised platforms or in niches. They may be as small as 2'x 3' or as large as 6'x6. A window or a ventilator may also become a part of a mural. A broad border runs all along the mural (Pl.9) which may be either square or rectangular (Pl.10). The top is usually in the form of a semi-circle (Pl.11) on which a decorative mukuta, kalasa (Pl.12), or gopuram is located. Care is taken by the artist to see that at least two thirds of the area is covered with the motif (Pl.13). Gods, goddesses and human figures sometimes flow outside the mural frames (Pl. 14). Screens, curtains, pendant lamps, globes (Pl.15) occupy left-over areas (Pl.16). Plants and their parts (Pl.17) are also employed for the same purpose. Mostly they are symbolic than representative (Pl.18). A group of oval petals represents a flower (Pl.19). To this if a trunk is added then it becomes a tree (Pl.22). At times some leaves and fruits are also shown (Pl.4). In another picture, a couple is shown worshipping a tree (Pl.5). In certain motif, creepers are used for bordering the mural (Pl.23) and the same flow in the picture (Pl.25).

Animals are also artistically included in the murals. A pair of parrots perching on a tree-top (Pl.26) is symbolization of nature. Dancing peacocks, flying pigeons are some of favourite subjects. It seems a rural artist had difficulty in identifying his own depiction of quadruped (Pl.30). In murals like Venugopala or Govardhan-giridhari, the artist has taken full liberty to depict different animals of the area. Elephants, tigers, deer, snakes, parrots and bees could be easily identified. At times an artist takes an opportunity to exhibit his mastery in engraving. Two monkeys are positioned in such way that they should look like four (Pl.29). Similarly, bull and elephant heads are so arranged that the former's hump should become the trunk of the latter (Pl.32). Many mythical figures like Gandharva (Pl.27) and Kinnara (Pl.28) are meticulously engraved. Monkey god, Hanuman (Pl.33) and eagle god, Garuda (Pl.31) are represented in human form. A scorpion (Pl.28), mythical bird (Pl.20) and Kamadhenu find their place in some of the murals.

Like a sculptor, a Kavi artist also selects sequences from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagvatapurana for his murals. But the latter has to take special pains to give three dimensional effect to his flat and monochrome pictures. A well trained and intelligent artist attends to all the details of his subject (Pl.14). While depicting Droupadi (Pl.15) he has taken special care to give emphasis on her head decorations, pit tail, ornaments, blouse and saree designs. The themes selected depend upon the main deity of a given temple. Dasavatara, Matsya (Pl.34), Kurma (Pl.35), Varaha (Pl.36), Narasimha (Pl.37), Vamana (Pl.38), Parushurama (Pl.39), Rama (Pl.40), Krishna (Pl.41), Buddha and Kalki (Pl.42), could be seen on the walls of Vaishnava temples. Sivapurana themes are confined to a Saivite temple. Other subjects such as, Siddhi Vinayaka, Govardhana Giridhari, Kaliya Mardana, Krishna Lila, Suryamandal, Chandra-mandals are common to all the temples. Devi (Pl.43), Chamundamardini (Pl.44), Dushtamardini (Pl.45), Mahishasuramardini (Pl.46), Dhumralochanamardini (Pl.47), Lakshminarayana (Pl.48) dominate the walls of a Devi temple. Once in a while, room is made for heroes, court scenes and battle fields. Different artists may select the same subject but their depictions are entirely different.

The style adopted by urban artists is radically different from that of the rural artists. The murals of temples located in Honavar, Kumta and Sirsi are very artistic, elaborate and sophisticated, whereas those that could be seen in the temples of Haladipur (Honavar taluka), Bilgi (Siddapur taluka), Shetgeri (Ankola taluka) are simple, straightforward and at times also crude. It is probable that the services of urban artists were not available in rural areas or the temples could not pay their fees and hence they are compelled to use local talent only. Thus, their murals are more of a ritualistic nature than a piece of art. At times, it is even difficult to distinguish a male from a female character.

Legendary personalities such as Vyasa Muni and contemporaries like Madhvacharya are depicted in some of the temples. The artists have given due importance to non-religious and social subjects. Thus, these murals can be fruitfully studied for the social life of a given period. Dvarapalakas are wearing a long pagadi (-turban), kase bagal bandi (side shirt) and a knee high dhoti. They are carrying cudgel, mace, or even a country-made gun. At times, the Dharmadhikari is shown (Pl.49) as welcoming a visitor with folded hands (namaskara). Bald headed wrestlers (jattis) are in dhotis only (Pl.50). A noble sports his gold embroidered cap (Pl.51), coat and trousers. A rich man carrying a sword (Pl.52), a cow boy with his master engaged in bird hunting (Pl.53), can also be viewed in some temples. Some nobles are in Western dress such as shirts, trousers, and boots (Pl.54). The housewives are always shown in Saraswat Brahmins' costumes (Pl.55). A nose ornament in the form of nattu, nine yard saree worn with back'kachche' are symbolic of the attire of the Konkani women (Pl.56). It is significant that all the female characters (Pl.57), including that of mythical, are also shown in this dress (Pl.15). The artists have not forgotten to include furnitures such as a chair (Pl.54), a cot (Pl.56) in the murals. In some panels, midgets are included in order to show the high status of the deity. These individuals are shown in the contemporary attire which made some to believe that they represented Tippu Sultan and Purnayya. There is no reason why Tippu Sultan should be included in a panel dedicated to Parashurama. A hero fighting a tiger, soldiers engaged in sword fights can also be seen on the walls of some houses.

In true Indian spirit, Kavi artists have not left their identity anywhere. However, the themes of the murals are indicated in Devanagari script inside the panel itself (Pl.21). In only one mural, in addition to Devanagari, Kannada and Tigalari alphabets are also used for this purpose (Pl.14). On the basis of these Kannada characters, it could be said that these panels are 400 to 450 years old. In a few cases, the records are available indicating the year in which the temple and its Kavi art work were completed. Sri Mahalasa Narayani temple of Kumta was constructed in 1565 A.D. Sri Ramamandir of Honavar was erected four centuries ago. Sri Marikamba Devi temple of Sirsi was completed in 1689 A.D. One dilapidated building in Madhukesvara temple complex of Banavasi (Sirsi taluka) which possesses two Kavi Dvarapalakas, must be at least six hundred years old. No temple constructed in the past half a century contains any Kavi art that is worth mentioning.

It is unfortunate that no art lover has recognized this as a distinct form of art. Books on Indian art do not even mention about the existence of Kavi art. Even Dr. Shivram Karanth, a noted art lover and critic has completely omitted this art from his book on Karnataka Paintings. Kavi murals did not find any mention in recently published book on 'Karnataka Traditional Paintings'. Because of lack of recognition and patronage, the Kavi art is on the verge of becoming extinct. The old masters still live in the coastal Karnataka but nobody utilizes their services. The murals in private buildings are the first to disappear when attempts are made to give a modern look to old constructions with the help of cement, oil paints, varnishes and distempers. The temple managements are following this trend by collecting donations from the devotees for renovations or new constructions. In their plans for renovation (jirnoddhara) there is no room to preserve these centuries old Kavi murals. In the last five years, at least fifty small and large temples have lost their Kavi murals. Thus beautiful murals from the temples of Gerasoppe, Honavar, Kumta, Aghanashini have breathed their last without leaving any trace to posterity. The old photographs of Devi temple of Gudde-angadi (Kumta taluka) Basappa temple of Ulavi stand testimony to indicate that these temples had beautiful Kavi murals decorating their walls. A few temples had retained these murals, but under the pretext of giving a face lift, got them retouched with deep red enamel paint and in the process completely ruined them. Sri Marikamba Devi Temple of Sirsi was almost like a treasure house of this art, but when the contract was given for redrawing these panels to a contractor, he made a mess of it. Similarly, murals in the temples of Shirali (Bhatkal taluka) Gokarna (Kumta taluka), Aversa (Ankola taluka) are ruined in the process of redrawing. Therefore, there is an urgent need of preserving these murals in the form of tracings, color or black and white photographs. If such a work cannot be undertaken by any Government agencies, some private organizations may be requested to do this work on war-footing, before it is too late.

Huramunji is in extensive use as a house decorative color. During Dasara, Divali and Tulsi festivals the housewives prepare a thick paste of it and draw Rangoli on floor and walls with the help of a stub prepared out of old cloth. Lambanis and Mysoreans use Kavi for similar purposes. Rock shelter dwellers, used naturally available Kavi for tock painting as far back as 10,000 to 5,000 B.C. Egyptians drew frescos with red ochre in their tombs between 1500 and 1300 B.C. Etruscans also painted red human figures in their caves for the dead, between 800 to 100 B.C. Greeks and Romans drew their mythological themes on pots andvases by using red pigment. It is significant to note that all these figures are drawn with the help of one or other instruments. However, it is not known when etching or engraving Kavi murals came into existence. From the available facts one may venture to guess that this art might have come to coastal Karnataka from Goa, Devanagari script on murals, Goan dresses and ornaments support this view.

Conquest of Goa by Portuguese had severe repercussions on the lives of people of Konkani belt stretching from Karwar to Mangalore. In 1503 A.D. the Portuguese attacked Honavar town from a creck and when the people fled, they burnt down the town and all that was in it. Martin Alfanso De Souza, the governor of Goa attacked Bhatkal town in 1542 A.D. and the town was ruined by sword and fire. Simultaneously, the Portuguese commenced persecuting and converting the Hindus to Christianity in Goa. This compelled, very religious Saraswati Brahmins to migrate with their deities (kuldevatas) to Uttara Kannada district. As most temples in this district were destroyed by the Portuguese, the migrants had to construct new temples. They used the art and architecture of their home-land, that is Goa, and constructed Sri Mahalsa Narayani temple at Kumta, Sri Ramamandir at Honavar, Sri Lakshmi Narayan Mahamaya temple at Ankola. As the exodus from Goa increased, some people reached Dakshina Kannada district and constructed temples at Baindur, Kundapura, Mangalore and other places. It is very significant that all these temples have or had such murals, but their repair and renovation might have resulted in their total destruction.

Hoysala kings had employed large number of sculptors for the construction of temples and these artisans came to be known as Gudigaras (Gudi+Kararu). When temple-building activity declined these artisans migrated to Sorab, Sagar, Honavar, Kumta, Sirsi and other places from the Hoysals kingdom. In Uttara Kannada they might have been employed by the Konkani people to construct their temples according to the traditions followed in Goa. Thus some of the Gudigaras might have acquired new art of Kavi murals. Even today, some of these Gudigaras design panels at the time of annual car festival which very much resemble to the Kavi panels. Thus Kavi art is a product of Goan style adopted by the Kannada artists.


  1. Wolfgang Stadlar, 1958, European Art, Herder and Herder, New York. 
  2. Havel E.B., 1964, Art Heritage of India, D.D. Taraporevala Sons and Co. Private Ltd. Bombay. 
  3. Hamlyn Paul, 1967, Greek Mythology, Fourth Impression, London. 
  4. Sivaramamurthi C., 1970, Indian Paintings, National Book Trust India, New Delhi. 
  5. Karanth Shivaram, 1972, Karnataka Paintings, Prasaranga, Mysore University, Mysore. 
  6. Ganguli Anil Baran, 1979, Fine Arts in Ancient India, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi. 
  7. Rao S.R., and B.V.K. Shastri, 1980, Traditional Paintings of Karnataka, Karnataka Kala Parishat, Bangalore.

See Also:

  • Monochrome Marvels -- Till Kamat presented his scholarly analysis of this rapidly vanishing art form, nobody recognized Kavi art as an art form. Nothing has been done since then.
  • Kavi Art of Coastal Karnataka -- Article and a number of pictures on the durable form of monochrome art known as the Kavi Art prevalent on the Indian West-coast.

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