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Wall Paintings: Ancient Medium of Popular Instruction

by Jyotsna Kamat

First Online: July 01, 2006
Page Last Updated: May 09, 2017

Among many art media which flourished in ancient and medieval times, frescos or wall-paintings formed important part of mass education. Temples, palaces, mansions, public places like dance halls and theatres had some special place, necessarily reserved for paintings and murals. For our convenience, we may divide such paintings as religious and 'secular' or non-religious.

Ancient Indians had no such barriers. Hindus traditionally take religion as a way of life (dharma). Individuals are free to worship the deity they believe in. To them love-making was a fine art as well as science (Kamasastra). Birth and death were also a chain of divine action. In the spiritual context, the cosmos being the result of union of Shiva and Shakti, there was nothing vulgar about nudity or stages of erotic love, leading to procreation, which was believed as divine creation. The so called prudery or prejudice did not affect artistic temperament of artisans who saw divinity in love-scenes they used to depict, whether it was Shiva-Parvati or Rati-Manmatha, or Gopi-Krishna.

Gods creation as depicted in mythological works was reproduced by artists and artisans, which gave immense scope for their imagination. However, they were supposed to work within a frame-work. Particular measurement, scope, color, arms, ornaments and surroundings were reserved for particular deity. But certain episodes and situations did provide free vent to artiste's creativity and imagination. This trait rendered their art unique and timeless.

Religious Themes

Each temple which had inner yard and spacious court-yard had the walls, depicting story or heroic exploits of the principal deity. Temples in olden days, were repositories of learning, education, fine arts and many social activities like religious discourses and community-singing. In the days, when literary (school) education was not the only means of livelihood, it was imparted through reading put, reciting and explaining the texts. Pious life, moral education and good citizenry formed the main plank. People at large (men and women) gathered in their spare time, (evenings) to listen to stories and episodes from puranas and kavyas. Harikatha, keertans (song-stories) provided good entertainment. Plays and dance-dramas were enacted in temple-premises. The puraniks or reciters laced their recitation with humor and contemporary happenings.

Some of these stories pertaining to deities were depicted in the inside and outside walls of these temples. Each panel represented an anecdote. At times three or four panels made a complete story. These panels usually provided a background or aftermath of the story/song/play enacted in the temple-premises. Hence the laymen could at once identify the characters or sequences, they had just heard. Listening to Bhagavata or Sivapurana attentively, even an illiterate could remember and repeat the story for which visual representation was always available in pictures and sculptures round about temple.

Secular subjects: Nalachampu of Trivikrama Bhatta (10th century) provides glimpses of popularity of paintings in public places. In autumn, citizens, accompanied by their women, visited art-galleries (chitrasala) in Bhavans (mansions). There used to be scenes from famous kavyas and plays exhibited in these chitrashalas. Color bloches in several cave-temples and big temples like Hazara Rams and Vijays Vitthala (at Hampi) suggest that Bhittichitras or wall-paintings were very common. To-day we are left with only stone-sculptures which had similar theme.

Painting as an art was practiced by the royalty and the nobility. Their houses exhibited murals and frescos, painted skillfully.

K.L. Kamat/Kamat's Potpourri
Hunter and the Hunted from a Lapakshi temple painting
Hunter and the Hunted from a Lapakshi temple painting
Lepakshi paintings are a great source of history to study period life

Virabhadraswami Temple of Lepakshi (16th century) has a big complex dedicated to Papanasheshwara (Shiva) though, there are other deities as well. Stories from Shivapurana and Kirtarjuniya (event wherein Arjuna underwent rigorous penance to obtain weapons from Siva) are depicted. The anecdote of Chola king, offering the life of his own son in retribution of the accidental killing of a calf by that son is beautifully picturised. Scenes of Shiva's wedding with Parvati provides a good study of contemporary royal wedding.

Details of fresco-painting (dry and wet) are available in Manasollasa, an encyclopedic work of 12th century. Preparation of brushes, easel, colors (from vegetables, metals and color stones) are given. Norms were laid down for preparation and plastering of the base (wall) to final gold emboss on the paintings.

Wall-paintings inside the palace were used to educate women. Life of people in different countries was pasteurized, as witnessed by the Portuguese traveler Domingo Paes in 1520 A.D. Inner apartments of king Kantheeravas's palace had pictures of birds and beasts which were seen in the forests of Karnataka in the 17th century. Life-like depiction of wild elephants, cheetah, tigers, boars, bison, various types of deer (Sambar, Krishnamriga, spotted deer, etc), were painted to entertain and educate.

Erotic Paintings

Courtesans were an educated and refined class in ancient times. They patronized artists and craftsmen. Quarters of courtesans were decorated with paintings depicting love-scenes from classics. Heroes and heroines, apsaras and their escapades were drawn. Famous love-episodes of Menaka-Viswamitra, Kunti-Surya, Rati-Manmatha etc figured. Various postures were also depicted as described in erotic works. This was to educate the novices.

K.L. Kamat/Kamat's Potpourri
Fresco Painting at Sibi
Fresco Painting at Sibi
Town of Sibi, Tumkur

"Kanthirava Narasaraja Vijaya", a Kannada classic of 17th century, mentions that a palace called Madanavilasa was specially built by the king having halls depicting 84 erotic postures. It is clear that this was to educate the newly married royal couples. The same work refers to scenes of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavata, on the walls of upper-levels, where women gathered and listened to recitation by women-singers of the scared texts.

The rich and the poor alike were fond of pictures. Market-places or streets had central place where picture strips (chitrapata) were shown depicting stories from classics. Virtues of a pious life and punishments, awaiting the wicked in the hell were stressed. In the camps of Rashtrakuta army, picture strips of stories were shown with the help of machine (yantra) to soldier after a tiring day's march. Shadow-plays and puppet shows were other types of mass entertainment. Finally all the shows were meant to help or instruct laity to lead a virtuous, helpful and useful life.

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  • By Jyotsna Kamat -- Dr. Jyotsna Kamat is an active contributor to Kamat's Potpourri. Read all her articles here.

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