Kuzhi Malika Paintings Restored


Uma Maheswari

 {S UMA MAHESWARI, is a freelance journalist based at Thiruvananthapuram. Her articles in   Malayalam and English have appeared in leading dailies and periodicals. She has authored the biography of Sree Padmanabhadasa Uthradam Tirunal Marthanda Varma titled “Travancore:The Footprints of Destiny” and “Truppadidanam” (in Malayalam). She has contributed the text for  “‘visual History of Travancore” -published by Malayala Manorama. She is working at the Office of the Kerala University}.


I am a frequent visitor to Kuthira Malika the royal residence of Maharaja Swati Tirunal. Near this there is a single storied structure.  It is a high building. In the ground floor functions the office of the Kuthira Malika. I prefer to walk through these structures, visualizing the life and times of Maharaja Swathi Tirunal.

A row of pictures in the first floor of this office always attract my attention. Though it is not visible clearly,  I view them from outside.   It has been in my mind for long to study these works and due to other ore-occupations I postpone every time. In March 2009,  I sought His Highness permission, which was granted immediately. I was accompanied by a Palace Staff. I climbed the spiral wooden staircase. To my surprise I saw 60 valuable paintings displayed high above the 18ft wall. From below I could see the magnificent works but that was not suffice to undertake a study and sad to say most of them were eaten away by termites.

Photographs of the Paintings  before and after restoration.

Picture Before : Nadaapuvakakkarar

Picture Before : Nadaapuvakakkarar


Picture After :Nadaapuvakakkarar

Picture After :Nadaapuvakakkarar

I informed His Highness and the next day, a step ladder was arranged and I climbed to see the colorful wonders-yes-they were great works on ethnic tribes and are more than 250 years old. The letter used for the captions are square alphabets we find in Granthams. I was thrilled. The same day I informed His Highness and my request to recopy the works was granted. I put aside all my other works and it took one week to recopy them in my digicam. The pcitures had a thick layer of dust gathered over the years.  I told His Highness that I can restore these valuable works-as soft copies and then we will think of recopying them on paper or canvas later. He readily agreed and my work began on Pathaam udayam-that is Medam 10th considered to be auspicious.

While restoration, I searched for its background. So far I didnt get any proof to establish who the artist was. Nothing was mentioned in the work. In the meantime I came across similar works-at the Yale University. An unknown artist had executed similar work for Rev Fr William Twining and Daniel Poor-two American Missionaries. The caption of the works was executed by a Madurai based writing master T Varada Pillai. The series was handed over to the Missionaries on 2 Feb 1837.

What surprised me was the resemblance in the theme. I found similar works here and in the Yale collection. At the same time, I found the following differences.

The Madurai works-are beautiful in the sense that they are extremely graceful-with prominent features. The works I found here are realistic. The Madurai works have no background. Here I saw plenty of huts and single storied houses,  lot of greenery, swaying palms, and the cloudy sky. In the the Madurai works,  the male and female of each tribe are essayed separately while here I saw both of them in a single frame.

There was a period when the attire and adornment were specific for each community.  Thus the works I saw here unveiled a slice of social history. The attire I saw in the Madurai work is rich and gracefully ornamented-highlighting the skill and imagination of the artist-hence non-realistic to some extent.

Also, the Madurai works are executed on paper. Here, the works are carried out on a surface of Kummayam-which indicates the evolution of art from the 2D mural works to 3D realistic ones. The works are beautifully shaded. These pictures may be the one evolved and portrayed in this transition period. Decades later the world witnessed the amazing works of Raja Ravi Varma known for realism.

All the works in the Madurai works have captions in Tamil and in English. The works in the Palace have captions in the old Malayalam language and as I said earlier, square letters are used. The medium is vegetable color.

The works can be classified into two categories-namely-1. That related to occupations-like carpenter, barber, weaver, flower sellers etc and 2. The people representing paradesis that is aliens-like Marathas, Tulus, Punjabis etc.

Anizham Tirunal Marthanda Varma (1729-58) instituted the Painkuni festival (March-April) at the Sree Padmanabhaswami Temple. He introduced 64 varieties of fine arts to be performed in and around the temple premises. Only Kathakali, Thullal and Velakali are retained even today.

Performers were given the privilege to display their fetes annually and gradually it became the tradition. The pictures at the kuzhi malika  reveal the certain performers in action.
It took three years for me  to restore all the works except a few which are damaged beyond. Soon the images will be laminated  and displayed so that interested people can have a glimpse of our society two and a half century ago.

Photographs of the Paintings  before and after restoration.

Picture Before

Picture Before




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