published on March 17, 2006


                                           A colourful Ritual Art – Padma Jayaraj

              Undatable and unaging,  kalamezhuthu, is a colourful ritual art. Aboriginal and Dravidian in essence, this is an exclusive art with its own measure and rhythm. Neither miniature nor gigantic in size, the figures in these picturesque designs have the dignity of their own stature and physiognomy. Mysterious yet homely, they take us to dwellings in forests.

             When spells and sorcery were modes of beliefs, gods lived in the super luminous darkness of shrines under giant trees. Ancient homesteads in the tropical Kerala have retained their shrines dedicated to snakes as part of Nature worship. Mother goddess in many temples is still under trees. Ritual worship of the hunter god, Vettekkaran and the tribal god, Sastha is connected with Kalamezhuthu for their traditional form of worship.

        Kalamezhuthu is a ritual connected with drawing on the floor for seasonal festivals in shrines.  Kalam falls under the category of Dhooli chitram (drawings, with coloured powders). Men from certain communities draw Kalam, an elaborate picturesque design. Drawing telltale, stylised figures of gods and demons for temple festivals, is part of the mystical rhythm of our folk traditions.  The carpet-like designs are made of herbal powders. The colours used are white, black, yellow, green and ochre that give a rare vitality with shades of old world magic associated with primitive religions. In Kerala, ritualistic festivals begin from the Malayalam month of Vrihchikam continue through the harvest seasons until the pre- monsoon showers.
 Different Kalams

     Naga kalam for propitiating the serpents is distinct and different from Bhagavathi kalam invoking the Mother Goddess. The worship of the Divine Mother was prevalent from the banks of Nile to the Sindhu  in pre-Vedic times. In kerala, Devi and kali are two aspects of Mother Nature, the creative and the destructive force deeply imprinted in our collective unconscious. The figure of kali with multiple arms, one carrying the bleeding head of a demon evokes primordial fury and fear. The kalams for vettekkaran, the hunter god  and  Sastha, the tribal god illustrate our myths and legends.
The rituals 

     The drawing of the Kalam starts in the afternoon. Expert hands draw the figures in an hour or two. First the border line is drawn. And from the central line the figure takes its shape. The thick backdrop is formed by filling black, burnt husk of paddy.  Over this backdrop, the picture emerges in lively colours from head to feet. After decorating the figure with ornamentation, lighted bell-metal lamps are placed on the four corners. In a sanctified moment, life dawns in the eyes of the figure. Offerings heaped are all agricultural products familiar to the farmers of kerala. Lighted lamps, the red-coloured dress, the sickle, jingling girdle, and ankle bells of the oracle are placed on a pedestal. Leafy decorations flutter above the Kalam.

                The ceremonies begin well after twilight. With kalam puja the deity is evoked. In deepening dusk, under flickering lights, this is sacred ground indeed! Nearby, the small shrine dedicated to the object of worship is alit. The percussion –dominant music in rising tempo, resonates quickening the heart beats of the devotees. The song narrates the legend associated with the picture drawn. The figure illustrates the most dramatic moment of the story. Legends and myths vary from region to region.

         Thiri uzhichil is a stylised dance performed around the kalam holding a flaming flywhisk. Then the oracle in trance, intensify the drama. Wiping out this meticulously drawn kalam in frenzy by the possessed is the grand finale. The devotees humbled by the experience, stand subdued and silent; receive prasadam: a handful of the powder that was the kalam.    
            During religious festivals, colourful fantasies, in symbols of divinity, belong to the imagination of Kerala. Here is a world that connects us to our past, a world of our spiritual moorings. Here lie the roots of Kerala’s mural paintings, of her indigenous theatres: mudiyettu, theyyam and others, and her percussion -dominant music. kalamezuthu is the cultural equivalent to the history of a community. Uninjured by iconoclasm, unaffected by foreign form, unique to Kerala, Kalamezhthu  remains a ritual art from time immemorial. Today, a harmonic blend of the tribal, the Dravidian and the tantric strains, it speaks in volumes of its origin and growth over millennia. Now the Mother goddess, and Sastha co-exist with Aryan gods in our temples.


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