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August 2009

Kalam, ritual ground paintings of Kerala

Chantal Jumel learnt from Sri Parameswara Kurup, a ritual painter attached to the prestigious temple of Ambalapuzha in Kerala, the technique and spirit of kalam ground painting. Chantal also studied Kathakali and Mohini - Attam during her visit to Kerala.

In Kerala, the tradition of ephemeral painting is called "Kalam-Eluttu Pattu" literally "to draw and to sing the kalam". Almost invisible, the paintings of Kerala or kalam do not expose themselves to the morning walker's gaze like the kôlam. They are mostly drawn in the intimacy of the house and focus the attention of the family or the devotees when they are represented within the precincts of the temples.

In Kerala, there are communities of ritual painters whose function consists in drawing in temples or in houses, temporary paintings with mineral and vegetable powders called yantra, mandala or kalam to welcome and appease the invoked divinity.

The latest ones are generally anthropomorphic images and the officiating painter in charge of the kalam carries out the form of the divine which is offered to experience through sight and touch.

These paintings realized by means of mineral and vegetable powders are used in ceremonies in homage to the Goddess, to the snakes and to other divinities of the Indian pantheon.

They are also elaborated with a therapeutic purpose because in the mind of an Indian villager, diseases, barrenness and premature death were and are still attributed to supernatural powers or to the grabbing "spirits" which it is advisable to cajole or to annihilate by incantations, songs and symbolic gestures of the hands (mudra).

These ephemeral drawings do not result from the imagination of the priest; they are dictated by precise rules which include forms and colours. To understand these ceremonial paintings it is necessary to show them in connection with the context.

The iconography relates to the myths, to the legends and to the rules memorized and passed on from one generation to another generation. The learning and the transmission of these ritual paintings take place within the different traditions.

Boys assist their fathers, prepare and mix the powders, fill in the design with the appropriate colours and observe the sketching until they are considered worthy to draw themselves.

Text & photos shared by Chantal Jumel