This ancient tribal art was at its brink of extinction a couple of decades ago and was revived only through the meticulous efforts of the CP Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation.

Meet Krishna the Kurumba artist breathing life into a 3000-year-old tribal art form
Features Art Friday, June 22, 2018 - 12:07

At first there’s only a shy smile, followed by silence. Krishna, dressed in an off-white shirt and a blue lungi beckons us to sit on the plastic mat he’s spread out on the thinnai. The walls behind him give us ample hints of his children’s artistic pursuits. Following our gaze, the 41-year-old explains, “My girls love art. They’re not here now, they’ve gone to the town with their mother. I also have a five-year-old son.”

There’s a small, low-lying desk, a bundle of thick parchment papers, a few paper rolls, a couple of steel lids and plastic cups containing colour pigments and a bunch of brushes laid out for us to see.

Krishna opens a plastic folder and carefully lays out thick sheets of his paintings on the plastic mat. Giant black ants trot around on these paintings, scampering away only when the papers are picked. Krishna, a resident of Valerikombai - the Kurumba settlement in the Nilgiris, is among the very few Kurumba artists in the country.

The Kurumbas, an indigenous Nilgiris tribe, are expert forest dwellers and are also known for their healing powers.

Path to Krishna's house in Valerikombai

This ancient tribal art was at its brink of extinction a couple of decades ago and was revived only through the meticulous efforts of the CP Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation. The glorious rock art at Ezhuthupaarai, a few kilometres from Krishna’s settlement, has a reputation of being at least 3000-years-old, which the Kurumba’s believe is the work of their ancestors. Ezhuthupaarai has depictions of the Kurumba way of life, their honey hunting escapades, farming, animals, their vessels, etc.

Krishna, who was taught the art just six years ago by his grandfather, admits there was a dire need to pass on the knowledge to the younger generation a decade ago. “Many from my generation failed to learn the art. In my family, nobody else showed interest to learn it from my grandfather. What was once a community filled with artists became a community with just one,” he explains. In his settlement of 90, only three are being trained by Krishna currently.

Kurumba art

His paintings are majorly on the Kurumba way of life, their festivals and most importantly their stories. After much prodding, Krishna, who is a man of very few words, agrees to narrate the Kummi Katha. “It is a long story, you sure you want to listen?” he laughs.

Kummi Katha goes by plenty of names - thavidu kathai, the story of two sisters or the story of how the elephant was born, etc. and Krishna who’s a better storyteller on canvas reluctantly begins narrating the tale behind his painting.

There once lived two sisters, one smarter than the other, and the two shared their love for the soft, fine husk (also bran) found at the bottom of the ural (stone grinding tool). The older sister, wanting to enjoy all the fine husk for herself, kept sending the younger one away to go fetch water immediately after pounding the grains. It was quite some time before the younger sister understood her older sister’s selfish intent and decided to teach her a lesson.

Wanting to scare her sister, she fashioned a huge being out of things like morrum (flat plate-like item made out of palm leaves), cane baskets, ulakkai (long stone pestle) and urals (grinding base in stone). Before turning into the elephant, she instructed her brother-in-law to throw seven stones at her (as an elephant) after which she’ll return to her human form. Seeing the huge being walk down the path, the villagers ran in fear. Unfortunately, the brother-in-law forgetting her instructions, hid himself inside a hollow tree out of fear. The younger sister, now in the elephant’s form, tramples her older sister to death and walks into the forest, unable to return to her human form. 

“In some versions, the brother-in-law too turns into an elephant and the two live together in their animal forms. Also, people believe the lone elephants they come across could actually be the younger sister,” Krishna adds.

In its form, Kurumba art shares similarities with the ancient tribal art of the Warlis. While Warli art is majorly white on brown, Kurumbas use pigments from trees, barks and leaves to colour their illustrations.

The yellow oozes out from the Vengai tree trunks (Malabar kino, Indian kino tree or Vijayasar), the green is squished out from kattikeeda leaves and there’s boodhi mann for white, semman for red and Kalimann for yellow. Karimara pattai (Diospyros candolleana bark) gives them black. “By mixing the yellow from vengai trees with the black from kari trees, we get shades of brown and also black,” adds Krishna.

Krishna collects black pigment from Karimaram

The Karimara pattai is a sparsely found pigment. "The tree also has healing powers so the bark is very sacred," he adds. While Krishna has adopted paper, he's still wary of using synthetic paints.

While folks used aalam vaer (banyan tree roots) for brushes, Krishnan admits that it is not favourable to use them on paper. “It is a tedious process and suits better while paining on walls. Also, the forms are blunt while painting with the aalam vaer,” he explains adding “Earlier the Kurumbas only painted temples, house walls, windows and pots so the aalam vaer was preferred.”

Krishna’s painting lessons are briefly interrupted by trouble makers swinging from one branch to the other, tossing around unripe mangoes and a tribe of haughty goats scrambling upon vessels piled up for washing.

Krishna today travels across the country, conducting workshops when invited, sharing his knowledge of the art form with the others. He also works on commissioned projects based on requests. With help from the Keystone Foundation, an organisation that works with the Nilgiris tribes, Krishna has also been able to gain access to art supplies and also has a platform to sell his work. 

Is a painting alone sufficient to run his family of five? “Actually, I paint when there’s no work in the coffee or pepper plantations. My work is now being recognised, I’ve also got plenty of certificates from the government and organisations, but what I make out of it is not enough to run the family,” he says spreading the certificates over his paintings.

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