Kurumba mimesis from the Nilgiris

Vanakkam! This is how a vibrant Kurumba fresco in my drawing room executed in bright hues greeted me on the occasion of Holi. I could feel the gush of wind touching my skin with its freshness coming all the was from the Nilgiris sitting in my drawing room. The sublimity of these paintings lies in the humility of the natural motifs with a touch of tribal taste. The work of artistic excellence speaks of its thick and feverish forest and inhospitable climate which seldom attracted invaders in the past, except the bold tribal people, who were pastoralists, hunters and gatherers. The Kurumbas who live in the mid-ranges of the Nilgiris or Blue Mountains entertain a confusing and mysterious identity. They are the modern representatives of the ancient Kurumbas or Pallavas, who were once so powerful through southern India, but very little trace to their genesis now remains. In the seventh century, the power of the Pallava kings seems to have been at its zenith.

The Kurumbas inhabit septilateral areas where the Western and Eastern Ghats of Deccan meet. It has high and majestic hills; tall and shady trees; fresh and cool air. On the whole, its scenery is pleasingly romantic and grand, with its innumerable scholars, streams and waterfalls, peaks of respectable heights and impressive valleys. These communities have been practising an ancient rock-art known as Eluthu Paarai. We would not have been able to appreciate Kurumba art were it not for the efforts of the C.P. Ramaswami Iyer Foundation. The Foundation discovered the Kurumba tribe and with it the art being practised by only one man. Today I am going to take you on a tour of the intense forests at the Nilgiris and introduce you to the lovely inhabitants. Bon Voyage!

The Nilgiris:

The Nilgiri district also called as The Nilgiris or The Nilgiri Hills, is one of the smallest districts in Tamil Nadu. Etymologically the word 'Nilgiri' literally means 'blue mountains'. The Nilgiri District is a hilly area of 2549.0 sq. km, on the Eastern Ghats and the Western Ghats, or the Sahyadris, the two prominent mountain ranges that run almost parallel to the coastline of Peninsular India. With an average elevation of 6800 ft, the Nilgiri District is bounded on the west by Kerala State, on the north by Karnataka state and on the south-east by Coimbatore District. It, therefore, occupies the highest and westernmost parts of Tamil Nadu State.

The first description about the Nilgiri plateau was mentioned as early as 1117 A.D in a Kannada inscription, which may be found in, Epigraphica Carnatica by B. Lewis Rice. The internal history of the district, down to the data the English occupation in 1799, no definite record is available. W. Francis in 1908 in The Nilgiri: Madras District Gazetteers, described that the name ‘Nilagiri’, is at least 800 years old and was bestowed by the dwellers in the plains below the plateau, was doubtless suggested by the blue haze which envelops the range in common with most distant hills of considerable size. The idea that it is due to the violet blossoms of the masses of Strobilanthes which periodically carpet wide stretches of the grass downs of the plateau is a latter -day refinement: these plants do not grow along the outer edge of the hills, are invisible from the low country, and so are not likely to have originated the name. Regarding the history and as an administrative unit, the editor of the Gazetteer mentioned that it is, however, evident from the Silappadikaram that the Nilgiri is formed part of the Chera Nadu during the rule of Chenguttuvan. After the Gangas and the Hoysalas, the district formed part of the Vijayanagara Empire. Following the decline of the Vijayanagara Empire in 1565, the Mysore rulers gradually became independent and gained control over the Nilgiris. The treaty of Seringapatam at 1789 brought the entire district under the British and it became a part of Coimbatore District. In August 1868 the Nilgiris was separated from Coimbatore District. On 1st February 1882, Richard Wellesley Barlow becomes the first Collector of the Nilgiris.

The Kurumbas

The Kurumbas are ancient inhabitants of the Nilgiris district, although their origin is widely debated. They claim to originate from the borders of Wayanad (now Kerala), Gunwale (now Karnataka) and Attala (now Kerala), all of which are located in and around the Nilgiris plateau. Jakka parthasarathy in 2003 asserted five distinctive Kurumbas in the Nilgiris on the basis of the region of residence, languages spoken, and a variety of cultural traits, namely as Aalu or Paalu Kurumbas, Betta Kurumbas, Jenu or Then Kurumbas, Mullu Kurumbas and Urali Kurumbas. The Jenu Kurumba and the Betta Kurumba are predominantly seen in the Nilgiri biosphere. Aalu Kurumbas are found in the talukas of Coonoor and Kotagiri, Betta Kurumbas and Jenu Kurumbas inhabit the Mudumalai Sanctuary, Mullu Kurumbas are found in Pandalur taluk whereas Urali Kurumbas are distributed in the taluks of Gudalur and Pandalur.

The Kurumba art

The Kurumba art is an expression of its socio-religious fabric. The art is traditionally practised by the male members of the temple caretakers, or priest to the Kurumba village. The women of the family contribute to the decorations at home in the form of borders around the door and windows and kolams on the floor. Other Kurumbas are not allowed to practice the art. The canvas for the painting is the outer wall of the temple and the house. The figures representing their gods and the Kurumba man expresses Kurumba beliefs and the milestones of the village and the tribe. The artist also draws inspiration from his life. The figures are made up of lines and are minimal in style. Lines, independent and concentric, dot and simple geometric figures are the basic elements. The figures also stand free of any depiction of their natural environment. The defining context is the surface on which they are painted. Four colours are used traditionally: red soil and white (Bodhi mann) soil, black is obtained from the bark of a tree (Kari maran) and green from the leaves of a plant (Kaatavarai sedi). A piece of cloth is used to apply the colours onto the walls.

There is a prehistoric site near Velaricombai, a Kurumba hamlet, located 16 km from Kotagiri. The ochre painting, spread over the rock canvas date back to the pre-historic era and unfolds vital clues about how the Kurumbas, a tribal community in The Nilgiris, lived. There, a gigantic cult figure stares from the rock canvas. He has long limbs and carries a decapitated head on his right hand, while the torso of the slain person lies below. A halo in dotted line surrounds the huge figure. He is a key figure perceived by the pre-historic people as their main deity or cult hero. A kurumba priest, even today, draws anthropomorphic forms on temple walls over the previous year’s paintings. They believe that the spirit from the painting flies to the pre-historic figure on the cliff and rejuvenates it. They conduct a secret ritual to recharge the cult figure, as they believe he brings prosperity to their hamlet.

The rock paintings depict the lifestyle of his ancestors. They depicted rituals involving harvests, festivals, and death, as well as things they were scared of, such as snakes, and muni (evil force), ‘dodda deiva’ (the big deity) ‘neer deiva’ (water deity) and the kudils and parans (machans). A ‘muni sangili’ shown near the feet of the beheaded figure depicts the evil force. These paintings are 5,000 years old or dated to 3500 BCE.

Hand brushes, fibers or barks of trees were likely used for the painting. They could have used the bamboo ladders, held the brush in their mouths and painted too closely. James Wilkinson Breeks (the first Collector of the Nilgiris, and in whose memory Breeks Memorial School was established), and many others like Antony Walker, Paul Hawkins and William Nobel have studied the painting but they didn’t know the local interpretations.

Now you can probably relate the deep ritualistic meaning of the vibrant paintings executed in bright colours. The Kurumba tribe and their way of life are well established now with the efforts of the C.P. Ramaswami Iyer Foundation along with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs of the Government of India. The tribe is now teeming with skilled artists who practise their unique art daily and produce beautiful paintings. It is wonderful to see an ancient art avoid a dismal end. Instead, it has seen a new beginning and is growing stronger than ever. Under the leadership of Dr. Nandita Krishna, the Foundation dedicated their efforts into training the youth of the Kurumba tribe. From 1999, the Foundation has been training several Kurumba youths every year. Initially, it was difficult to train men and women that are accustomed to a hard life to adapt to using pen and a brush and to grasp the feel of the paper or canvas they paint on through the tools they use. However, with practise and the support of the Foundation, Kurumba art has flourished and now not only provides a way for the Kurumba youth to preserve and celebrate their heritage but also provides them with a livelihood.  The revived Kurumba art has moved from the walls of temples and transferred itself onto readily accessible mediums such as paper. Watercolours are the most common source of colour in their paintings now. The revived art grows with the traditional form which is proof of respect for its historic origins and ability of the art to adapt to modern times and tastes without losing its ancient tribal essence.

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