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Meet the anonymous calendar artists of Sivakasi

Meet the anonymous calendar artists of Sivakasi

Temple murals, proscenium theatre, cinema ... religious calendars that adorn homes across the country are underrated, but have rich artistic influences

They have never held an art exhibition, but their pictures turn up on walls regularly — and stay there until the year ends. These are the anonymous calendar artists of Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu.

Calendar art, especially in southern India, is a genre that recasts the old skill of temple murals into a new mould, aided by techniques that are drawn from proscenium theatre, cinema and British colonial perspectives, with a uniquely Indian sensibility.

From the 18th Century, the printing press and celebrated artists like Raja Ravi Varma have helped to create a mass market for religious pictures, especially in Hindu iconography. Annual calendars blended the commercial and spiritual aspects of the art into a booming industry.

Before computerisation introduced automated printing, hundreds of illustrators used to gather in Sivakasi towards the end of the year to start drawing what are known as ‘God pictures’ in industry parlance, for the following year’s calendars.

Today, anecdotal evidence suggests that there are only around eight to nine artists who specialise in drawing devotional pictures in Tamil Nadu. MetroPlus talks to three.

Finding appreciation online

At 83, Sivakasi-based S Murugakani’s career is enjoying a renaissance of sorts during the lockdown. “My grandson, who is studying Visual Communications in Coimbatore, has been spending lockdown at home with me. He has been uploading my video tutorials on his YouTube channel. The viewer response has been very encouraging,” chuckles Murugakani over the phone from Sivakasi.

Born in Elayirampannai in Virudhunagar district in 1937, Murugakani migrated to Sivakasi after finishing school in 1955 to realise his ambition of becoming a full-time illustrator. “I was fortunate to meet the noted calendar artist C Kondiah Raju (1898-1972) when I was in school in Kovilpatti. He gifted me a freehand drawing that inspired me to take up art professionally,” says Murugakani.

After 11 years as an apprentice to commercial artist Ravi, Murugakani decided to launch his career from a home-based studio in 1967.

Besides calendar work, he is kept busy with private art commissions from corporate companies. “Even though the subjects are all devotional, calendars have to present ideas differently every year. I have to understand what the client wants, and draw according to his or her request, while staying true to the deity’s iconography,” says Murugakani. Often, the veteran artist has been taken to historic temples by his clients to make sketches of the deities there. “Since photography was banned in temples until quite recently, I used to take paper and pencil colours to make preliminary drawings of the resident deities in the shrines. I would then come back and work on the original painting for three to four weeks,” he says.

“Among the more memorable of these trips was the one to the Sri Dhandayuthapani Swamy temple of Palani in 1980, where I was shown some of the rare jewels and weapons that adorn Lord Murugan, which I sketched separately. I did a portrait of the lord in Raja Alangaram (royal costume), which was well-received. My paintings of the Ayyappan Temple have been used for over 40 years,” says Murugakani.

Many of his paintings have also played a cameo role in old Tamil films. “I always feel thrilled when I spot my pictures in many of the prayer room scenes of movies,” he says.

Murugakani remains partial to poster paints, and sources them locally. He has retained around 10-20 of paintings in his personal collection. “A painting attains divine qualities when we paint the deity’s eyes. Until then, it is just a picture. The appreciation I get from the observer is far more satisfying than any monetary gain,” he says.

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