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An Artisan’s Touch—Sitting Down With Veena Srinivas

Kavi Kale is a monochromatic art form that was hugely prevalent in the coastal regions of the nation but has been sidelined with the advent of modern contemporary styles as well as the constant temple renovations. Mrs Veena Srinivas has been practising and holding exhibitions in this particular art form in a bid to revive interest and awareness towards this rapidly declining cultural heritage.

Could you give us a brief idea about the art form, Kavi Kale?

Kavi Kale originated in the 16th century in Goa. According to a book written by the late Krishnakand Kamat, it says that the people from the Saraswat community initiated this art. This type of art form was found on every temple’s walls that belonged to the Saraswat community. Over a period of time, new art forms emerged and this art form got neglected. Around ten years ago, Kavi Kale had been completely sidelined, with little to no recognition. It’s called Kavi Kale because they used red mud which was abundantly available at that period of time. The natural binding material was jaggery and sand. They would leave the mixture for fermentation for more than two weeks and then they would hand-pound it. The seashells were burned to get a white lime. Several coats of these white limes would then be applied on the wall. Once the white lime coating dried they would apply a bit of red mud to it and put one or two coatings of it. Once the coating was neither too dry nor too wet, a sharp instrument would be used to etch the designs onto the wall. So, the red layer would get peeled off and the white lines would emerge showing us the final painting.

What are the basic themes depicted in this art form?

Kavi Kale can be used to depict a large variety of themes including modern contemporary themes. But since it was initially practised on temple walls, they would depict stories from Vishnupurana, telling the stories of Lord Vishnu; for Lord Shiva, it would be Shivapurana and so on. The basic idea was to imbibe a sense of curiosity in a child’s mind as he enters the temple and sees the artwork. The child would ask questions about the content of these paintings and would learn about the epics of our mythology through art, without forcing him to sit and learn about it.

How long have you been practising Kavi Kale? What got you interested in it personally?

I’ve been practising it for 10-12 years. One of the reasons was that it was a waning art form that people needed to learn about again.

If you go around asking the people living in the coastal areas along Kavi Kale, they would have a vague idea about what the art form is and how it’s practised. But this wasn’t the scenario ten to twelve years ago. People barely knew about this art form. I felt that if people know about the art forms originating in other states, we should also know about the art form that used to be prevalent in our own state. As an artist, we have the responsibility to not just create new works but to also preserve what has been passed down by our ancestors. Thinking about Kavi Kale in this way changed the entire course of my life. I’ve been working on Kavi Kale for ten years now, holding exhibitions and workshops in more than 20 schools to promote this art form.

Have you seen an increased interest towards this type of art form in recent years?

The first step for me was to increase awareness as Kavi Kale had to be reintroduced into the society. So I went to temples, photographed the original murals, and held an exhibition on their recreations. The exhibition received a very wide media coverage to which I am really grateful. The turnout was really good and the people could relate to it as they had seen similar artworks in their ancestral homes.

The memory of these artworks was fading for them and the exhibition got them to recollect seeing these paintings in the past. Once that happened, the interest started developing. It’s a small step but the interest is slowly increasing. There is still a long way to go. Initially, it was quite difficult as Kavi Kali has no distinct style. The figures and paintings are done in different ways in different temples. I had to study the motifs and patterns that kept repeating across all figures. I had to do some more research on the epics and the Puranas as this is what is being represented.

In conclusion, how has this fest, M.I.L.A.P, been for you? Has it been a good experience?

I’m extremely grateful to MAHE as well as the M.I.L.A.P team. I usually hold exhibitions once every two years in Mangalore, but to go out of the city and hold exhibitions is extremely difficult because transporting 32 pieces of work is not a joke. So when I was approached to come to be a part of the fest, with the M.I.L.A.P team taking care of all the transport issues, my burden was cut in half. I’m extremely grateful to the Faculty of Architecture, the students, and the volunteers. I’d love coming back here if I got the chance. It’s not just that an artist needs to work to retain an old art form. It’s equally important for the people to come and take an interest in the paintings. That’s what has happened over here with the students coming to the exhibition and acknowledging the paintings instead of just glancing at them. People coming to the artist and asking about their art form gives a major motivation to the artist. Its been a really good experience.