For the longest time, society assigned many jobs exclusively to men. From ridiculous stigmas about women as drivers to a preconceived notions that the sciences are only reserved for men, we have come a long way.
However, when it comes to painting the walls of temples or shrines in India, it has been the sole realm of male artists. Society has postulated several illogical reasons for that. One of the major ones is the restriction imposed on women when it comes to entering a temple during the menstrual period, as it somehow 'threatens' the purity of the place. There is also the age-old misconception that women are not designed for physical work. But the winds of change are blowing and once again, Kerala shows the way. A temple committee in Kozhikode’s Vadakara brought about a revolution in this regard when they commissioned a team of five women the job of painting traditional temple art. This local form of art is known as Chanthattam. To date, this kind of work has solely been reserved for men, who fast for several days before undertaking the work.
The team of five women artists comprised Ambili Vijayan, Rejina, Swathi, Anaswara, and Haritha, hailing from different parts of Malabar. They completed the work in 18 days, spread over the months of January and February this year. When the temple committee of the 300-year-old Mannabrath Devi Temple in Karthikappalli, Vadakara entrusted the work of Mughappu and Chanthattam (painting of the walls and temple ceiling with murals) to them, the artists jumped at the opportunity. In interviews with local newspapers, they gave a lot of credit to the temple authorities for breaking stereotypes and assigning them this job, while also helping them out with all the required amenities and arrangements.
The five-member team also included Rajina Radhakrishnan, a professional painter and sculptor, and fine arts students Anaswara, Swathi, and Haritha. Not only did the temple committee assign the women a task that has been historically reserved solely for men, but also welcomed a hijab-clad fine arts student who had been making a live sketch of the artists as they were painting from outside the periphery of the temple. This progressive move transcends the orthodox rules that have traditionally restricted entry to temples in India. The only precaution that the team followed was not promoting the work-in-progress on social media platforms in order to avoid negative attention, alluding to possible interference from right-wing Hindu extremists. Additionally, even though the temple committee did not set any rules for the artists, the women voluntarily stayed away from work during their periods to respect existing traditions.
Kerala has once again served as a beacon for progressive ideals. This event will go on to inspire many women artists and show the world that no man-made barrier can stand in the way of art. The desired effect has already taken place as two more temple committees in Kozhikode have approached the team for similar works at their respective temples.
Ambili Vijayan, in an interview with The Telegraph