Centuries-old Kurumba paintings on the verge of annihilation

The Kurumbas who live amid the wide range of blue mountains of South India is a tribe mysterious in its rituals and holds the ages-old legacy of Kurumba paintings. The tribe proudly calls itself Kurumba and sometimes Kuruba. They are the best and only artists of Kurumba paintings in the world, therefore their legacy is preserved on their own. But this prestigious heritage of Kurumbas is now threatened as there is only one woman left from the original five painters.

As the last woman of five artists of her tribe, Kalpana Balasubramanian is desperate to keep her art and culture alive. This is her story.

Efforts in the South to popularise the 3,000-year-old traditional Kurmba art form have its origin from Nilgris in Tamil Nadu.

The Kurumba tribe is believed to be the descendants of the Pallavas who lived in the 7th century. Driven out by the Chalukyas, Pallavas settled in the new land in Nilgiris and Wynad, Coorg, and Mysore. The ones who settle in the Nilgris became the Kurumba tribe. Their socio-religious fabric became known in the Kurumba art form. But this prestigious art was only performed by reputed priests and caretakers of the temples and women were only allowed to decorate the borders. Apart from them, no other Kurumbas were allowed to do so.

The Kurumba art represents the gods and believes of their village and tribe. The figures are drawn in lines in minimal style. These lines are independent and concentric. They are mostly found outside the canvas on the walls of the temples. The figures stand free of any depiction of their natural environment, they are purely religious based.


A few months back not many people knew about these century-old paintings, it only became known when Sree Kalaniketana school of art, Mysuru started teaching about the ancient art forms in the school. The Kurumba’s ancestors were also responsible for the glorious rock art at Ezhuthupaarai. Their paintings depict the very way of life of the Kurumba tribe, their beliefs, practices, and escapades.

The themes of the paintings include festivals, religious rituals, agriculture, and lifestyle. Traditionally only four colors are used – red, white, green, and black. The black color is obtained from the bark of the tree, red and white from the soil, and green from the plant leaves. Today artists also use watercolor on handmade papers. As only a handful of Kurmba families are left in the forest, very few hold the legacy in their craft.

On The Verge of Extinction

As people cannot make a living out of the art, many youngsters have chosen to relocate to the areas of livelihood. Krishnan is believed to be the only surviving Kurumba art specialist in his community. Kalpana Balasubramanian is originally the last woman of the five artists of their tribe left. And they are desperate to keep the art form alive.

Kalpana’s father was a traditional Kurumba artist. Since she was in the ninth standard, she paid close attention to her father’s talent. She remember that her father would paint the perfect strokes on the canvas making the art even more lively. She would spend days watching him finishing one painting and then moving on to the next. Her father taught her that the painting should be made by heart, not by just mere imaginations.


Following her father’s path, she started painting during her teenage years and would initially only draw either an elephant or other animals. The time she would spend learning the art, Kalpana grew closer to her tribe’s tradition and legacy. Today Kalpana Balasubramanian is the only woman left in her tribe to know the legacy, the rest are just a handful of men. She had tried teaching young kids, but as soon as they find a job- they take up the art as just a part-time hobby.

Kalpana has now tied hands with the NGOs in order to sell the paintings and popularise them throughout the country. She wishes that people recognize the Kurumba artists and restore the legacy that is on the brink of extinction. As of now, both Krishnan and Kalpana have no financial assistance to carry forward the legacy.

With the help of the Sree Kalaniketana school of art, Mysuru, the art is being preserved by young minds. Around 60 students from the school have mastered the intricacies of the art and found solace in the art form. The students who were strangers to this age-old art form, today praises as well as celebrate it. They also hold time to time exhibitions to showcase their talents and make people aware of the country’s hidden legacy and be attracted to its beauty.

With these collective approaches, and together with other policies, the Kurumba art form can definitely survive its annihilation.

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