'Experience the life and times of Raja Ravi Varma', read the invite to the launch in Chennai of a grand book about him. Well, it was quite an extraordinary event really, or built up to be one. Many in the audience were all praise for the efforts put in by the Taj Coromandel GM, Prakash, and his team. And no wonder! The ambience in the hotel’s main ballroom was striking - a throwback to the Raja Ravi Varma era. There were his larger than life paintings on its pillars and walls aglow against the backlights. The main lights were dimmed for effect. Waiters wore dresses and headgear to pass off as belonging to an era long forgotten. There were cocktails, of course. And that was how the show began.
There was in attendance the Who’s Who of Chennai. For a moment I surprised myself standing within handshaking distance of Vyjayanthimala Bali, Dr Pratap Reddy, Anand Amritraj and others even as I was trying to chat up Sunita Shahaney. I had brought as guests a German couple – senior doctors both. Dr Omana Trentz and her husband Dr Otmar now work at Miot Hosiptals after having spending a lifetime working in Germany. Post-retirement, they are now based in Zurich and spend half the year in Chennai. More about them later – a love story that blossomed in the early 1960s.
Going on, to top it all, the spread was first rate. Chefs were flown in from God’s Own Country to provide the original touch and make the Kerala Bhojanam a winner from the start. After a long time, I freaked out on the food.
Titled Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India, the book is no ordinary one. The 360-page coffee-table tome authored by Rupika Chawla is rich in content – perhaps more than 100,000 words; it is embellished with 450-odd pictures of the painter extraordinaire, his family, his life and his original works. What’s more, the book comes in two jackets – one with the picture of a man, and the other of a woman. You can have your choice, but as noted historian S. Muthiah suggested at the launch, you can buy two – one for your library and the other to cut pictures from and have them framed to adorn the walls of your home.
Muthiah’s suggestion is probably a good one, considering that you cannot expect to buy even one original Ravi Varma painting for less than Rs 5,000. So, by paying Rs 7,000 (the book was being sold at the launch for Rs 3,500), you get the best of two worlds. After the launch of the book in India it is rumoured that each of his paintings could fetch lakhs of rupees.
Raja Ravi Varma is known to many Indians, and not necessarily to those in South India alone. At some time or the other, many of us would have seen his paintings, as wall hangings or on calendars or just as copies of the original for sale in shops. His paintings (reflective of what is called 'western academic realism') mostly adorn the walls of palaces and there are several forming part of private collections. Those who are not so fortunate have seen his oleographs. Whatever it is, they have all brought delight to those who have evinced interest to see them. Even filmmakers such as Raj Kapoor were deeply influenced by the women he painted.
That Ravi Varma was a controversial figure there is no doubt. Some considered him an anti-nationalist, thanks to his hybrid style. Sri Aurobindo and Ananda Coomaraswamy, for instance, were clear in their dislike for him. He was referred to by some as a "calendar artist". Yet, the painter extraordinaire survived and thrived. It's amazing in a sense to learn that his paintings are much sought after even today, in the New Millennium that is altogether a different age.
Born in Killimanoor where deer and parrots played, it was an uncle who spotted his talent and introduced him to Alagiri Naidu and Ramaswami Naicker, foremost artists of the time, who in turn introduced the young Ravi to the Travancore court. For nine years, he remained a self-taught artist, working on oil and canvas, and eventually got to work on the portraits of the Maharaja and Maharani of Travancore. Between 1872 and 1876, Ravi Varma’s works were exhibited three times in Madras. According to Muthiah, the artist travelled widely in India, much of it with his brother Raja Raja. It was in 1899 in Bombay that a printing press was set up in collaboration with German technicians to reproduce Ravi Varma’s paintings.
Referring to the book as “a major undertaking in terms of research work”, N. Ram, editor-in-chief, The Hindu, said Ravi Varma was a man who breathed life into mythology-based paintings. During a productive 36 years (he died young at 59), he is said to have painted about 2,000 pictures. Lauding Rupika for a “fine work of scholarship” and for putting “gossip in its place”, Ram added that the book contained a great deal of material that was historical.
Indeed, for Rupika, the first painting she restored in her won studio was a Ravi Varma piece of work. It was his paintings she first set her sights on when she joined the National Gallery of Modern Art as a conservation student years ago. Gradually, the man who created such evocative images intrigued her and she decided to delve deeper and find the mysteries behind the painter. The result is this magnificent book, which will sadly remain out of reach of the common man.