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Book Review : Deepanjana Pal

The Painter

A Life of Ravi Varma

By Deepanjana Pal

Random House India

Pages 284

Price Rs. 395

By Manju Kak 

Through much of the 20th century little space was accorded to the work of the 19th century Travancore painter Raja Ravi Varma. In the drawing rooms of India’s social elite his stylized depiction of Indian women was considered `popular calendar art’.  Ironically it was the very medium—the printing press—through which Ravi Varma sought widespread recognition that generated this reputation.  Regardless of the reasons, his work was never considered `high art’,  nor he as a thinking man’s artist. In the years of Gandhian struggle his stylized beauties  lost their relevance in the Indian imagination.  In the hurly burly of snatching a nation from colonial hands, the romance and tranquility of Varma’s portraiture,  like John Constable’s idyllic landscapes, were too soothing for the mood of those decades. Typically towards the end of her biography,  author Deepanjana Pal says of Ravi Varma’s paintings, “ They  were pretty things  but in a time of revolution,  art needed to be  more vocal and  rooted in reality.” It sums up the reason why the Ravi Varma School of Painting never took off. It is timely that Pal takes her literary talent, her scope of vision to produce a good biography of the artist.

For if drawing rooms had relegated Varma to the sidelines, his  depiction of near visible breasts, seductive Menakas and lusty Arjunas, became the idea of Indian beauty in the eyes of the common man, an idea first formulated in Travancore state. He was a painter who made the gods appear human.  And so, banished from one domain,  through those very printing presses that churned copies for Indian calendar art his popularity grew in the bylanes and gallis of rural and urban India—and through them, survived.

It was Varma himself who,  with uncanny prescience,  set up the Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press in the 1890’s to make his work wider known. He purchased a machine from Germany for the handsome sum of Rs. 50, 000. By then he had gained fame beyond the boundaries of his home state of Kerala through his commissions from the Maharaja of Baroda. Moving to Bombay he met Deen Dayal, the photographer,  from whom he learnt of the First Chicago Exposition where he first exhibited 10 prints including,  “Galaxy of Musicians”   “Bride being led to a Marriage Pandal” and “A Muslim Lady at her Bath”. His work charmed American viewers even though they were exhibited in the Ethnography Pavilion.

Ravi Varma’s paintings brought the immediacy of photography to Indian audiences.  Yet his work conveyed the  sensuous intimacy that could only be captured by an artist. His fame in the court of Thiruvanthapuram began with his portrait of the Maharaja and his consort, Nagercoil Ammachi in which the twenty year old upstaged the experienced Danish court painter Jenson. After that there was no looking back.  In 1875 he presented “Nair woman playing Veena”  to the Prince of Wales who was visiting. Through  his formative years; a prince in Mavelikkara to a painter in the Thiruvanthapuram court, Pal describes his development in four chapters of well-researched scholarship.  She takes her reader through the palace politics of Travancore state, the cultural developments during British colonial rule, to the wider scenario of art and printing of Europe.  Like a river widens into the isthmus of the sea, so does her narrative go from Varma’s home ground to the topography of the globe. From the introduction of ready made oil paints in 1841– when artists no longer had to grind their own–  to the printing press, this book is also the history of Indian art in context of world developments.

Pal also does try to pose the question whether Varma was a prince or painter, a question or dilemma he must’ve posed to himself too.  Any good biography of an artist must finally delve into this angst– the eternal existentialist  dilemma—art or life. She puts forward with delicacy his two lives; mentions his coldness to his wife Bhagirathi who died early after giving him a few children, suggests rumours of his youthful lust for Nagercoil Ammachi whose portrait made him famous, and his own  indifference as a father. To be fair  Pal does try to put some flesh and blood on the man. But I do wish she had not been so covert about it, or so correct. It is almost as if she does not want to tarnish his image. Alas, in not taking those questions headlong she fails to let the reader feel the quickness of his betrayal, anger, jealousy, or empathize with his real life passions of love and lust, the way  one would feel the spurt of fresh blood on a cut wound. Though her account of `The Painter’ is no `Lust for Life’, it is written in seamless prose and provides valuable  groundwork in the realms of Indian art history.   Now if someone were to make it —a film script or fiction maybe, and why not, for as Pal herself quotes,  fiction is not always fictitious—we may discover elements more true than mere facts  bring forth of the painter’s life.