Rajiv Peethambaran’s paintings on show at Durbar Hall capture the beauty of Kerala’s woman

There is an old-Kerala charm to the gallery at Durbar Hall Art Centre. With its tall walls and wooden floors, dim lights and gentle drone from a shruti box, the setting is perfect for Rajiv Peethambaran’s art show of traditional Malayali women — ‘Keralee’. Dressed in chatta-and-mundu, or in white-and-gold saris, Rajiv’s women are often in temples or by paddy fields; one plays a sitar at a nalukettu courtyard, and another dreams into the distance from a balcony.

The Malayali woman has always been his muse, says Rajiv. He began painting while in school, at first with water colours and later with oils, mostly trying to recreate Raja Ravi Varma’s works. “His paintings were printed in magazines and newspapers, and I used to cut them out and collect them. I learnt the basics of painting from observing Ravi Varma’s work; he has always been my inspiration,” says Rajiv.

Alongside painting, Rajiv held a regular job as a web designer but quit last year, at 30, to focus on this exhibition, which is his first.

He began work for the show last November, starting with photoshoots of models in traditional attire at places such as Hill Palace, and Cherthala, his hometown. “A friend and I styled the costumes we wanted each woman to wear, and we composed the frame well before the shoot,” says Rajiv.

Each painting takes several weeks to complete; the larger ones several months even, adds Rajiv. “I begin with a rough sketch, followed by the base colours, over which the rest is completed. It is important for me to finish the face first. I can progress to the rest of the canvas only if the beauty of the face has come out just right,” he says.

A quick glance at the photographs Rajiv has based his work on, will tell you that the final product has often deviated from the original idea, especially in the background detailing. “For example, we shot the woman at the balcony in mid afternoon, but while I was painting it, I realised the gaze in her eyes seemed like one you would see at dusk.” In another instance, a woman walking up the stairs of a pond after her bath was photographed beside a disused well with moss-laden stairs. The painting however depicts well-frequented steps with clear stones, free of weeds.

One of the most striking paintings on display is of a woman lighting lamps at a temple whose walls are lined with diyas. The sheer depth of the work is arresting. “I drew that painting several times over before I got it right,” says Rajiv. He adds that being a self-taught artist has come with its share of challenges, which hard work has helped him overcome. “Every time I open a fresh canvas, I feel like I’m starting a new experiment.”

The painting which took the longest to complete, is also the one Rajiv is most fond of at this exhibition. It depicts a woman with a basket walking away into fields, with a questioning glance shot over her shoulder at the observer. “Women working the soil is a sight I’ve grown up with in my hometown. Yet it took time to get the picture right,” says Rajiv.

In the future, he hopes to hold similar exhibitions of his work in Cherthala, Trivandrum and Kozhikode. He says his subjects will always remain Kerala’s women. “From Ravi Varma’s time, such paintings have been around. Few people do them now though, and this is where I’m most comfortable.” The exhibition-cum-sale will be on at Durbar Hall Art Centre from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. till Nov. 10.