Art historian Rupika Chawla's book on Raja Ravi Varma is a story lit by colonial pageantry, nationalist colourscape, and modern enterprise

The answer rings out even before you finish asking conservator and art historian Rupika Chawla, why Raja Ravi Varma is the most loved and most hated modern painter in India. “Few saw the originals in palaces and private collections, only the oleographs. Before the first museum of his works was set up (1935), the harm was done. He was branded a calendar artist.”

The oleographs had brought him extensive press coverage and stardom. But after the revivalist Swadeshi Movement (1907) his methods (western academic realism) and materials (oil paint) tarred him as an anti-nationalist. Sri Aurobindo denounced Ravi Varma for his preoccupation with the external world, excluding the inward, the subtle, and the spiritual. Ananda Coomaraswamy spurned him for superficial imitations of European styles, and “Victorian” versions of gods and goddesses.

A reassessment of Ravi Varma was sparked by an exhibition of his works curated by Rupika Chawla and A. Ramachandran, at the National Gallery, New Delhi (1993). More determining revaluation emerges in Rupika Chawla's Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India (Mapin, 2010), the result of six years' labour by the writer and two by the publisher. The book testifies to clinical research, urgent passion and high production value. The stunning pantheon of gods, heroes from epics and classical drama, raja-ranis and nawab-begums, enables readers to weigh Chawla's arguments and arrive at their own aesthetic decisions. Chawla chuckles, “After the exhibition the price of his works shot up from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. five lakh. After the book it is six crore!”

Chawla's passion was ignited with the first painting she restored — a Ravi Varma violin player. With the intimate bonding of a conservator, she discovered how minutiae shaped and layered the mood. This led to interpretations of Varma's works from the theories of navarasa and ashtanayika.

The fact that Ravi Varma had gone out of fashion brought heartbreak and challenge to the restorer. “A woman brought a painting, with the painter's seal, signature and date, stored for decades in a metal cylinder. It had powder at the bottom from the arm, now a mere line drawing. The restoration had to be unorthodox. I left the arm as it was.” Filling in the blank would not be or look authentic.

What makes those originals irresistible? Chawla's voice lights up with her eyes as she says, “His understanding of text, music, dance, theatre, jewellery, costume, ambience, human interactions. He created drama!”

Writing the book was to live with the subject. Intensity brought insights, grasp of intentions, nuances. In ‘Matsyagandhi', fair Bhishma and Shantanu stand before the dark fisherman, whose daughter is “Aryanised” into the light-skinned matriarch of the great Kuru clan. The strange masculinity in ‘Draupadi and Simhika' became explicable when the scene was traced to Kirimiravadham in Kathakali tradition, where men play women's roles as well.

Some paintings unroll tales within tales. As an envoy in Duryodhana's court Krishna's left hand rests on the chair in relaxed dola hasta, while the right restrains angry Satyaki in a taut grip. The gorgeous shawl flowing from the blue god's shoulder is a tribute to the royal patron who gifted such a shawl to Ravi Varma himself. Says Chawla, “He thinks emotionally, making everything speak — movement, gesture, glance… See how Shakuntala's body, arched as she turns back to steal a glance at Dushyanta, reveals deep desire and longing.”

Ravi Varma's images have influenced genres in sculpture and painting, Indian cinema and natak traditions. They were reproduced on commercial products from calendars to match boxes.

Chawla also highlights the popular painter's less noticed nationalism. Though Varma has painted women in varying regional costumes, his Lakshmi and Saraswati, part of the Indian psyche, wear the saree as devised by Sunity Devi of Cooch Behar, who draped the pallav over a gown; or as the women of the Tagore family did. “He found a national identity beyond the regional.”

Chawla is amazed by Varma's prescience in applying for copyright or setting up a printing press with German chromolithographer Fritz Schleicher. What an exciting moment for the biographer when Schleicher's grandson showed her the original contract!

His last days find the painter at 58, diabetes exacerbated by a beloved brother's death, and the near-fatal illness of a son, braving mosquito-infested waterways and baking-hot trains, to buy land near Madurai for a retreat of his dreams. He wants new commissions, struggles to live to fulfil them.

Chawla's book portrays the artist with sumptuous layers from diaries, letters, press clips, contracts, line drawings and accounts of fresh discoveries such as the Porter painting in a Kumbakonam hall. We follow a story lit by colonial pageantry, nationalist colourscape, and modern enterprise striving to extend the reach of art from palaces to the public domain.

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Raja Ravi Varma biography launchedJuly 8, 2010