Vinod Mankara’s documentary ‘Before the Brush Dropped’ is a tribute to Raja Ravi Varma and his artistry.

Vinod Mankara’s ‘Before the Brush Dropped’ is both a tribute to Raja Ravi Varma and an analytical study of his unmatched artistry. The 30-minute film won the State award for the best documentary recently.

“The film is the end-product of around three years of research and is an answer to Ravi Varma’s critics who had dubbed his works as kitsch,” said Mankara who has to his credit seven State awards and a national award for his work on occultism titled ‘Beyond or Within.’

“More than a hundred people belonging to different walks of life were interviewed in Mumbai itself to develop the script for the documentary,” Mankara recalled. The film opens with a journey to the places that have been hotspots of Ravi Varma’s activities outside Kerala. The first port of call is Lonavala where the artist had established his lithographic press in 1886. Shots of dilapidated buildings in the sprawling compound serve as an introduction to the callous indifference on the part of the authorities.

“In Lonavala, we had to brave opposition from anti-social elements present in the compound of the building that is now owned by an American,” said Mankara.

Both the visuals and the narration provide a wealth of information about the press from which oleographic prints of Gods and Goddesses had poured out in huge quantities. Now only a few of the 40,000 lithographic stones used for printing the pictures remain.

We get vignettes of Ravi Varma’s royal background and childhood from shots of Kilimanoor Palace.

Here, the stress is on artistic and literary tastes of his forebears, many of whom were Sanskrit scholars, poets and musicians. Clippings of Ottan Thullal have been added to highlight ‘Parvathy Swayamvaram,’ a poetic work by the artist’s mother, Uma Amba Bai Thampuratti.

According to Mankara, this cultural backdrop had greatly influenced Ravi Varma’s works. Vadodara, Mumbai and Mysore are other destinations of the journey.

“In Vadodara, the Maharaja, himself a painter, was very cooperative and he granted us permission to film the paintings that were displayed in his bedrooms,” Mankara pointed out. The visuals at Vadodara include the studio that the Maharaja of erstwhile Baroda had built for Ravi Varma.

Raja Raja Varma’s diary

Mankara explained that the diary of Raja Raja Varma, which he could gain access to in Thiruvananthapuram, was a rich source of information. According to Mankara, the profound influence of Parsi theatre in Mumbai, innumerable sketches the artist had drawn while watching the plays and the identity of the models and so on were elaborately discussed in the diary. The model for paintings such as ‘Mohini,’ ‘Lakshmi,’ ‘Saraswathy’ and ‘Ganga’ was Anjana Malepekar, a dancer and musician from Mumbai, he said.

Mankara has also thrown light on the artist’s influence on Dada Sahab Phalke’s film ‘Raja Harischandra.’

Costumes, ornaments and spacing of the characters in the film seemed to have been inspired by Ravi Varma’s paintings. Phalke was exposed to these styles as he had worked in the Lonovala press for a long time. A dance sequence of Vinita Nedungadi seems to suggest that Kalamandalam had borrowed the coiffure of Mohiniyattam from the Ravi Varma pictures.

Mankara has attempted to recreate paintings such as ‘Damayanti,’ ‘Milkmaid,’ ‘At the Bath’ and ‘Lady with Vina.’

“Ravi Varma would have been known as a prodigious poet, if he had failed as a painter,” averred Mankara, who managed to locate 500 poems written by the artist. According to him, each painting was followed by a poem that is vouched by the works ‘Ragamalika’ and ‘Manasa yathra.’

Ravi Varma could hardly complete his last work ‘Kadambari’ as he had become physically weak by then. The film appears as a flashback from this painting and hence the relevance of the title.

Haunting is the rendition of Subramanian Bharathy’s poem by Ramesh Narayanan with which the journey as also the film concludes.

Produced by A.V. Anoop, the 35-mm documentary’s cinematography is by Kannan and narration by Harry Key.