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Artist and activist

s. Ajayakumar
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Focus Rama Varma Raja was an artist, teacher and social activist who gave a new direction to art education in Kerala. s. Ajayakumar

Throughout his life and after, Rama Varma Raja remained in the shadow of the popularity of his legendary father, Raja Ravi Varma. Unlike his father who was a self-taught artist, Rama Varma had the benefit of learning a full fledged course in art from one of the prestigious institutions in the country – Sir J. J. School of Arts in Bombay [Mumbai] from 1897 to 1903.

Although trained in the art of painting from a metropolitan centre, Rama Varma a did not settle down there or show any interest in moving outside his native place like his father. He came back to Mavelikara, settled there and practised painting along with assisting his father till the early death of Ravi Varma in 1906, at Kilimanoor.

The presence of Rama Varma Raja has been catalytic to many cultural undercurrents, but it remained unnoticed and never received the attention it deserved. It is true that he could not become a celebrated painter of his period like his father. On another level, he led the pioneering work of establishing an art institution in 1915, exclusively for educating students from all sections of society in the art of painting. It was also a period in which the country had only ‘fine arts and crafts’ schools instituted by the British with an objective to train Indians in industrial crafts. Rama Varma initiated the ‘Raja Ravi Varma School of Painting’ in Mavelikara. The school, popularly known as ‘painting school’ even today, focussed on oil painting on canvas, especially portraiture. Later, we see a professional transformation of the artists’ community towards the practice of portrait painting throughout Kerala, till the last quarter of the twentieth century.

On the opposite side of the institution and adjacent to the palace, Rama Varma started an artist’s studio, perhaps the only one of its kind in the country in those days. The studio had a high roof with proper natural light spreading from the rear top. There were even costumes for people who wanted their portraits done.

There was a separate section for photographers to purchase photographic materials, which he used to get from Kodak, Bombay . So the technology of photography also became popular in Kerala through the Mavelikara school.

Art students from all the three erstwhile States – Travancore, Cochin and Malabar – started coming to Mavelikara to learn painting and its fame spread throughout the state and country. Many significant artists were attracted to this school. Sankara Pillai (Sanker-cartoonist), artists P.J. Cherian, C.V. Balan Nair, Abu Abraham, C.K. Ramakrishnan Nair and C.L. Porinchukutty are only a few names to mention in this context.

The legacy of Rama Varma will not be complete without mention of his role as a social activist. His association with Swami Subhananda (a Dalit leader) was an inspiring force that strengthened the progressive ideals and movements in the society of those days.

In fact, history has it that Swami Subhananda played the role of the priest (‘Karmika’) for the wedding ceremony of Rama Varma’s daughter.

Rama Varma also served as chairman of Mavelikara municipality from 1924-35, and was elected to the Travancore State Assembly in 1962-63. Rama Varma had a life time engagement with people and public life, other than being a teacher and artist.

(The author is the former Principal of the College of Fine Arts, Kerala, and Raja Ravi Varma College of Fine Arts, Mavelikara)


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