‘The World of Raja Ravi Varma’ by Manu S Pillai will be launched on the artist’s 172nd birth anniversary

The World of Raja Ravi Varma: Prince and Patrons

The World of Raja Ravi Varma: Prince and Patrons   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Manu S Pillai’s ‘The World of Raja Ravi Varma: Princes & Patrons’ tells the stories of the men and women who appear in the artist’s portraits

It was early last year over a cup of coffee that author Manu S Pillai and Gitanjali Maini, CEO of the Bengaluru-based The Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation discussed the legacy of artist Raja Ravi Varma. This discussion led to his book, The World of Raja Ravi Varma: Princes & Patrons that will be launched by the Foundation on the 172nd birth anniversary of the painter that falls on April 29.

Manu toyed with the idea of using Ravi Varma’s portraits as a visual archive to trace the stories of the men and women who appear in them, and societal norms that existed during that period. “His fame rests on his Puranic scenes and epic paintings, but it was originally his portrait enterprise that helped create his reputation and secure his financial base,” says Manu.

Manu’s methodology

The men and women in the portraits, were they only the rich and famous painted by the artist? Or was there more? Manu embarked on a journey to find out more from the portraits and found so many stories in the process that yielded nuances of that period in which the portraits were produced and brought to the forefront new facets of Ravi Varma.

“It was a delight to discover that this approach was full of promise, and suddenly Ravi Varma and his portraits became the common link that united the stories of some of the most fascinating Indian men and women of the late nineteenth century, ranging from maharajahs to bureaucrats, and from a murder-accused to his mother-in-law,” he says.

Author Manu S Pillai

Author Manu S Pillai   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Manu was already acquainted with Ravi Varma and his legacy while he wrote his book The Ivory Throne, which covers the story of the artist’s granddaughter, the Last Maharani of Travancore. “In fact, I begin that book with a section on Ravi Varma. And in the years that followed I encountered many of his paintings, including portraits, in the homes of the Travancore family members, in various galleries, including in London where I am doing my PhD. It was not art history that appealed to me, as much as seeing the historical context in which he worked and why he became who he did at that specific moment,” Manu adds.

Between the pages

Manu dug deep into the archives and studied everything that he could lay his hands on, ranging from newspaper archives to Ravi Varma’s letters and the diary of his brother Rajaraja Varma. One of the many interesting facts that he discovered during his research was that Ravi Varma’s father-in-law was involved in a sordid crime in the 1860s. “This fact has mysteriously evaded all his biographers so far. I was startled to find it and wondered why nobody had spoken about it, especially when it was an event that received coverage in international newspapers too at the time. In fact, the notoriety the episode acquired may be why it was deliberately forgotten and never mentioned again by Ravi Varma’s earliest biographers, after which it slipped out of the record,” he says.

A portrait by Raja Ravi Varma of sister-in-law, Parvathi Bayi, the Junior Rani of Travancore

A portrait by Raja Ravi Varma of sister-in-law, Parvathi Bayi, the Junior Rani of Travancore   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The book features a few paintings and photographs from private collections and rarely seen before. Picking up his favourite painting from the dozens that he studied Manu says, “It is a portrait he did of his mother-in-law Bharani Nal Mahaprabha. Ravi Varma, it is well known, helped popularise a new ideal of Indian beauty, particularly the elevation of fair skin and certain kinds of features. But his mother-in-law defies these new sensibilities: she is dark-skinned, has bloodshot eyes, and glares out of the painting in a completely unembarrassed manner. There is great power and pride to her and, to me, this is one of the finest works Ravi Varma did.”

He continues, “In many ways, the mother-in-law represents the matrilineal tradition from which the artist himself came, which allowed women to claim considerable influence in domestic as well as public spheres.”

(The book was intended originally to be a limited edition just for The Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation, but now the Foundation is trying to make it accessible for the public online.)

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 9:13:06 AM |

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