Ravana by the pond

Artist Rukmini Varma evokes her great-great-grandfather Raja Ravi Varma in a new book culled from his scribbles

Published - May 19, 2018 04:02 pm IST

Artist Rukmini Varma

Artist Rukmini Varma

In the late 60s, Rukmini Varma discovered two books published by the Royal Academy of Arts. They were no ordinary books: they belonged to the personal collection of appooppan , as she and her family call her great-great-grandfather, the legendary artist Raja Ravi Varma. On the margins of the books the artist had scribbled down his thoughts. “When I read what he had written, everything seemed to fall into place, the missing links appeared,” says the fourth princess of Travancore.

Rukmini jotted down these scribbles in her notebook, one of dozens she keeps in a trunk. Over the next decades, Rukmini would document his life, uncover anecdotes, and today, her writings on her illustrious ancestor are tucked between the covers of a new book Hidden Truth — Raja Ravi Varma: The Inside Story, released last month.

Holding the book up, the petite 78-year-old smiles a dimpled smile. “This is creative non-fiction,” she tells me, at her bungalow that’s tucked away inside a huge private estate off Bengaluru’s Richmond Road. In her Kerala cotton sari, printed maroon silk blouse, and with kumkum on her forehead, it is easy to see why she was once described as an ‘Ajanta painting come to life’.

Raja Ravi Varma’s painting of the Maharani’s wedding.

Raja Ravi Varma’s painting of the Maharani’s wedding.

As a child, Rukmini lived in Travancore palaces until her parents moved to Bangalore after Independence. Here, her life revolved around lavish parties and much glamour. She excelled in English literature, was good in Science, and learnt classical dance from U.S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi. Being part of an erstwhile royal family, however, she was not allowed to dance in public. She soon got married.

Breaking barriers

What brought her recognition, though, were her paintings. They were usually of voluptuous women and large men, covered more in jewellery than clothes. In 1970 she had her first solo show. It was sold out. She created a furore by painting nudes from mythology for a series called Pratiksha at Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay. Her husband forbade her to paint nudes. But she continued painting — calling her work a result of “visions” — and her shows across the world were inaugurated by the likes of Lord Mountbatten, presidents and governors.

In 1988, her youngest son died in an accident. She withdrew from the world in grief, giving up her wealth and jewellery. “I was trying to find my reality, which was nowhere in this realm,” she says. But she continued to paint, read voraciously and write. By now, she and her husband had divorced and Rukmini lived the life of a reclusive enigma in her parents’ bungalow. Her parents, siblings and two other sons, Venu and Jay Varma, (the latter an exceptional artist as well) were the pillars in her life. She spent her time praying and went out only to temples. “But I realised that my reality is connected with the world around me,” she says, “although I still can’t connect with it.”

She still spends five hours in prayers in the evenings (there are three puja rooms in the house), paints during the day, and writes late into the night. She is now willing to engage with the world. The activities of the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation, of which she is chairperson, has given her a new impetus too.

Last year, she showed her paintings from the ‘Opulence and Eternity’ series to mixed reviews; but the works were all bought by a collector even before the show had opened. Manu Pillai, author of The Ivory Throne on Rukmini’s grandmother Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, has known her for several years now. “I was able to glean a great deal of insight about how the Maharani thought, what some of the inside events in the palace were from her,” he says. “She is a marvellous narrator of stories and anecdotes.”

Rukmini Varma’s portrait of her grandmother Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi.

Rukmini Varma’s portrait of her grandmother Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi.

The book is full of such stories. For instance, Rukmini describes vividly, through Ravi Varma’s voice, how he chanced upon the people he would use as models for his iconic painting of Sita’s abduction. ‘Ravana’ was a relative he happened to see by a pond, and ‘Sita’ a young girl who ran across his path.

Rukmini’s grandmother and other older residents of Kilimanoor in Kerala, where Ravi Varma was born, told her how the artist had found his ideal ‘Rama’. “The model was none other than my own grandfather’s brother,” says Rukmini. Then there are stories of Ravi Varma’s birth after his mother Umamba was ‘exorcised’ to rid her of a ‘ yakshi’ , of palace politics, of his devotion to his children and art teachers, and his relationship with his wife Mahaprabha Kochupanki.

Ravi Varma’s paintings

Rukmini opens her book to show me one of Ravi Varma’s paintings. I see an angry-looking Rama aiming an arrow at the sea, as Varuna comes up to pacify him. Choppy seas and dark clouds make a menacing backdrop. “My grandmother spoke of the day Ravi Varma painted this in his studio in Kilimanoor. That afternoon in 1905, the clear summer sky had suddenly darkened with clouds. But when he came out of his studio, the sky was clear again.”

But what has moved her spiritually was Ravi Varma’s quest for actualising his paintings. His art wasn’t just about painting, she says, it was about his desire to make his subjects real. Until his paintings, all we had were sculptures and idols of our gods in temples, she says. “His paintings helped us visualise the gods.”

The book refers to an ancient group of nomadic travellers, the Viswaputras, from whom Rukmini claims the Varma family’s creativity originates. Explaining the matrilineal system, she says the royal family are descendants of the Beypur and Kolathunad families. Had the old order continued, Rukmini would have been the Maharani of Travancore.

Her literary style

I speak to Gallery G’s Archana Shenoy, who knows Rukmini. “Rukmini uses words like carbuncle and wainscoting,” Shenoy observes wryly. One publisher asked her to simplify the language. Rukmini refused, and opted to self-publish the book.

Manu Pillai speaks of her literary style; Rukmini sent him an essay of her time in Trivandrum, as a little girl in the last days of the Raj. It was about an incident in Satelmond Palace and brought the place to life — with little details about the kinds of pots the gardeners used, the green marble in the dining hall and so on.

“There was also a charm that came from a certain old-world style of writing. It is not something we see much these days, and to me that made her ‘voice’ stand out,” he says.

Rukmini says she plans to cull out books from her other notebooks as well. There is a trove of material — reams of paper, as she says. Historical fiction, perhaps. Or maybe notes on the Vedas . But Pillai hopes that she will one day publish her memoirs.

“She has seen some fascinating times, from life in a palace with great privilege to life as a commoner; encounters with people like M.F. Husain and Lord Mountbatten to tragedy and loss.”

I ask Rukmini what she thinks of Ravi Varma as a person. “My grandmother would speak about his extraordinary strength in the face of ill health and agony after losing close family members, including his brother and confidante, Raja Raja Varma. I have always been inspired by him but I am not like him. I feel I am weak-minded and a dreamer.”

The freelance writer believes that everything has a story waiting to be told.

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