Raja Ravi Varma by Ranjit Desai Translated by Vikrant Pande
Raja Ravi Varma, a king, a painter and usually called a Prince among the painters. And a Painter among the kings. All I knew about him before I read this book was his distinct painting style. Had seen a few of his originals in National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. And the fact that he came from a royal family of Kerala. I did read somewhere that he traveled around the country painting the royal portraits. But everything else was new to me. What I gathered from this intensely written fictionalized biography is a lot about Indian royalty under British rule. The role that kings as patrons played to nurture art and artists. Role their families’ played and the suffering they go through to let the artist flourish. And the intense relationship that an artist has with his art and the muses thereof.
In the beginning, it was very different to read about the matriarchal societies where the groom moves to the brides family. And is pretty much expected to do nothing but live there. Raja Ravi Varma got married into a royal family and was not happy living with his wife’s family. And the fact that his wife did not appreciate his passion for painting must have played its own role. It was his Mama, his mother’s brother who spotted his talent first. When he saw him painting on the walls of the Palace they lived in. He took young Ravi to Maharaja of Travancore who readily took Ravi under his wings. He let him observe European painters in his court. And he asked his royal painter to teach him who was quite reluctant to do so.
Once he picked up the art of mixing colors, king ensured that his work was showcased in exhibitions in Madras. And he went there to interact with other painters. Look at the patronage, not just funding his life, but guiding him with opportunities. And introducing him to the world outside the small precincts of Travancore.
In his next phase, Raja Ravi Varma lives in Bombay where he meets his muse Sugandha who supposedly modeled for his most famous paintings. From here his fame went far and wide. And King of Baroda showered his patronage on him. While every royal family worth its salt wanted their portraits to be painted by him. He suddenly had this urge to take his art out of royal boundaries and take it to the common man. This led him to set up a printing press in Mumbai to make prints of his paintings. These prints made him a household name. His calendar art is still very much sold on the pavements across the country.
His willingness to experiment with the press, to work with German technologists in those days and to be able to go against the popular mandate would have easily classified him as an innovator if he was alive today. The description of Bombay is so far removed from what it is today that you wonder if there was a way to go back to that era.
A lot of women came and stayed with him for some time in his life. Now, this part of the story can be as fictional as possible. But the way it has been written it seems that women came into his life only to be immortalized in his paintings. The description of the paintings made me Google for them. Thankfully most of them were searchable. A painting comes alive when you know the context in which it was painted.
There is an underplayed role of his brothers who did most of the backgrounds for his paintings – he only painted the main image. His wife comes across as a strong woman who pretty much lived alone all her life and raised children single-handedly. He did not even bother to go back when she passed away. He seems to be relatively detached from his children. But when I was looking at an online gallery of his paintings, I came across a beautiful painting he did of his daughter holding her daughter in arms. Now that did not convey detachment.
I wish I could read this book in Marathi. The emotion quotient is so high that I cried many times while reading it. And I am sure it would have come out even stronger in the original. It is also a credit to the translator for being able to maintain the mood and the intensity of the book so well.
Highly recommended reading if the man or his paintings interest you.