Raja Kalavida Ravivarma: Life history of a prodigy artist
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Raja Kalavida Ravivarma: Life history of a prodigy artist

January 4, 2023

Title: Raja Kalavida Ravivarma

Author: Dr. Geetha Seetharam

Price: Rs. 200

Publisher: Panchajanya

Publications, Bengaluru

For any average Hindu household, Ravi Varma paintings were not anything unusual. One would have grown up with the paintings of Lakshmi, Saraswati, Yashoda Krishna, Muruga  and visualised these Gods just as seen in the photos bedecking the high walls. Ravi Varma gave a physical form to their names as in puranic descriptions and we believed that’s how they looked.

‘Hamsa Damayanti’, ‘There comes papa’ , ‘Lady with the lamp’, ‘Woman holding a fruit’ kind of  portraits decorated the cosier corners of the house. Though they were all nicely replicated by us during summer holidays,  little did we wonder about the artist behind it.

We knew nothing about the calendars of Gods and other epic characters being almost banned by the orthodox morale holders where the artist was brought to Court to defend his art. First of all there was objection to print and sell God pictures to every home. If that was not enough, some female paintings  were considered  sensuous though the storyline warranted it in its depiction of  ‘purana ‘ like Pururava – Urvashi, Dushyanta – Shakuntala, Aniruddha in Usha’s dream, Arjuna – Subhadra and more. Most of the characters were based on a versatile model Sunanda, who dedicated herself to art creation.

Ravi Varma chose to fight the case all by himself in letter and spirit, not to get cowed down to societal pressures and stand up for the artists. And he did win.

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Raja Kalavida Ravivarma is a novel by Dr. Geetha Seetharam in Kannada, that was serialised in Sudha Kannada Weekly two years ago. The preface for the book is aptly written by theatre and TV artist Vidya Murthy. It is a complete life history of a prodigy artist who was not trained formally.

The casts in the novel, come and go theatrically,  give out their soliloquies, reveal innermost feelings and emotions through the passage of time as it progresses and evolves  biographically. Interestingly, it is interspersed with scenarios and episodes of when each of the masterstrokes were created thereby making the paintings contextual.

Ravi Varma (1848-1906) was so passionate about his art that he tried to even  walk out of his newly-wed  regal wife Puratharthi, to mix art colours!   Matriarchal Kerala families bring the sons-in-law home after marriage, unlike daughters  bidding ‘bidayi’. And there begins the trauma for the budding youth artist Ravi Varma. He leaves for his home town when wife questions him about the Nair maid  he chooses for a model to do a painting. He was a listless painter always looking for realism around him.

Later in life, his mentor, the Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunal  recommissioned the incomplete works for a mega show and competition in Madras that won the Governor’s prize,  accolades and the world took notice of his painting series of the Nair damsels.

Apart from a catelogue of photographs of paintings,  the author gives out the interesting footnote facts here and there. Like the ‘names of royalty’  which is simply named after their birth star, like Ayilyam or Vishakha. We are more familiar with the name Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, who is born in Swathi nakshatram.

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A bit of chronological  emphasis  and a flow chart would have added value, as the characters of the novel overlap with the historic events. Maharajas of that period across India have  commissioned Raja Ravi Varma to do their Royal ensemble of portraits. Also,  in the same period, Swami Vivekananda witnessed Ravi Varma’s award-winning portraits in Chicago and comes down to meet him in Bombay. A historical meeting where a brief sketch of Swami was also done during the short visit. However, this collector’s book is for keepsake.

—Vasantha Kalbagal

4 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Raja Kalavida Ravivarma: Life history of a prodigy artist”

  1. boregowda says:

    Please let me know where can I buy this book. Thanks.

  2. Gouri Satya says:

    The painting of ‘Lady with the lamp’ was not executed by Raja Ravi Varma. It was done by the famous artist of Bombay (now Mumbai) Haldenkar. The painting adorns the wall in Jaganmohan Palace, separately, not along with Ravi Varma’s paintings.

  3. Gautam says:

    I used to see this painting every day, when I was a student in a nearby private middle school.
    Although, it impressed me then, having seen great Dutch masters of impressionist paintings, English painters of landscapes equally exquisite, and visiting national museums in Europe where there are paintings from masters spanning 4 centuries, this painting pales into insignificance.

  4. Questo says:

    The painting of the ‘lady with the lamp’ conveys the visual the impression of the light that emanates from the lamp-a painting skill and the paint that the expertise related to the paint of the painter.
    But, aside the above, there is no deep impression meaning, it does not convey a story, like the paintings of the Dutch masters like Vermeer.
    Except the Nalwadi Wadiyar, who had some interest in the painting, the Wadiyars generally, and the successors of Nalwadi Wadiyar in particular, were not interested in painting at all. Indeed, in India, there is no national gallery/museum to display paintings and other creative arts like sculptures. India , particularly under Narendra Modi seems to be interested in IT start ups, worthless endeavours, as nothing original came out of them, and ofcourse, the encouragement of cheap IT labour deployed for the outsourced work by Western companies. No creativity there at all.
    Indeed, after the success of IT sweatshop founders, who deployed cheap IT techie labour to carry out the outsourced coding work, thereby became rich beyond comprehension, the entire education system from the primary to high school to higher education is focused towards learning the coding-calling it software development, not understanding that software development is much more than simple coding effort.
    The education has thus become very narrow, and the Indian IT techies,, I interview ,in my company in the West, who apply to seek work visas, almost all of them have never heard of Ravi Varma, and have not got even the rudimentary grasp of Indian culture as exemplified in the ancient literature and stories. This is from me who has delved in computer science and the applications of computers large and small for decades.


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