Tuesday, September 1, 2015

GOD'S OWN PORTRAITIST: RAJA RAVI VARMA (1/2)


THE RAMA DURBAR

LAXMI



SARASWATI
That God created Man lies in the realm of conjecture, but the reverse is an empirically proven fact. Created Him in his, that is man’s, own image. An anthropomorphic God. Let’s undertake a little census.  

The Hindu pantheon is  said to be populated by 33 crore ( a third of a billion) Gods. As Sahir  rightly  pointed  out  the other day, the earth’s miseries result from the inequality ⁿG<ⁿH, i.e. the fact that the total number of Gods is less than that of humans: aadmi hain anginat, devata hain kam….he, he, he….According to the 2011 Indian Census, there are around 10 crore ( a hundred million)  Hindu urban households in the country. We can safely assume that each buys at least one of the above displayed pictures every year (people call them photographs, which usage IK does not subscribe to). Extrapolating, one can safely state that at least 5 crore of each of these have been sold in the country annually over, at least five decades!  So-over 2.5 billions have been sold since these Gods were conceived by the Creator, painter Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906). Far more in number than the very population of Gods as per the Divine census! Undoubtedly the Raja is the most sold painter ever, and el Nia Mona Lisa, the most celebrated of paintings, pales into insignificance, going by the sheer number of prints sold!  More than that, the Raja magically ignited and seared in the Hindu mind, the munificence of Goddess Laxmi, the bright scholarship of Saraswati, the benign visages of Lord Rama, Sita and Lakshmana, the upright loyalty of Hanuman, or the insouciant callousness of one of our greatest Rishis, when confronted by Menaka with his love-child Shakuntala! The endearing images that flew from his mind to those of bhaktas must have contributed in no small measure to the peaceful nature of Hindus, till the spanner was thrown into the works with the sick images of Rambo Rama and Sambo Siva who rather resembles Nandi! Panduranga, asude…!
It will however be an over- simplification to ascribe to the Raja’s two hands this monumental feat in vacuo, sort of ignoring the Historical dialectic behind l’ affaire des Dieux…Behind the benign Gods lie a host of determinants, such as the compulsive talents of contemporary Malayalees in general,  the complex caste grid, British intervention, not to speak of the Neoclassical and Romantic movements pervading the 18-19th century European art scene. Bengal and Kerala apparently were the two states which picked up the best of British tradition. It’s again not a coincidence that these were the two states where Communist parties first came to power in the 1960s- speaks volumes for the open-mindedness of the people there.

*****
The Kilimanoor Royalty connections of the Raja, his wedlock into the matriarchal lineage of the great Chera King Swathi Thirunal, culminating in the present status of the Kilimanoor Palace, more about which later, is but the stuff of gossip…more important being the admixture of the swirling eddies of Indian theology and shades of  major European art movement that played on the Raja’s colourful palette, bursting into a riot of images which are today cardinal to 'Hinduism'....Well, the British, represented whether by the Company Bahadur or the British Crown were historically on the same wave-length as the artistic Cheras ruling from Travancore. Swathi Thirunal (b. 1813) was the ‘Garbha Sreeman’, for he was proclaimed King while still in the womb, though it would be more accurate to address the baby as ‘heir to the throne’ to take care of both sexist eventualities of child-birth! The "garbha sreeman" stuff  owes to the East India Company’s Travancore representative Col. Munro who, in order to keep the doctrine of lapse at bay, informed the British Government about arrival of the heir 4 months in advance... There is a tradition that none other than Munroe visited the Padmanabhasami temple to pray for the birth of a boy, matriarchal succession not withstandingThe regent of the unborn sovereign was the mother Gowri Lakshmi Bayi. When the child was merely 4 months old, she held a Durbar where Col.Munroe was invited, and there she handed over the child’s custody to Munroe, exhorting him to take care of the Prince and the State!


Our protagonist Raja Ravi Varma was a scion of the Kilimanoor Royal house-hold, and in the absence of a regular teacher, learnt the basics of painting under the tutelage of the Travancore King, Ayilam Thirunal. The British administrator Edgar Thurston had a major role in carving the Raja’s destiny. The Raja’s painting style that emerged was greatly influenced by his training under contemporary British-Dutch painter Theodor Jenson (1857-1943), who had been then commissioned to paint a portrait of Raja Ayilam Thirunal. Jenson is known for the subtle interplay of light and shade in his oils, which is the distinctive feature of the Romantic style..

In the Europe of the day, the dominant style was termed ‘the Academic style’, after the beliefs obtaining in various European Academies. The ‘rebel’  Impressionism was to follow later on. The Academic style sought to achieve a happy union of the Neo-classical style, which stressed the prominence of the 'line', with the Romantic style’s  romance with ‘colours’…The Classical, the Neo-classical and the Academic styles account for the overwhelming bulk of paintings displayed in the Louvre. Historically, Romanticism was the manifestation of Europe’s march towards Republicanism, from Monarchy, which in turn had incubated Classicism right from Michelangelo days. Goya’s ‘Third of May 1808’, commemorating the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s armies, is a classic example of this association of the Romantic style with Nationalism and Republicanism. Some critics believe that the Raja’s works were superior even to some leading European Academic school painters. This is what Frank Moraes says (not THE Frank Moraes but the British columnist of ‘Franklycurious’ fame):

"What I appreciate about him is how he brings western and eastern traditions together. You might say he was the William Bouguereau of India. But much as I love Bouguereau, Varma is much more than that. His colour palette is far more intense. And his religious painting is far more interesting….”.  This is Frank’s favourite from the Raja’s work:): there.
MURUGAN: FRANK'S FAVOURITE RAVI VARMA
Storming Kerala a few months back, we made it a point to visit Kilimanoor, where we had a delightful tete-a-tete with Biju Rama Varma, a descendent of the royal family. Biju heads the Ravi Varma Trust which is doing a lot to preserve the Raja’s heritage. Our next dispatch on the high water-mark of our tryst with God’s Own Country….


NEO-CLASSICAL CUPID AND DIANA BY BATONI (1761) : NOTE THE ETCHED LINE FIGURES
ACADEMIC: THE THIRST BY WILLIAM BOUGUEREAU
ACADEMIC STYLE: ROSA HARRIET LENOX BY RAJA'S GURU JENSON (1864)
JESUS MARY AND HER LITTLE LAMB: BOUGUEREAU
ROMANTIC STYLE: THIRD OF MAY 1808 BY GOYA

By the way, 'Swathi' or 'Ayilam' signifies the 'nakshatra' of birth (the Birth Star). Marathi for Ayilam is Aslesha.

KILIMANOOR SNAPS:



BIJU  RAMA VARMA REGALES US WITH RAGA MADHYAMAVATI BRINDABANI  SARANG) BHAJAN ANUPAMA SUNDARA

GATHERING BEFORE THE PALACE
THE RAJA'S STUDIO

THE SIMPLE MINDED SARDARJI CHARANJIT SINGH, HERO OF OUR 7TH JAN POST BREATHED HIS LAST THIS 5TH JULY; WE'LL NEVER FORGET PAAJI, FOR HE HAD A LOT TO PROUD ABOUT IN HIM, BUT HE NEVER CLAIMED GREATNESS. HOPE HE TEACHES DISCO FUSION TO THE 'GANDHARVAs' AND 'APSARAs' UP THERE ! CHEERS....!!!

 

4 comments:

B.Jawahar Reddy said...

Sir, only after reading this I came to know about Ravi Verma's European connection. Thus he must have been a leading painter of his era internationally. Nice title, based on Kerala Tourism slogan. But 'portraitist' seems artificial. Painter will sound better, that is my view..Sir also please write second installment immediately otherwise reader's emotional link is broken...regards BJR

carl von bailiff said...

Dear Reddygaru...thanks...about the title please let me wait and watch. It appears legit to me. It's intriguing isn't it?

B.Jawahar Reddy said...

Sir, that is a political answer like 'parkalam' in Tamil or chuddam in Telugu...good one!

B.Jawahar Reddy said...
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