A glimpse of royal artist’s studio

A glimpse of royal artist’s studio

His paintings are there for all to see. As the ‘Painter among Royals and Royal among painters’ created divine images and captured human emotions on...

His paintings are there for all to see. As the ‘Painter among Royals and Royal among painters’ created divine images and captured human emotions on canvas, his work broke free from the confines of Royalty, adorning palaces and homes alike. Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) the celebrated Indian artist whose remarkable paintings reflect Indian tradition enriched through the use of European techniques chartered a unique path in modern aesthetics. He faced many critics in his lifetime having a brush with the court as well but emerged victorious defending his case with an argument as winsome as his array of work.

The many epithets of ‘calendar artist’, ‘mere illustrator’ and ‘unimaginative copier of European paintings’ failed to curtail his popularity taking him to the unenviable position, where Ravi Varma paintings became synonymous with ‘beauty’. His life has been the subject of films and fiction and his original paintings continue to fetch amazing amounts in the art market a century after his death. Tempted by a news item that the artist’s studio was opened to public viewing I decided to visit his birthplace Kilimanoor during my visit to Thiruvananthapuram.

On a hot Sunday afternoon, I undertook the 40km journey to the small hamlet of Kilimanoor about 40kms from Thiruvananthapuram, chatting with my cabbie in a mix of Malayalam and Tamil, having convinced him that I understood what he said through the use of keywords like “arayum” “Samsarikyum”, “Evide”, et al. Although there are original Ravi Varma paintings in the city museum, I was more interested in seeing the environs that the great artist grew up in. I must confess that Ranjit Desai’s book on the artist describing the palace, where the young Ravi Varma drew charcoal pictures on the walls with his sister Mangala and where his maternal uncle, a renowned painter himself, discovered and nurtured his talent had kindled my interest in the place.

Kilimanoor the autonomous state that functioned within the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore was alive with music, dance and Sanskrit chanting providing the right ambience for artistic inclinations. As we meandered through narrow lanes bordered by tall green trees, in this quiet hamlet we found ourselves at the gate of the Kilimanoor Palace. The gate was open and we drove inside to see an imposing but desolate structure that had no trace of activity.

I got a glimpse of the proud stoned archway that lead to the main courtyard and structures that included the artist’s s original studio, residential quarters, wells and ponds and the ‘Puthen Malika’(the new mansion), which Ravi Varma had built to house Royal guests including his chief patron ‘The ruler of Baroda’, in what was to be a big 60th birthday bash. Unfortunately, the artist never lived to see his 60th birthday. Two old servants sitting on the steps tell me that it is private property and not open to visitors. I could, however, get a glimpse of the studio at the “Raja Ravi Varma Memorial Cultural Centre” and Lalit Kala Akademi half-a-kilometre from the palace, they tell me.

As I reach the cultural centre I see a huge area of land covered with greenery and stone sculptures. To the right is a bust sized stone figure of Raja Ravi Varma leading to the three-roomed art gallery housing several Ravi Varma reproductions including a picture of Kilimanoor Palace and the artist’s studio. I am the lone visitor and the two locals who sell me the five rupee ticket are curious to know if I am an artist. “No, I am a journalist,” I answer and they get talking. As I look at the paintings I am informed that the studio of Ravi Varma itself lacks his original paintings and is crammed with reproductions. More than 40 originals can be found in the Trivandrum museum and a couple of them are there with the Travancore Royal family. Baroda and Mysore have more original paintings than the home state of the artist, I am informed

As I look around I am taken in by the sheer beauty of the subjects. I spot the ‘Begum’s Bath’ that….fetched a prize money of 32 lakhs at Osian’s art auction in Mumbai along with ‘Yashoda and Krishna’, which fetched 52 lakhs. There are several other prize-winning works. Beautiful pictures from the Puranas… Ravana abducting Sita, Menaka and Vishwamitra, Nala Damayanthi, ‘The lady with the fruit,’ an oleograph of Vasantasena and a host of paintings reflecting artistic beauty liven up the atmosphere. Each painting had well-etched features, a stunning background and lifelike expressions.

My self-appointed guides asked me to notice the manner in which Vishwamitra’s foot is painted to give a three-dimensional effect. One foot is sketched in such a way that it looks turned towards the direction of the viewer when seen from both the right and left directions. I am captivated by the woman in the white saree sitting on a swing ‘the Gypsies of South India’ and a painting called ‘Expectation’ which captures the “haunting look of waiting” conveyed through the eyes of a beautiful woman. As I look on in wonder I am joined by four local visitors and my spirits lift up a wee bit. Nonetheless, a sense of melancholy creeps in. Doesn’t such a great artist deserve a better tribute in the land of his birth? I cannot help thinking. “We have regular art camps attended by artists from different parts of the country and the government plans to develop a big art gallery and theatre on the premises.

The Puthenmalika palace is being renovated as it a protected monument under the State Archaeology Department. Once all the plans are implemented we will have a place that will measure up to the greatness of the artist,” my guides who do not want to be named chip in. As I soak in the beauty of this quiet little centre of art, I feel my visit has been well worth it. The creator of such beautiful works surely deserves a place of beauty that honours his memory and brings more like me flocking to see it.

By:Aruna Ravikumar

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