Art News & Views

Book Review

The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma,
Deepanjana Pal, Random House. 2009

That fear of the unknown has been complemented in recent decades, by a fear of the known, one manifestation in writing of the famous “cultural cringe”. The Raja Ravi Varma(1848- 1906) retrospective at National Museum, New Delhi in May- June 1993, eighty seven years after his death aroused many a debate critiquing its ethical, cultural and political issues as a part of a larger political design of the state's intention to rehabilitate the painter with state honours, especially after December 6 in 1992. The critics and cultural theorists questioned of his becoming a cultural icon whose popularity acquired a pan-Indian sweep. Even Abanindranath said “It is rare to come across in these days men like him, lovers of India like him”. But the cultural theorists feared that Ravi Varma's vision of Hindu- India as an 'ideal' which is now being pushed towards a hardened fascist vision is obvious. Anita Dube, a contemporary practitioner remarked “It does not make him a fascist artist. Yet his lineage, from Phalke to B.R. Chopra, culminated in the Rath Yatra and the razing of Babri Masjid is certainly a matter of concern”. The painter was accused to have flattered the 'taste' of his predominantly Hindu patrons, what Ravi Varma depicted was a vision of civilization of the classical times, the mythic Golden Age, when Hindus were said to be at the peak of their powers-supreme and pure, both politically and culturally. The critics questioned “What was the nature of his enterprise within the larger construction of the Indian nation? What does his representation of women indicate? And what does his resurrection within this particular hour of history mean? Geeta Kapur argued “ideologically speaking, the classical past is set against the medieval, which is regarded as having corrupted by a medley of foreign influences and by the psychology of subordination showing up a Hindu civilization…..” and that the State for being part of such designs, like the exhibition and hagiographies to become a cultural propaganda is plain and simple. That such design needs powerful icons, cult figures around which masses can be mobilized and encouraged to be uncritical. Do not forget even after two decades of the retrospective the popularity seems to remain unabated. Deepanjana Pal's book is one of many published in one single year.

K.B. Goel, noted critic deconstructs Varma's 'Jatayu Vadha' at Shri Jayachamrajendra Art gallery, Mysore. In the painting Ravana is a dark Dravidian, powerfully built coarse figure, embodiment of malevolent forces forcibly abducting a fair, demure North Indian woman, Sita, whose refined, upper class sensibility is horrified at the killing of Jatayu- there the core convention of the rape- formula has been created, with the bad black man and the 'good' white woman. But Pal's book evades such issues completely and gives us a compelling tale of a prince from Killimanoor, a small estate in Travancore who took the revolutionary step of being a painter. In the biopic she remained faithful mainly to the information she has rifled through books, manuscripts, notes, articles and catalogues to recreate the story of our first celebrity painter and a genius. She has weaved a narrative made of part fiction and imagination introducing a new area in art writing. The Raja's early days in Travancore to setting up of Fine Art Press in Kalbadevi, Lonavala and Ghatkopar. “I wanted my reader to feel that same sense of immediacy that I had felt when hearing about Ravi Varma and the people he knew. I wanted to tell Ravi Varma's story in a way that felt alive, was accurate, and drew the reader into his world whether or not they were interested in the beginnings of modern Indian art…..and I have been careful to keep that which has been recorded distinct from that which was imagined.” But the worries persist about not having the full set of cultural tools, or misreading the grandeur and magnificence as these apply to the painter. The book is an impressive reminder of the vitality of our arts, then and now. The introductions continue though.

Nanak Ganguly  




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