Friday, April 27, 2018

Painting with brother

‘This morning I painted the Parsee Widow’s jacket and Sari, while brother retouched the Nizzam’s head for Mr Schleicher.’ This is from the diary of the artist Raja Varma, recently published to provide a portrait of the diarist’s older brother, Ravi Varma, one of the most famous painters working in India in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Although Raja Varma’s diary provides few specific details about his brother (who is only ever referred to as ‘brother’ in the diary), their working lives were so intertwined that almost all of Raja Varma’s diary entries use the plural pronoun ‘we’ and refer to Ravi as well as himself. According to one expert, Ravi Varma (born 170 years ago today) was the most important academic artist produced by colonial India, and without the wealth of detail found in his brother’s diary both artists would have remained ‘shadowy figures’.

Raja Ravi Varma was born on 29 April 1848 in the village of Killimannur, Travancore (now the state of Kerala), in the very south of the Indian subcontinent. At the time, Travancore was one of many Princely States in India, and Ravi Varma’s family had long held connections to the Travancore royal family. His father was a scholar and his mother an artist and poet. He was the oldest of four children, but was particularly close to his brother Raja Raja Varma 12 years his junior. Ravi Varma was married to 12-year-old Bhageerthi Bayi, of royal birth in 1866, and they had five children. Subsequently, thanks to a complex system of succession, two of their grandchildren were adopted into the royal family of Travancore; and one of their great grandchildren was Chithira Thirunal, the last ruling Maharaja of Travancore.

From early on, Ravi Varma showed a keen interest in painting. This was nurtured by an uncle, an artist of the Tanjore style, who helped him meet artists in the court of the Maharajah of Travancore. He received instruction in water colours, but was also much influenced by the European oil painter Theodore Jensen who was in residence at the Maharajah’s palace for a while. Edgar Thurston, the British superintendent at the Madras Government Museum, played a significant role in promoting Ravi Varma’s career. His fame started to grow after winning an award for an exhibition of his paintings in Vienna in 1873. In 1881, the newly crowned Maharaja of Baroda (a princely state in present-day Gujarat) invited Ravi Varma to paint his ceremonial portrait. He was so impressed that many more commissions - mythological paintings and portraits - followed, and soon Ravi Varma’s paintings, a fusion of Indian traditions with European techniques, were much in demand all over the country.

In 1895, Ravi Varma set up a studio, in Bombay, fashioned on the practice of European artists, with his brother a constant companion and collaborator. Together they also set up a lithographic printing press, called the Raja Ravi Varma Press. It became the largest in the country, printing many thousands of oleographs of Hindu gods and goddesses, and thus helping popularise their art. However, when the business ran into too much debt they sold it to their printing technician, Fritz Schleicher (originally from Germany), who then ran it successfully for many years. In 1904, Ravi Varma was awarded (on behalf of King Edward VII) the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal. Early the following year, his brother Raja Varma died, and then, in 1906, Ravi Varma died. Although considered the foremost Indian artist of the time, he came in for severe criticism from later artists for imitating Western styles, and thus producing art which was only superficially Indian. Further biographical information be found online at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Cultural India, Gulf News, Spectrum or Ravi Varma Oleographs.

Apart from a lifelong role working in support of his brother’s projects (co-worker, assistant, secretary, business manager), Raja Varma was an important early landscape artist in his own right. But his own significance, in a historical context, is brought into clearer focus because of a diary he kept, chronicling his own life and that of his brother’s. The diary has recently (in 2005) been published in a lavish edition by Oxford University Press (New Delhi) as Raja Ravi Varma - Portrait of an Artist: The Diary of C. Raja Raja Varma. Edited by Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger, it includes a foreword by Partha Mitter, Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of Sussex, a long introduction as well as 50 pages of plates. According to Mitter: ‘The importance of the diary lies in the fact that it allows us to understand the life and working methods of Indian academic artists in the colonial period, and especially the achievements of Ravi Varma, the most important academic artist produced by colonial India. Without the wealth of detail that we encounter in the diary, the artists would have remained shadowy figures.’

Mitter’s foreword is particularly enlightening on the trend, during the British Raj, for Indian artists to maintain diaries. To understand this, he says, it is necessary to consider ‘the transformation wrought by the introduction of colonial institutions such as art schools and art societies’ whereby ‘artistic outlook and practice, genres or art, as well as status of artists underwent profound changes’. Previously Indian artists had low status (other than a few honoured by earlier Mughal emperors). ‘The new Western-literate, self-conscious graduates of impersonal art schools now looked to the public for appreciation. [. . .] They sought inspiration in European romanticism and, above all, in the image of the artist as a lonely outsider relentlessly pursuing a transcendental idea against all the odds.’

According to the editors’ preface, Raja Varma began the diary as a collection of preparatory notes for a travelogue, fashioned on the accounts of European gentlemen travellers on the tiger-shooting and elephant-hunting circuit in India. They continue: ‘It was meant to have been published after the upper India tour undertaken by Prince Martanda Varma, along with Ravi Varma and Raja Varma, and a retinue of fifteen other persons during the cool season of 1894-5. Although the book was never published, the completed manuscript [. . .] was privately circulated one year later. From the following year, no diary entries seem to have been made. The diary appears to have been continued only in May 1898 and entries were made regularly until August the same year. Thereafter, Raja Varma kept up the habit of making daily notes when on a journey. It was only during the years 1902 and 1903 that daily notes were written even in his native place.’

In their introduction, the editors analyse the diary, showing how it sheds light on some aspects of the brothers’ lives, but also how it fails to provide any information on others:
- ‘[The] diary chronicles the long periods away from their native Travancore, attending to their flourishing portraiture business or looking after the affairs of the printing press.’
- ‘The diary enlightens us about many of the rather down-to-earth problems of the painters’ professional life.’
- ‘The diary is a multilayered document on the development of the aesthetics of mass communication in India. It deals with art, but under the surface, the blunt reality and contradictions of the colonial period around 1900, when British Imperialism was at its peak, show clearly.’
- ‘The diary, although giving important hints as to the cause of the financial fiasco of the press, hardly gives a glimpse of the technical processes involved in the production of the prints.’
- ‘The artistic areas on which the diary remains silent are probably the very areas where the confessed artistic ethos clashed with the artistic practice of the Varma brothers.’

Here are several extracts taken from the published version of Raja Varma’s diary (square brackets are as found in the original).

6 March 1902
‘We paid a visit to the Nawab [+++] the premier noble of the state. He sent a carriage and [+++] two of his sowars for us. His palace is a very big and extensive pile of buildings. He is confined with rheumatic complaint. Ms Pestonji, his wife, daughter and son-in-law came this evening to see our pictures.’

13 March 1902
‘Our opinion of Ms Faridinji, the Dewan’s private secretary is that he is a glib talker, but insincere in the extreme. He is ever intent on pleasing Europeans and do[es] not seem to care much for natives.’

14 March 1902
‘We paid a return visit to Ms Ulit who has got fine old copy of Rembrandt. It cannot be the original as I remember having seen printed copies of the same. It is a very beautiful work. Ulit is a man of taste.’

17 March 1902
‘Since coming here we have got other students too. One is Shankar Rao son of Captain Madhava Rao of the Nizam’s Artillery, and the other is Mr Calastry’s son. As we teach gratis there are boys always coming to us for tuition.’

20 March 1902
‘We paid a visit to the Meeralum Tank about 5 or 6 miles from here [ChaddrighautJ. I made a sketch of the lake and hills surrounding it with the sun setting. The drive was hot and dusty.’

21 March I902
‘We are glad to hear that our eldest cousin’s state of health is not now so serious as it was some time before. He is now undergoing treatment at Kilimanur at the hand of Chiruttaman Moos the younger. He wants us to return home soon, but we are in a dilemma.’

2 April 1902
‘Last night the Nizam entertained Lord Curzon at dinner at the Chow Mahal Palace. We had also gone there. The streets from the Residency to the palace were splendidly illuminated. The palace itself presented a scene of unrivalled splendour. When the dinner was over there was a fine display of fire-works, after which the party dispersed, big drops of rain from a passing cloud having commenced to fell to the inconvenience of those present.’

15 September 1903
‘Received a cheque for Rs 300 from Sir Arthur Mundrial Fund being the balance due for a portrait of the Ex-Governor. In the afternoon visited the old pictures in the different parts of the palace. None of the old pictures could[?] be made out. Of course the best pictures are those by the European painters. We were [sic] are pleased to hear that the Ooman Palli Kara [Omanpallikara] appeal was dismissed by the Dewan. The other party intends instituting a civil suit against us.’

18 September 1903
‘We visited Mr Nagamiah settlement, Dewan Peshkar, who, it is rumoured is in the running for the next Dewan Peshkarship. We have just finished his old mother’s portrait and he expressed himself highly pleased with it. I gave him the short account I have written of our family for his state manual. He thought that it was rather too short. He wants us to give him as much information as we can relating to the Maharajas court and manner of today.’

23 September 1903
‘We went this morning to the temple of Lalu Kavu to worship the Goddess, since this is the second day of the Navrathrie-Dusserah. On my return home I remitted two money orders one for Rs 6 to the manager of the Malayale Manorama and the other for Rs 4 to the Manorama at Calicut, the former being the last year’s subscription to it and the latter this year’s subscription.’

28 October 1903
‘In the morning called on Sir Balachandra to get medicine for Brother and to consult him with regard to the complaint. Our cook Chathu is suffering from [+++]. In the afternoon I wrote a letter to Messrs Arbuthnot & Co. enclosing a draft of Hundi for Rs 4000 to be credited to my account and invested on fixed deposit for one year at 5 percent interest payable half yearly in the same way as the Rs 6000 invested with them on the 20th instant. The draft was obtained from the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China. I next visited Messrs Marks & Co., Hussainally Abdulally, Kump and Co. etc. Returning home at about 5.30. Bapuji and Pannuswami Pillai came.’

29 October 1903
‘Last night we witnessed the performance of Sinjit Saubhadra of Kirloskar Dramatic Company at one of the Grant Road Theaters. This is the best Mahratta dramatic troupe. A carriage has been engaged from today at a rate of Rs 3 per day for our use. Its owner is a Parse[e] who had given his carriage on former occasions too. We drove to the Fort, gave Brother’s watch to Charpie & Co. for repairs, ordered Laidlaw & Whiteaway for two long coats for summer weather.’

30 October 1903
‘In the morning we paid a visit to Mr Jagmohan Das Vandravandas Bhaiset our friend who had been suffering lately from [a] paralytic attack. He has fortunately escaped from the first attack and is now alright. In the evening Mr Bapuji and we two went to Mr Soundy and purchased tickets for the London Comedy Company’s play of ‘H.E. The Governor’. Next we attended a discourse on Mahabharat by a clever Banares Pandit as he spoke in Hindusthani we could well understand him.’

1 November 1903
‘This evening we removed to a bungalow on the Gamdevi Road near the fire engine, as Kalbadevi Road was too noisy and crowded to be agreeable for residence. The new residence requires a lot of cleaning.’

4 November 1903
‘Last night we witnessed the Comedy of ‘H.E. the Governor’ at the Novelty.
I did not like it much nor did Brother or Bapuji. There was not much for the display of an actor’s skill. The whole thing was a domestic incident and nothing else. This morning I painted the Parsee Widow’s jacket and Sari, while brother retouched the Nizzam’s head for Mr Schleicher. In the evening we returned the visit of our Hyderabad friend Mr Permanand Das. He lives in the palace of Devaki Namdas Maharaja, one of the high priests of the Vaishnavas of the Vallabhachari persuasion. The building is splendid.’

6 November 1903
‘Early this morning we paid a visit to Mr Puroshotram Vishram Moraji in whose house on the Kalbadevi Road we had put up during the first few days of our arrival here. He is a man of taste and is writing a history of Shivaji the great Mahratta Hero. He has visited all the scenes connected with his exploits. He has got some good pictures and picture books. There are few Bhalias with artistic and literary taste.’

8 November 1903
‘This morning we went to Mr Chaturbhuj Khinji’s to photograph him and his wife who are anxious to have their portraits painted by us. On our return we were pleased to see Mr A. Raffin whom we had known 10 years ago as a boy at Grant Road.’

9 November 1903
‘Today we have severed all connection with our press known as ‘The Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press’ selling it to Mr Fritz Schleicher for a consideration of Rs 25,000 over and above paying all the debts connected with the establishment amounting to Rs 5 or 6 thousand. Out of this amount Rs 12,000 has been invested on fixed deposit in my name with Messrs Arbuthnoth & Co. bearing interest at 5 percent. The proprietorship of the Press was in my name though it was called after Brother.’

13 November 1903
‘Not having been well for the last three or four days, I opened my bowels this morning with Rubinat Water. In the afternoon I went to Phadkis Studio to make an enlargement of a negative. This done I returned home and went again with Brother to the market to purchase curtains and other things for our studio. On return home we saw Mr Chaturbhuj Khinji waiting for us. His request is that we should make some reduction in our charges.’

18 November 1903
‘This morning I was engaged in painting the body and sari of Dr Dawar’s wife while Brother painted his mothers head. As I did not feel well we drove in the afternoon to Dr Mathai’s dispensary at the Chakle[?] and he was pleased to give me a mixture. My complaint is unequal temperature of the body going up to 99 1/2 towards evening and a trouble headache. We gave Mr Naoroji a loan of Rs 30 when we met him at the Band Stand from where we went to the Apollo Bunder and hence returned home. Bapuji was with us.’

23 November 1903
‘I had to spend this day also at home not feeling quite disposed to go out, did little in the way of work, as too much concentration of mind produces headache. Chathu is making favourable progress. The wound is fast healing. He has slight fever on [?] for which Dr Mathai is treating him. Brother out as usual for his evening drive.’

25th November 1903
‘I went out with Brother for a drive this evening and got back his watch which had been given to Messrs Charpia & Co. for repairs which cost Rs 25. My health is much improved now. I purchased a bottle of Fellow’s Syrup from Madow & Co. for Rs 1-12-0 and commenced taking it this evening. Dr Mathai has recommended [to] me [to] take it regularly for some months as it relieves one of headache, poverty of blood and other complaints.’

27 November 1903
‘This morning Dr Dawar came and had a look at his wife’s portrait and said that he could not recognize her. Though it requires improvements we did not think it was so great a failure. These are the difficulties of portrait painting especially from Photographs. An other Parsee youth came with a profile of his deceased brother and wants a three quarter face made from this profile.’

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