Think Ravi Varma and chances are that Princely States such as Mysore, Baroda and Travancore would first come to mind. And then perhaps Lonavala where the artist set up a printing press that churned out prints of his works by the hundreds, all of which made it to calendars and from there to our puja rooms. No matter that Grandmother was lighting a lamp and reverently praying before a benign Mahavishnu who was actually selling Sunlight soap. But what is interesting to note is that Madras as a city, and as capital of the eponymous Presidency played a significant role in the growth of Ravi Varma’s reputation as an artist. That at least is the takeout from a read of Rupika Chawla’s book Raja Ravi Varma, Painter of Colonial India.

Ravi Varma was born on 29th April 1848 at Killimanoor to Uma Amba Bayi Thampuratty of the royal family and her consort Ezhumavil Neelakantan Bhattatiripad. Of the four children that this couple had, three – Ravi Varma, Raja Varma and Mangala Bayi would become painters, though Ravi Varma was the one who would become really famous. Raja Varma, who was 12 years younger to Ravi Varma, remained happy in the shadows of his eminent brother, though it was not as though he lacked talent. He accompanied Ravi Varma in his tours across the country, which started in 1878. Besides helping his brother in his work, Raja Varma also maintained a diary between 1895 and 1903 which gives details of Ravi Varma’s daily routine and working style.

Ravi Varma became known to the citizens of Madras in 1874 when he entered his Nair Woman at her Toilette for display at the Fine Art Exhibition in the city. He was awarded a gold medal for this work and four years later, he arrived in the city, this time to attend the next Fine Art Exhibition where his Shakuntala Patralekhan (Shakuntala writing a letter) won a gold medal. The painting was also acquired by the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, who was then Governor of the Presidency. Buckingham was evidently very impressed with Ravi Varma’s work for two years later, he sat for a portrait of himself by the artist. He was now to be amazed by the speed with which Ravi Varma worked and noted “though he had given no less than 18 sittings to an eminent continental artist, he had not produced half so faithful a likeness as the Indian artist had done”. This portrait of the Duke now hangs in the Raj Bhawan, Ooty. The same year, Buckingham arrived in Travancore on a state visit. The ceremonial welcome given to him as he alighted from his barge was recorded by Ravi Varma in a painting. But the close friendship between the Duke and the painter was not to the liking of Vishakham Tirunal, the new ruler. This, along with several invitations from other parts of the country, saw Ravi Varma along with his faithful younger brother, remaining away from Travancore for several years.

During these itinerant years, the brothers kept sending their works for display at the exhibitions organised by the Madras Fine Arts Society. The Society, which was set up in 1893, was based at Jarrets Gardens in Egmore and had as its honorary Secretary and moving spirit, Edgar Thurston, who would later become the Keeper of the Government Museum, Madras. Thurston developed a great liking for the works of the Varma brothers and it is largely thanks to him that the city’s museums still have a few Ravi Varmas with them.

No matter where they travelled, the brothers subscribed to Madras newspapers such as the Morning Standard, the Madras Mail and the Madras Times. On 27th February for instance, Raja Varma notes in his diary while sitting in a camp near Lonavla, “from the Morning Standard of the 27th ultimo I learn that my painting of the Water Bearer won the prize of 50 rupees for the best figure painting in the Madras Fine Arts Exhibition”. The painting was evidently gifted by him to the Madras Fine Arts Society for a few days later he also records a letter of thanks received from Thurston for the gift.

A painting that was not executed in Madras but which now hangs at the Government Musuem in the city is Going Out, made in 1899. In Bombay, the Varma brothers became very close to the Khareghat family which belonged to the Parsi community. Aloo Khareghat was the young daughter of the house, who Raja Varma noted was “a very intelligent lady having a thorough English education”. Ravi Varma enjoyed her conversation immensely and by way of his appreciation painted Going Out, with her as the subject. When Aloo’s father died, she moved to Madras where her brother Meherwan Khareghat worked for the PWD. She later married Rustom Patel of Ooty and had two daughters, the younger of which was Mary Clubwalla Jadhav. In the early 1950s, Mary and her mother, donated Going Out to the Government Museum.

Though the Varmas were to halt briefly in Madras on their way to various Princely States and towns up north and also to towns within Madras Presidency, they did not make it a base. In 1902 however, the brothers were back in Madras, this time for a long stay. By now, Ravi Varma was an artist of country-wide fame and he therefore had a number of commissions to execute in the city, most of which had to be ready for the Industrial and Arts Exhibition of 1903. The prominent worthies of Madras who sat for Ravi Varma included Sir V Bhashyam Iyengar and Sir S Subramania Iyer (both portraits were displayed at the Vakils Association and have since vanished), Lodd Govinddoss the famed financier and whose guests the Varmas were during this visit, a Mrs Naidu and Sir George Moore, President of the Corporation of Madras (this portrait hangs at the Ripon Buildings). The progress of the painting of the last subject was documented on a day by day basis by Raja Varma and his diary entries make for interesting reading. A subject who was painted in absentia was Sir Arthur Havelock, Governor of Madras between 1896 and 1900. He had already left for taking up his subsequent assignment as Governor of Tasmania. But by then the wonder of photography made the Varma brothers’ task easier and in 1903 they received a letter from Havelock who wrote that several of those who had seen the portrait had commented on the “excellence of the likeness to the original.” By then, Raja Varma was evidently considered by his elder brother to be an equal, for Havelock’s portrait as also that of Sir George Moore were signed by both of them. From the jottings from Raja Varma’s diary, it is also possible to infer that by then it was the younger brother who was doing a lot of the work with Ravi Varma giving the finishing touches.

A total of ten works of Ravi Varma (some jointly with Raja Varma) were displayed at the Industrial and Fine Arts Exhibition of 1903. The Hindu, reporting on the inauguration on 26th December noted that Ravi Varma was one among the prominent people seated close to the dais. It was also during this prolonged stay in the city that Ravi Varma found time to consult Major R Robertson of the Indian Medical Service about the possibility of his being diabetic. The initial diagnosis was negative and he was given a few medicines and assured that his problem would go away. That was not to be and adding to his sufferings was the sudden death of Raja Varma while the duo was in Mysore in 1904. It was while in mourning for his brother that Ravi Varma executed a portrait of Lord Ampthill, Governor of Madras between 1900 and 1906. This hangs at the Freemasons Hall, Egmore. But by then the painter did not have long to live. By 1905, diabetes had marked him for its own and in 1906, a carbuncle the size of a mango meant that he did not have long to live. The end came on October 3rd at Killimanoor.

The Hindu carried an obituary on the 4th where it rightfully declared that his “painting has exerted a unique influence on the minds of our countrymen”. That this is true today also is confirmed by the prices at which even prints of Ravi Varmas are now bought and sold across the country.

By dying when he did Ravi Varma was spared the trauma of yet another tragedy- the collapse of Arbuthnot Bank which took place towards the end of 1906. The brothers evidently banked with Arbuthnot’s for the book carries a few extracts from Raja Varma’s diaries to this effect.