Rukmini Varma’s art of realism (30 December 2017)

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 30 2017)

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In December 1982, The Illustrated Weekly Of India carried a story on an Indian painter and her latest series, inspired by classical mythology. The feature included a number of photographs, and had followed exhibitions at the Jehangir and Taj art galleries in Mumbai. While Society magazine described a “minor stampede” at the venues, part of this was also because many were interested in the women who appeared in these canvases. After all, the artist had been true to descriptions in the epics: Where the Mahabharat relates how Vishwamitra saw Menaka “nude” after her skirt went “off with the wind”, and “lusted to lie with her”, the painter of these works had indeed created a sage with a face that weighed his options, beholding an apsara (celestial nymph) who wore jewels but had truly lost her clothes. The reviews were not kind—emphasis was placed on the word “nude”. But even as the painter K.H. Ara told her to ignore critics, what upset the artist were the threats that followed. As a letter to the Illustrated Weekly warned, while “Hindus are less communal…it is not advisable to misuse their generosity. You should desist from baring their gods and goddesses.”

Rukmini Varma would grow tired of this—the critic who disapproved of her traditional choice of subject (“God save us from our gods and goddesses!” commented S.V. Vasudev) as much as he did of her preference for realism. And a right wing that was apoplectic about the unabashed manner in which mythological figures were approached. The tilt towards realism was perhaps natural, given her circumstances. Arriving with a gun salute into Kerala’s premier royal family in 1940, her early life was spent in a palace, surrounded by court painters who elevated realism to the heights of worship. That she was descended from Raja Ravi Varma carried its influence too. Varma’s style was for much of the 20th century discredited as being too colonial, as India moved through phases dominated by the nationalistic Bengal School, followed by the modernism of Amrita Sher-Gil and the Progressive Artists of Bombay.

But, for Rukmini, realism retains merit. When, in an interview, she was asked if she wanted to be introduced as “a dethroned princess on a nostalgic trip” or “as an artist carrying on the tradition of an illustrious ancestor”, her response was: “Neither.” Try instead, she suggested, to present a “woman with a mission” centred on “preserving realistic art”. To her, realism is “timeless”. And if the suggestion is made that such work is anachronistic, her response is simply: “I disagree.”

Her mission has had its ups and downs. In the 1970s, Rukmini saw tremendous success. Her exhibitions in India were opened by governors and presidents, while, in London, Lord Mountbatten sang her praises. Her social position—had the old order continued, she would today have held the title of maharani—allowed her private tours of the Vatican’s collection, and she sat with Svetoslav Roerich on the advisory board of the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in Bengaluru, where she lives.

This was also the phase in which she experimented a great deal—her palette-knife paintings from this decade are among the finest works produced by this self-taught artist in a 50-year career. While she too dabbled in modernism, and expresses admiration for Sher-Gil’s originality, Rukmini always found herself drawn back to realism. Even as she resurrected her ancestor’s style, there were elements she introduced of her own. “During the Victorian era,” for instance, “painters muted the colours. Nobody did a bright painting, and everything was mixed with a neutral colour…(so) the outcome would be soft…But my palette is not like that…I give each shade its own prominence. And the canvas becomes vivid.” So too she separates herself from the classical and academic schools—hers is a realism that relies solely on pictures formed in her mind—“visions” where characters appear fully formed, jewels and all—so that models are rarely required for reference.

Rukmini’s paintings, which abound with buxom women and muscular men, do indeed have shades of purple and blue. But what marks out these canvases is that most of her characters, while covered in gems and jewels, are not draped. “My point has always been to bring out the innumerable shades in flesh, for there is nothing…that has more varieties of shades than this,” she once explained. “I am fascinated by the interplay of shades (and light)… If it is an arm, of course, there will be no comment. But if there is a bust, or hips, or thighs, immediately comes in this word, ‘nude’. Which is ridiculous.” In another interview, when asked why she “filled” her canvas with “nude women in erotic postures”, quick came the response: “If my work is characterized as ‘erotic’ by you, then how would you describe the frescoes in…Ajanta?” As a one-time dancer (having learnt Kathak from Maya Rao and Bharatanatyam from U.S. Krishna Rao), and as a student of Sanskrit classics, Rukmini seeks an idealized conception of beauty. When asked why her characters, despite her realism, are so unlike real human beings, she laughs, “It is always an exaggeratedly beautiful anatomy that I see. Perhaps I’m inventing a beauty that simply doesn’t exist? Perhaps reality as I see it is so overpowering that this is my form of escape?”

Painting did become an escape by the end of the 1980s. After she lost her son in an accident, Rukmini became a recluse, disappearing from the world of art, where, in any case, she had never been “in” with the times. It took over three decades, till this year, for her to put up a show again, where the principal work on display was a 9ft-tall painting of the Hoysala emperor Vishnuvardhan with his dancer wife Shantala, both of them wearing jewels for clothes and depicted on the basis of Rukmini’s “vision” of the couple. At 77, painting such tremendous canvases is not an easy exercise—in the verandah of her colonial-era house, two teapoys are put together with a table on top, and Rukmini is hoisted up in an armchair so she can work. But paint she must—and while the world may move from one style to the next, and from one experimental form to another, this descendant of India’s painter prince remains committed to her style. “Art has no expiry date, and no geographical boundaries,” she smiles, “and we can always learn from the old masters.”

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