The lesser-known raja: Ravi Varma’s partner in art

(Published in Mint Lounge, April 30 2022)

In 1848, a Malayali lady called Umamba was possessed by a yakshi. Of the many types of yakshis that are said to exist in folklore, this one, the story goes, was a balabhakshini: a devourer of children. So, naturally when she saw Umamba—several months pregnant—her appetite was whetted. But here is the twist in the plot, for, once inside, the yakshi realised that Umamba’s baby was no ordinary being, but a child destined for greatness. When a talented exorcist appeared to evict her from Umamba’s womb, therefore, the awestruck yakshi consented, and becoming a balarakshini (a protector of children), settled down in a grove. In another retelling of the story, before she departed, the yakshi offered Umamba a choice: Her son could either own great wealth or extraordinary talent. The mother’s decision is clear from the boy’s subsequent career as an artist, a man the world today remembers as Ravi Varma, the “raja” with a brush.

Ravi Varma’s celebrity, both in his lifetime and since, has resulted in a series of myths and tales encrusting his name. In many of these, he is a near supernatural being, fending off a yakshi here, exorcising spirits there, all while creating visual magic with his brush. Add to this his skill at putting snooty Europeans in their place: In one story, when a white woman pooh-poohs Indian oil painters, Ravi Varma invites her to dinner. As she attempts to join his guests at the table, she shrieks, discovering that the whole thing is a superb painting. Apocryphal tales aside, though, the historical Ravi Varma was a hard-working professional, a man keen to take advantage of technology (such as photography) for his work, and a savvy public figure who, besides painting, also cultivated powerful networks. Importantly, much of what he achieved was not done alone; assisting him on the path to glory was Rajaraja, his brother.

Rajaraja Varma was 12 years junior to his more famous sibling. No tales of yakshis or prophecies of greatness exist around him: His place has largely been in the background, as a dutiful follower of Ravi Varma. They were both, however, exposed to the same influences early in life. Born in 1860, Rajaraja grew up in an artistic setting. Umamba was not only an Ayurvedic physician but also a poet; Neelakantan Bhattathiri, his father, was a Sanskrit scholar; and a maternal uncle carved ivory figurines and painted in south Indian styles. The family owned thousands of acres of land, and was related by marriage to the Travancore royal family. It was in this aristocratic milieu that Rajaraja was raised. But Ravi Varma—who had been painting at the durbar in Thiruvananthapuram from his teens, and who saw the world changing—pressed Rajaraja to think beyond inherited comforts. The boy was planted in the state’s capital for an English education, taking lessons alongside royal princes.

Mastery over English offered rich dividends in the colonial period, and then, as today, could open doors otherwise closed to Indians. Rajaraja wielded the coloniser’s language with ease. He not only kept a diary—something scholars on Ravi Varma have found invaluable—but also published a travelogue after a pan-Indian tour with a Travancore prince. He also acted as a secretary and bookkeeper to his brother. But it was clear that Rajaraja could paint too, and that he was rather good at it; Ravi Varma, at not a little expense, even got a British artist, Frank Brooks, to give his brother lessonEarly on, Rajaraja started work as an assistant: In 1878-79, when Ravi Varma received his first royal commission from outside Travancore, his 18-year-old brother went with him, launching a partnership that would continue till Rajaraja’s death in 1905. In fact, in his diaries, Rajaraja claims his share of credit for Ravi Varma’s commercial triumphs. Much of the older man’s earnings, he wrote, was “the result of our joint work”.

Some of the most prominent Ravi Varma canvases known today were made together by the brothers, in fact: “We” painted the maharana of Udaipur; “we” began work on a portrait of Hyderabad’s nizam; “we” produced At The Bath, for which there was a comical struggle to find a sex worker who would pose half-nude; “we” did portraits of statesmen like Sir T. Madhava Rao. Even newspaper mentions, when announcing Ravi Varma’s peregrinations, spoke of “the brothers” or “the artists”. Over time and as he got older, therefore, it is not surprising that Rajaraja began signing paintings with his brother, staking claim as a partner. Unfortunately, his untimely death, in his 40s, and before he could sign more work with Ravi Varma, meant that Rajaraja was fated to be known chiefly as an assistant

Rajaraja’s talent, though, is not in doubt and his own canvases invited glowing comments at the time. As a newspaper profile observed, though the brothers “invariably move[d] and work[ed] together”, they submitted separate works during competitions. And if Ravi Varma was “an idealist in the strictest sense”, Rajaraja favoured a “strong realistic feeling”. This comes across in the themes they chose: In 1894, where Ravi Varma exhibited his Indian Lady Of The Puranic Age—otherworldly and idealised—his brother showed a more contemporary Indian Lady Of The Nineteenth Century. Though they remain mostly uncatalogued even now, press reports list many of Rajaraja’s works from this period. In Honour Of Baby’s Birthday, for example, was “one of the best” at a 1901 competition, alongside Roadside Restaurant and Early To The Fair. In 1904, Rajaraja displayed Triplicane Temple and Siesta, the second described by an art critic as the “best figure-painting by a native of Southern India”. Semi-condescending appreciation of this type was perfectly normal, given the colonial context: Rajaraja’s Lohgad was also described by a European as “the most successful attempt in pure landscape we have ever seen by a Native”.

Of course, both brothers met their share of unimpressed commentators too. Ravi Varma was attacked for everything from figures with unreasonably large heads, to suggestions that at times his “composition is too stiff”. Rajaraja was criticised for cramming his canvases with too many details, as also the fact that these details were arranged in ways that did not add up. In Early To The Fair, for example, while there was a “limpidity” and “sunny” quality overall, a critic noted, Rajaraja had evidently placed his characters in “equidistant groups of equal importance”, giving “a fidgety feeling to an otherwise pleasant work”. He improved with time, and the brothers learnt from one another—in Rajaraja’s At The Village Tank, displayed posthumously in 1905, a critic found a “masterly composition” but also an “influence of his brother”, Ravi Varma. The two men also often chose models from a common pool of friends and relatives: In Baby and Princess, Rajaraja’s model for the infant was his sister’s son, just as Ravi Varma got family members to pose as Sita, Rama and Ravana.

Rajaraja was also possessed of a mind at once curious and accepting of ideas. During his travels with Ravi Varma, he encountered everyone from wealthy princes to “ferocious looking criminal lunatics”. Somewhere in Tamil country, the aristocrat in Rajaraja sniffed at how an interlocutor of the merchant caste could “talk little more of this great world than pertained to rates and ledgers”. But, as if embarrassed by his own judgemental tone, he added that “many of our most beautiful temples would have tumbled into ruins” were it not for donations by men of this very caste. Watching Parsi girls at a Bombay wedding, he lamented how their hair was “so cruelly dealt with”, hidden under “a white head band”, only to chuckle that “young Parsee ladies” were pushing it “farther and farther back” till “I think in another quarter of a century it will altogether disappear”. Visiting Akbar’s tomb, he rhapsodized about the “gratitude and affection” Indians felt for the emperor, while Agra’s Moti Masjid evoked “so exalted a spirit of worship that I felt humble”. Besides, Rajaraja may have been a little more worldly-wise than Ravi Varma. “Had brother taken care to save the money he had earned by painting,” he sighed in 1903, “he would have been one of the richest men.”

Indeed, it was not as if, between painting and travelling across India in search of opportunities, the artists’ lives featured no regrets. Ravi Varma’s famous printing press, even as it made him a yet more popular figure, also saddled him with debt. Interestingly, Rajaraja’s diaries do not directly reveal his feelings on playing second fiddle to his brother—this could be because Ravi Varma regularly transferred money and property to Rajaraja, recognising his importance to his own success. Where regret does appear, it is in how the brothers’ ambition and quest for achievement caused them to neglect loved ones. Ravi Varma’s unhappy marriage is well known, and while Rajaraja’s wife, Janaki, was understanding of his long absences, on his deathbed he lamented he could have been a better husband. So also, in his diaries we find a sad reflection about their mother: While the brothers went about doing portraits for the who’s who of the age, they did not once think of painting Umamba. When, after her death, a picture was made, it was from memory, and a decent likeness, but not as it ought to have been.

Rajaraja’s death—at a time when he was at last coming into his own and carving out a name independently for himself—was sudden. While the two men were in Mysore doing a series for its maharaja, Rajaraja—or Cherunni, as family members affectionately addressed him—was taken ill. It was an intestinal inflammation, and despite the best medical care, he succumbed in the first week of 1905. “Many who for years past have admired his artistic work,” the Madras Weekly Mail observed, “will regret the gap that his loss has made; while those who were privileged to know him personally will mourn him as a friend.”
The greatest blow, of course, was to Ravi Varma: He had depended so long on Rajaraja’s professional and emotional support, and so entwined were their lives, that he struggled with the loss. Ravi Varma died less than two years later; as an obituary recorded, he had “sustained a heavy and irreparable loss” from Rajaraja’s sudden death, and “never wholly recovered”. In a letter he wrote in this final phase, Ravi Varma called himself a paapi, or sinner—a mark perhaps of an inner fragility.

Today, the world—after a few decades of neglect in the 20th century—has come around to recognising Ravi Varma as one of the great Indian artists of the pre-independence period. His work, not only in terms of creating a visual imagery for the Indian epics but also for helping catalyse an emerging feeling of nationalism, is celebrated. Rajaraja, however, is yet to receive his due: He was essential to all that his brother achieved, and the Ravi Varma we know might not have become everything he did were it not for this unobtrusive partner. While money by itself is hardly an appropriate marker, it does seem to offer a belated consolation. At an auction last year by Saffronart in Mumbai, while a Ravi Varma fetched over ₹20 crore, for the first time a Rajaraja canvas also entered the big league, selling for an unprecedented ₹3 crore. In a sense, the younger brother defers, even in death, to the older, but at least one can argue that he is no longer unnoticed. Recognition, on his own merits, is coming his way, even if it is late in the day.