May 1 2011
Moving from our Sundays in the world of commercial postcards and professional entertainers, we now have two exquisite portraits by one of India’s most famous painters, Raja Ravi Varma from Kerala. First, a saree of pristine black is worn by the young Maharani Chimanbai in a formally posed composition. Her pearls are spectacular, her face perfection, the silk handkerchief in her hand against the crisp black an accent – as is the colourful vase of flowers. I love the exactly pleated fantail of the nine-yard saree and her dainty feet, flat on the carpet. The inscription date seems to be 1887 or 1889, but I’ll do some research.
In the second painting the pose is more relaxed, elbow on the rolled end of the chair with bare hands clasped. The mood is tender, as is the sheer pinky-purple of the saree the Maharani Chimanbai wears, though her abundant pearls are still just breath-taking! The little train of saree on the floor has curves rather than stiff knife-pleats, and the sole of one foot is now turned slightly upward on the inviting fur rug. Everything has changed to softness in this piece. Her assured elegance could not be surpassed by any of today’s royals.
Even the early works of Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) won prestigious art exhibition prizes in India and Europe, and they are now displayed in palaces and museums, with copies on the internet. Known for his bright scenes of gods and goddesses from classic literature, the artist’s oil portraits of real people carry a special life-essence that still breathes for viewers today. Varma’s paintings have just enough depth and detail to let us back into India’s regal homes from a century ago – where he was himself a resident. That was a time and place I’d give anything to have seen and been part of.