Profile of an Artist: Rukmini Varma

In a time when India was still a land of splendid Maharajahs and fabulous courts, Rukmini Varma was born in 1940 into one of its most ancient royal houses, with an unbroken dynastic lineage of over 1200 years.

Rukmini Varma (1960)

Rukmini Varma (1960)

Titled Her Highness Bharani Tirunal Rukmini Bayi Tampuran, Fourth Princess of Travancore, her early life was an idyllic fairytale, with all the enchanting aura and ceremony surrounding a royal princess. Her grandmother, the Maharani Setu Lakshmi Bayi (1895-1985) was the revered matriarch of the house, who had ruled the State of Travancore and its five million people with much distinction in the 1920s, and the entire family lived in her hallowed shadows. Rukmini was her eldest (and favourite) grandchild, and in a dynasty that traced its bloodline through the female, her birth was of signal importance for matters of succession to the gaddi of Travancore.

Growing up in Satelmond Palace in Trivandrum, art came almost naturally to Rukmini. Her great grandfather, Raja Ravi Varma, was a master painter, venerated to this day as the Father of Modern Art in India. And some of his most fabulous works adorned the palace walls where Rukmini grew up. Her grandmother, the Maharani, was a patron of many local artists whose creations, from portraits & landscapes to mural paintings & dramatic scenes from the great epics, were an ever-present inspiration. But what captured Rukmini’s attention most were the hard-bound, tastefully produced annual catalogues of major art galleries from across Europe that her grandmother collected. The works of great baroque masters like Rembrandt, Rubens, and Caravaggio fascinated her, and while she was still a child she began to experiment with colour.

Rukmini at a family wedding

Rukmini at a family wedding

On her sixth birthday, Rukmini received her first full set of brushes and paints from her uncle, who observed her growing interest in this direction and ordered a complete kit from Bombay.  Her grandmother also, noticing her general inclination towards the arts, appointed dance and music instructors, and in the years to come Rukmini would master such forms as Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Kathak, and more. This combined with an appreciation of the cultural heritage of India and an interest in history, mythology, religion, architecture and more, would all hugely influence her, and reveal itself in her work in the years ahead.

By the eve of India’s independence from the British in 1947, however, things began to change in the royal household. Rukmini’s parents began to spend much of their time away from the palace, in the popular hill resorts of Kotagiri, Coonoor, and Kodaikanal, where they chose to enroll their children in public schools instead of having a train of tutors follow them around. The slowness of palace life was replaced by a regular routine focused on academic achievements instead of art. In 1949 the State of Travancore vanished from the map forever when it was merged with Independent India, and the royal family retired from active public life. Rukmini’s parents decided to move to the cosmopolitan ‘garden city’ of Bangalore, and soon after the Maharani also joined them there. Satelmond Palace and the old world it represented vanished. The liveried servants, royal guards, and all the ritualistic ceremony of palace life slowly faded away, and the family began to live more freely and privately, away from the land that had once been their kingdom.

Rukmini in the early 1960s

Rukmini in the early 1960s

For the next two decades painting too largely took a backseat for Rukmini as school and college in Bangalore intervened, followed by marriage and children- all by the time she was twenty-one. She kept her artistic interests alive, however, and recalls how she would try to recreate pictures from Greek mythology, painting Venus, Aphrodite, Paris, and other characters. And her classmates and friends were quick to ask for these pictures and to get her to paint more. Her grandmother, in all the family, supported her a great deal (even as her father insisted on an academic focus because of her excellence in science), advising her, when she was in her teens, that she should aim to exhibit her pictures in due course and work towards the corresponding perfection in her paintings. The encouragement helped- Rukmini chose art and not science.

During the 1960s Rukmini also excelled in dance. Training under the renowned U.S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi as well as Uma Rama Rao, she gave several exclusive performances, including for charities. Film directors (including the likes of Raj Kapoor) began to approach her, as did people with modelling offers, on account of her exceptional good looks (Mysindia, for instance, referred to her in 1968 as ‘an Ajanta painting come to life’). Magazine covers began to feature her and she became the toast of Bangalore society. Rukmini successfully dabbled in a variety of artistic spheres in the 1960s, which she considers her ‘most creative phase.’ In 1965 she started her own dance school in Bangalore in the halls of Travancore House, her family home on Richmond Road, which became an instant success. But the social pressures on a princess from a royal family dancing resulted in a premature termination of this phase of her career, to the greatest regret of her gurus. The Maharani, for whom Rukmini performed often in private, as usual helped her move on by suggesting an alternative and giving her all the encouragement she needed.

Since dancing was considered too unorthodox, Rukmini returned to painting where social constraints were, it was felt, less pressing. And soon enough she began to enjoy it actively and took it up with a renewed vigour. By 1970 she had completed her first series of oil paintings, which were exhibited in Bangalore to positive reviews. This led to work on her second exhibition in 1973, which was opened by the Governor Mohanlal Sukhadia of Karnataka State (where 34 of the 39 paintings displayed were sold in a matter of days), and her third series in 1974, inaugurated by the President of India, V.V. Giri, at the Lalit Kala Academy in Delhi. This last one was called ‘The Conch and the Cauvery’ and captured scenes from rural Karnataka (the Cauvery basin) and Kerala (the land of the Conch), and brought her serious recognition in India’s art circles (including from Svetoslav Roerich, with whom Rukmini later sat on the Advisory Board of the Chitrakala Parishad in Karnataka). These works also stood out as they were all in the impressionist style at a time when abstract expressionism had become popular in India. Rukmini was one of the few old-style artists working in the country and as she honed her talents and skill, more and more art collectors began to pick up her work. Another popular series called ‘Wayside Vignettes’, also depicting rural life and South Indian temple culture, followed and Rukmini became more confident of her work.

Rukmini with her older son Venugopal (Rohini Tirunal) in 1965

Rukmini with her older son Venugopal (Rohini Tirunal) in 1965

In 1976, upon the invitation of BK Nehru and Natwar Singh, Rukmini embarked on her first major international exhibition at India House in London, which was opened by Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. He was so impressed by her skill and ability that he asked her, subsequently, if she would do a portrait of him in traditional Indian attire, wearing a turban and an achchkan. This was despite knowing that she did not normally do portraits and ‘created’ her own people and subjects. They also became friends briefly, with Mountbatten inviting her to go fox hunting and picnicking with him on his country estate. The commission, unfortunately, could not be completed owing to Lord Mountbatten’s tragic assassination in 1979, just before he was due to visit India with Prince Charles and give Rukmini her promised three sittings.

Subsequent exhibitions followed in Bonn, Cologne, and Neuenahr in Germany, along with invitations from Paris, Zurich, Madrid, and Rome, and interviews and features on European television networks. Among the exhibitions in Europe was her acclaimed ‘Alter Ego Series’, which was a tremendous success, including commercially. Queries and requests for her work began to increase and come in from collectors around the world, although mainly from Europe, America, Singapore, and the Middle East. In 1981 she had another highly successful exhibition in Bombay at the Jehangir Art Gallery and at The Taj Art Gallery (where she won the appreciation of M.F. Hussain), with newspapers describing a ‘stampede’ to view her paintings.

One of the reasons this exhibition was such a sensation was because it included her ‘Flesh and Gems’ series, which had female nudes, in mythological settings. As the Illustrated Weekly of India noted, the normally ‘ethereal figures of chastity and sublimity who crowd our puranas and epics’ were depicted by Rukmini in a more earthy manner, as ‘voluptuous, sometimes wanton beauties’. They were not meant to trigger any ‘erotic fantasies’ but were a celebration of the human, particularly female, form and experience. ‘In some paintings such as Mother and Child,’ the review continues, ‘the woman, larger than life, is rooted in reality: you see the smallest blue veins under the translucent skin and you cannot but appreciate the artist’s sensitivity to detail, especially considering that Rukmini is a self-taught artist. In Kunti-Surya what distracts your eye from Kunti’s nubile nakedness is her innocent look- tinged with shyness, mingled with awe- on being suddenly confronted with a resplendent Sun God. Woman with a Fan, however’, it adds somewhat disapprovingly, ‘does look a little fleshy.’


Rukmini in the mid-1970s

Throughout her career until now Rukmini was always compared with her renowned ancestor, Raja Ravi Varma, but, as the Illustrated Weekly noted with the ‘Flesh and Gems’ series, while she followed his style when depicting scenes from the epics, there was a substantial difference: Ravi Varma’s women were always luxuriously draped. Rukmini, on the other hand, had no qualms about painting them nude. It was a courageous move for the times. And it was noticed.

In the 1890s Ravi Varma had ruffled some feathers when he began to paint goddesses and celestial beauties. And this was at the slightest artistic revelation of the female body and flesh. With Rukmini, nearly a century later, similar reactions followed when she went where Ravi Varma never dared to go, with many (including Swami Chinmayananda, for instance) commenting that she ought not to have painted nudes based on the epics, which had some religious value and could give offence. Her ‘Pratiksha’ series from the early 1980s, which included many nudes, was therefore quietly sold into private collections in India and abroad, and was not exhibited anywhere so as not to provoke the orthodoxy.

Through the 1980s, Rukmini experimented with nudes through ‘Pratiksha’, despite objections, including from family circles. She was very disillusioned by this prudish conservatism in art, stating years later: ‘I got fed up with all these restrictions. You couldn’t express yourself in the way you wanted. I am certain even Ravi Varma wanted to paint flesh as flesh is, without restrictions…Skin tones fascinate artists because there are so many shades and colours there. You clothe the skin and you paint drapery. Drapery could be used to offset the skin, but if you cover all the skin, it loses the point you are trying to make.’ Rukmini was going through a phase of rebellion. Interestingly, this corresponded with the time when her commercial success was at its peak, and artists and collectors alike would regularly show up to meet her at Travancore House. Since all her previous series had been sold out, it was ‘Pratiksha’ that they all went back with.

Rukmini photographed at an event in the late 1970s

Rukmini photographed at an event in the late 1970s

Tragedy, however, struck when in 1988 her youngest son, Ranjit, died in an accident at the age of twenty. Rukmini was devastated by the event and for the next several years did not pick up the brush. She moved out of her grand old house into a private flat so as to escape attention from the now-steady stream of visitors and the media. A separation from her husband followed. Then, in the mid-1990s Rukmini once again began to paint when she began work on a portrait of Ranjit (one of the few portraits she has done). Another one followed but she was unable to complete either of them. To the genuine satisfaction of her collectors and well-wishers, however, she slowly began to do other paintings as well. Her lifestyle remained reclusive, though, and she turned down all invitations to exhibit her latest works and did not receive visitors.

Over the last eighteen years until now, Rukmini has been painting in Bangalore, with a dedicated group of private collectors following the progress of her work. She continues to avoid visitors for most part along with requests from the press, even as her work, although much reduced in volume, remains singular in style and excellence.

It was after considerable persuasion by her friends and family that she allowed a tumblr website with a brief bio to be set up for her here. Her Facebook Page can be found here with a number of her photographs and paintings.


One Response to “Profile of an Artist: Rukmini Varma”

  1. Khyrunnisa A Says:

    Very well written profile of a gutsy princess.

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