Stories on Canvas

(Originally published in The Hindu, June 26 2016)

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Rukmini Varma

When M.F. Husain walked into the Jehangir Art Gallery one afternoon in 1981, he was curious to see for himself the works that had provoked, according to a city newspaper, a ‘stampede’ there. He was expecting something newfangled, perhaps, but what he encountered were paintings in the classical realist style, long since unfashionable and frequently disparaged. They were works by a descendant of the glamorous nineteenth century artist, Raja Ravi Varma, but what attracted so much attention was the fact that their painter had depicted mythological characters in a state of dishabille. Art that had caused a sensation in London and Cologne invited controversy in Bombay. Husain, who would in due course find himself engulfed in a scandal of apocalyptic proportions for ‘hurting sentiments’ in a similar fashion, now grew curious about the hands that had coloured these canvases.

They belonged to Rukmini Varma, a woman whose life was as splendid as the rich paintings she produced. She was born in 1940 as the favourite grandchild of the last Maharani of Travancore. Her birth was heralded with a public holiday for some six million subjects and she spent her early life pampered in stately palaces by kowtowing servitors. After Independence, her parents moved to Bangalore where Rukmini flourished in an anglicised world of fancy dress balls and weekends at the races. She also became a classical dancer, learning under U.S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi. But a highborn lady must not dance in public, she was sternly told, and so she retired when still in her twenties. Marriage and children followed in a seemingly natural progression.

When I heard her story for the first time while researching her grandmother’s life for my book, I thought (as men are wont to think sometimes about women) that this sounded like a small sacrifice to be made. For in the 1960s, Rukmini had everything else — wealth, status, a royal bloodline, and even exquisite good looks that caused one magazine to remark that she looked like ‘an Ajanta painting come to life’. In a patriarchal society, her gender and social status precluded a career in dance, but she had alternatives that many others did not. And, indeed, no sooner had she put aside her anklets than she picked up the brush to depict in oil instead the bhava, rasa and abhinaya that inspired and charged her creative energies.

This explains S.V. Vasudev’s review that Rukmini is ‘first and foremost a storyteller’ whose works ‘reflect the air and atmosphere of a hard-core dramatic stage’. Her paintings offer a world of ‘drama, the exaggerated metaphor, the opulence of beauty’ — Sanskrit poetry in the form of art. She calls it Romantic Representative Realism, where colours meet with her imagination to highlight attractive qualities, underplay human defects and create a setting that is normally seen in magnificent temple carvings and monumental Greek sculptures. Rukmini couldn’t dance in person, so she brought bharatanatyam to the canvas. And instead of complaining about what was denied to her, she decided to make the most of what she had, conscious that this was more than what most others would ever have.

The nudes that troubled viewers in Bombay, however, were the result of another of Rukmini’s fascinations: the play of light on skin, which she considers an endless palette. This, combined with the investment of human feelings and desires into the characters in her work meant, as The Illustrated Weekly noted, that the ‘ethereal figures of chastity and sublimity who crowd our puranas and epics’ received a more earthly treatment from Rukmini who pushed boundaries by portraying them instead as ‘voluptuous, sometimes wanton beauties’. This was not to trigger ‘erotic fantasies’ but to celebrate feeling and form — ‘In some paintings,’ the review adds, ‘the woman, larger than life, is rooted in reality: you see the smallest blue veins under the translucent skin and you cannot help but appreciate the artist’s sensitivity to detail’.

Confronted by orthodoxy, Rukmini at first pointed prudish disapproval in the direction of antique sculptures that were vastly more explicit in their posturing than those who peopled her paintings. But her husband did not want trouble and she stopped painting nudes. When I asked her why she did not fight, Rukmini was hesitant to answer, afraid that it would sound much like shallow complaints from a woman of privilege. After a little persuasion, however, she said that she felt trapped — as a woman, as the scion of a royal line in a still-classist society, and as the wife of a man who disapproved of her work. But once again, instead of succumbing to a sense of injustice, she improvised. If people had objections with nudes, she covered them — but without drapery. “Fabric conceals the skin and all its beautiful shades of colour,” she argues. And so, instead, she began to cover her human figures with fig leaves of jewel and gold that satisfied assorted commentators while leaving her in peace.

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Rukmini Varma

Women even today often have to choose the path of compromise instead of ‘fighting it out’ (which is easy enough for even a good-natured man to say). In Rukmini’s case, though, there was also a lot at stake. By the mid-1980s she was in her prime and her work hung in collections around the world. Presidents and Governors inaugurated her exhibitions where paintings sold for thousands of dollars. Her friends included Devika Rani Roerich and the Mallya family; while Mountbatten, who opened her London show, was just ‘a naughty old man’ who invited her to fox-hunts. At her Richmond Road home in Bangalore, Rukmini entertained eastern princes, western diplomats, and every kind of Indian grandee. But as an artist she was more or less alone, divorced from the rest of the art movement in the country — that was a world of abstract expressionism and the avant garde, whereas Rukmini’s work drew nourishment from the past.

It was tragedy, then, that shook Rukmini in 1988 when her youngest son died in an accident. It uprooted her emotionally and for some time it looked like she would descend from grief into madness. She gave up her mansion and moved into a small apartment by herself. She distributed her expensive goods among family members and even divided furniture between her two surviving sons. What they couldn’t take was simply sold — Chinese vases, chandeliers, tapestries, and more. The woman who couldn’t cross a road without someone to help her now travelled in buses full of oblivious strangers, going on pilgrimage to dozens of temples. In her tattered clothes, she began work on a portrait of her deceased boy — a painting she has still not finished after 28 years.

Finally, in the mid-1990s, Rukmini’s parents extracted her from this spiral of undoing to return her to her girlhood home. “I couldn’t recognise the person I used to be and I had to find a new way for myself,” she says. And this came by painting with renewed dedication. Her social position had once mattered to her; now Rukmini threw off the shackles and severed ties with practically everybody she knew from before. She separated from her husband who had failed to support her work and for the next 20 years refused to leave the house except for temple visits. In 2012, when I met somebody who had once known her, their response was, “What?! I thought Rukmini Varma had died!” I mention this somewhat inelegantly to Rukmini, who laughs and remarks with indifference: “Good — that person did die.”

After 1988, Rukmini refused to exhibit her paintings in public. But she continues to enjoy patronage from collectors in such far-flung places as Singapore, Japan, and the United States, who buy her works for substantial sums of money. Rukmini herself does not deal with sales and prefers not even to meet the buyers of her work —she leaves that to a friend who deals with the outside world for her. (I too was able to see her only because she was thrilled by my interest in her grandmother.) What she does is paint. Every day the men who attend to her 100-year-old father put together two teapoys and place a table on it. When 76-year-old Rukmini enters after her morning prayers, she is hoisted to the top in an armchair so she can be comfortable while working on her enormous 12-foot tall canvases. “You see,” she explains, “my knees are wobbly, and if I cannot sit, I cannot paint!”

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Rukmini Varma (2016)

Rukmini’s has been a life of glamour and colour, of history and tragedy, and of privilege and loss. To the outsider, her world today does not extend much beyond her studio and the rooms of her father’s house. For Rukmini herself, on the other hand, her world is the world of her paintings — that mythological land where men are handsome, women are beautiful, backgrounds are resplendent, and stories end with happily-ever-afters, not with ladies who have wobbly knees and stores of memories. She has seen the highs and lows of the real world, and much prefers now to reside in that land of her imagination where intrusive pangs of regret find an antidote in canvas and tubes of paint.

 

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