Caught on camera: The princess restoring Raja Ravi Varma’s legacy
The great artist Raja Ravi Varma, who lived and painted over a century ago, created an estimated 2,000 oils on canvas. They are, of course, scattered, having been kept in private collections, donated to museums, exchanged, lost, found, sold and resold.
Some have ended up in less-than-ideal conditions, where even pests have been able to get at them. Others have suffered the wear and tear typical to canvases of this vintage. Two common threats are mold caused by humidity and temperature fluctuations, and the yellowing of the varnish that was used until the 20th century to make oil paintings more vibrant.
Enter the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation, set up by the artist’s great-great-granddaughter Bharani Thirunal Rukmini Bayi Thampuran six years ago. Based in Bengaluru, it works to keep Varma’s legacy alive and well by conducting research and aiding in the documentation and archiving of his vast contribution to Indian art (his works remain among the most recognisable and most acclaimed of India’s artists).
The Foundation also helps authenticate and restore works, and will do the restoration pro bono for private collectors. Incidentally, Thampuran, now 80, is an artist and former princess of Travancore.
A new film on the Foundation’s work, Raja Ravi Varma: Restoring a Master’s Glory (released in April and available on YouTube), explores what goes into restoring these paintings. “The film was more about the thought process behind the conservation of Raja Ravi Varma’s works, than it was about the techniques used to conserve it,” says filmmaker and social scientist Anandana Kapur, who has directed the documentary. “The narrative is a bit tool-agnostic. We weren’t trying to find out how the restorer would stick a torn canvas together or where she would source authentic nails from.”
TOUCH AND GO
The master’s art is very much in the frame. In the scenes that follow the restoration of Lamentations of Aja, for instance, you see the detail unearthed when the key culprit, the varnish, was carefully, and inch-by-inch, wiped away. “It’s a beautiful moment of a man with unshed tears in his eyes,” says Kapur. “Removing the varnish reveals this detail. If you didn’t see the glisten of that tear, you would not feel that texture of loss.”
The film documents the restoration of seven Ravi Varma art works that have suffered varying degrees of damage. A single restoration can take from a few months to over a year. “Paintings are like human beings,” art conservator Rupika Chawla, who works with the Foundation, says in the film. “Some are easy to deal with, some are damn tough.”
One of the most damaged pieces restored in the movie is Bombay Singer, believed to be a portrait of a Ravi Varma muse, Anjanibai Malpekar, a Hindustani vocalist of the Bhendibazaar gharana. This canvas had been gnawed at by a squirrel, leaving a horrific gash in the middle of the painting.
“It takes quite a bit of time to make it like an invisible procedure,” Chawla says in the film. “The drama really emerged when we cleaned the painting.… What also comes out is the gossamer feel of the Chanderi sari, the strings of the veena, which were completely not visible.”
Elsewhere, restoration efforts have revealed intriguing secrets. When restoring the portrait of crown prince Martanda Bhairava Tondaiman of Pudukkottai, now in Tamil Nadu, Chawla noticed something lurking behind a statue in the frame.
“When oil paint dries out over time, one of the things that happens to it is, it becomes transparent,” she says. An x-ray revealed a Chinese figurine that Ravi Varma had later painted over, replacing it with the statue now in the frame, a little below the first figurine. Chawla thinks this may have been done to add asymmetry to the work.
Ravi Varma’s paintings were highly sought-after in his own lifetime. Art by him was commissioned by royals and aristocrats. “It was in the last years of his life, when the (Ravi Varma Fine Arts Lithographic) Press was taking up all his finances that he had to sell his art to raise funds,” says Gitanjali Maini, managing trustee of the Foundation.
Ravi Varma, who died in 1906, set up the Press in 1894. It was for a while India’s largest press, operated by German technicians, and is responsible for popularising the modern-day visualisation of Hindu gods through the hugely popular calendars it produced.
“Many well-wishers and investors in the Press thus became owners of Ravi Varma oil paintings,” says Maini.
Raja Ravi Varma paintings are now considered national treasures and non-exportable antiquities that must be registered with the Archaeological Survey of India. A large number remain in India, in private collections and public and private museums. It was the calendars that took his art to every home, though. You’ve probably seen or owned one.