1868, Travancore. Ravi Varma is an ambitious twenty-year-old at the royal court. He is determined to be a great artist and for the last six years has been living in court at the invitation of the king to learn painting there. But no one will teach him the secrets of oil painting, the European technique which has taken hold of the country. Every minor prince aspires to a portrait in oil, a technique in short supply in India, and every royal court has a failed European artist as a status symbol but teachers are in scant supply. Ravi Varma teaches himself with the covert help of the assistant of the court painter, Naicker, his sworn enemy, and bides his time…
In 1868, the Danish artist Theodore Jensen was presented to the Maharaja by the Viceroy John Lawrence. The Maharaja extended an invitation to Jensen to come to Thiruvananthapuram and paint a series of portraits. Now that his kingdom had left its memories of debt far behind and was collecting a healthy reserve fund, he could allow himself such luxuries. The offer was just the kind of commission that the middle-aged Jensen would have been hoping for when he embarked upon his Indian sojourn. Based in London, the artist had had a modest career, painting uninteresting subjects like bland still lifes and village belles. Jensen accepted the Maharaja’s invitation readily.
In Thiruvananthapuram, the court began chattering excitedly long before Jensen’s arrival. Among the palace artists, Jensen became Flemish, like the old masters who painted those dark paintings in the magazines, the ones with the magical touches of light. There were those who said he was British, like the Company painters. All of them wanted to know how he was going to paint and whether he would need an assistant. Some courtiers wondered just how much tradition the Maharaja was willing to abandon in his fascination for the West, because it was rumoured that he was going to ask the white artist to draw a portrait of his wife, the beautiful Nagercoil Ammachi. It wasn’t as though women in Travancore couldn’t appear before men, but to be presented before an outsider? She was, however, a headstrong woman, the kind who enjoyed being labelled ‘modern’.
There were those who believed that no man could come into contact with Nagercoil Ammachi, the Maharaja’s second wife, and not fall in love with her. She was the daughter of one of the former prime ministers in the nearby kingdom of Cochin and was named Lakshmi. She was seven years younger than Ayilyam Thirunal, and it was likely that the Maharaja’s interest in women’s education and other women-related issues was inspired by her.
According to the prevailing customs of the times, she must have had a ceremonial marriage when she was younger, since when she married Ayilyam Thirunal, she was twenty three years old. Ayilyam Thirunal was said to have met her when he visited Cochin in the early 1860s, and he was immediately enchanted by her beauty and her intelligence. In no time, she and two cousins of hers were adopted into the Nagercoil Ammaveedu, which was one of the four chief families that provided consorts to the Maharaja of Travancore. So Lakshmi became Nagercoil Ammachi and was married to the Maharaja of Travancore in 1862.
Her detractors pointed to how Sir Madhava Rao and the Maharaja were moving towards estrangement ever since she began taking an active interest in affairs of the state. It was unusual for a consort to be so involved, and few appreciated her ambition. She affected an air of superiority, some complained, because she was well educated and had written books in Sanskrit that had been well received. Some of her writings were creative pieces while others explored complicated ideas about aesthetics and performance arts. Admittedly, all this was impressive, but surely that didn’t give her the right to have such airs or to meddle in governance. It should have been enough for her to organize the literary and musical evenings where she invited well-known aesthetes, poets, musicians, and singers; but she also wanted to play a part in deciding administrative policies for areas like education and health. And the Maharaja seemed willing to let her be involved, even if it meant upsetting his prized Dewan.
One of the few people unconcerned by the opinions and gossip around Nagercoil Ammachi was Ravi Varma. He was in a tizzy about Theodore Jensen’s arrival. Fortunately, he could share his excitement with someone: his nine year old brother, C. Raja Raja Varma, had just joined his elder brother in the capital to receive an English education. There was a gap of eleven years between the two brothers, but in the loneliness of Thiruvananthapuram, this young brother was a source of much needed companionship for Ravi. It also probably ended up being an unexpectedly equal relationship, because it is very likely that while Ravi taught his younger brother painting, Raja Varma passed on to his elder brother the rudiments of English. There are no written records, but it is easy to imagine the two brothers building up a rapport at that moment when Raja Varma was able to decipher for his brother the hieroglyphics that spelt out the title of his favourite book: The Hindu Pantheon by Major Edward Moor, F.R.S.
It was the beginning of a relationship that would go on to be so intimate that the two Varma brothers would often be likened to the mythical pair of Ram and Lakshman, even though they were very different. Ravi Varma had been brought up in a strictly traditional way, learning Malayalam and Sanskrit. Raja Varma came to the capital and studied under an English tutor. He respected Hindu traditions but had little time for religiosity, unlike Ravi Varma who was a devout follower of Hinduism until his last days. The elder brother was an extrovert who enjoyed parties and meeting people, even if it meant having to communicate through an interpreter. Raja Varma preferred losing himself in books and always carried English novels with him wherever he went. The connection between the brothers was their love for the arts, whether it was poetry, theatre, painting, or sculpture. Ravi Varma found in his hero-worshipping younger brother a trusty confidant and an unwavering support system. Raja Varma had no qualms about letting his own considerable talent remain out of the spotlight. His landscapes won him prizes and the few that are still around have a pleasing delicacy. However, Raja Varma’s first priority was always his brother. It’s very possible that while Ravi wove fantasies of how Theodore Jensen would get along with him famously, his younger brother would go a step further and imagine a situation where Jensen hailed Ravi Varma as the greatest painter he had ever seen.
Fantastic imaginings aside, Ravi knew that this was a crucial moment, one that he had to seize. He explained to his brother, who was the only person to whom he could speak his thoughts freely, that Jensen was a gift from the gods for the patience he had shown over the past six years. Ravi imagined Theodore Jensen to be a man without the insecurities and prejudices that filled the local artists, an artist who was accomplished, who would recognize the young man’s talent.
If Jensen had kept a diary of his time in Thiruvananthapuram, we would have known just how he felt about being surrounded by all the inquisitive faces and serving staff that seemed to lurk at every corner of the palace where he was staying. Unfortunately, there is no such document that is readily available, so we can only imagine the artist’s experiences in Travancore. To begin with, he would have been surprised at the low, labyrinthine palaces, which were very different from the tall European structures he was used to. The heat would have been off-putting, and when he did allow his bare feet to touch the floor, the coolness of the surface would have surprised him. Most pleasant would have been the staff that seemed to exist only to serve his every expressed need. Then there was the strange but flattering experience of knowing that he inspired awe in so many just by virtue of being a foreign painter. Yes, he had achieved some success but his careful still lifes and doll-like heroes and heroines were not en vogue back in Europe. Here in Travancore, he was being hailed almost as though he was one of the Renaissance masters. There were local artists who lined up for interviews for the position of being an assistant.
Then there was that boy, a prince supposedly, who kept asking to be taken as a student. Jensen had told him at the very first meeting that he was not planning to stay for very long so there was no question of taking on a student, but the boy kept returning. One day, he came with a few small canvases. Jensen thought they were gifts but they were actually the boy’s portfolio. Clearly, he thought that showing his work would convince Jensen to change his mind. The Danish artist studied the portraits carefully. He noted the need for finesse but more significantly, he noted how well the boy had used classic portraiture techniques upon the native subjects. The still life paintings were excellent. The boy had an eye for the finer details of light and texture.
With careful nonchalance, Jensen asked the boy where he had learnt to paint like this, and the boy replied in dubious English that he was self-taught. It would have seemed unbelievable to Jensen, but it was not his job to judge the veracity of the claims of minor Indian princes. He was here to do portraits and if there was someone who was painting portraits like the ones this boy carried with him, Jensen needed to complete his before the Maharaja discovered the talent in his own backyard. Jensen told the expectant boy that there was no possibility of him changing his mind about taking on a student and that the boy was no longer welcome. Under no circumstances should he return with this same plea.
It turned out that this boy really was a prince called Ravi Varma and one that the Maharaja was most fond of. Jensen found himself being called to a royal audience where he was asked to take on this Varma as a student. He decided being imperious was the best attitude to take and told the Maharaja that he was not a tutor but an artist. When the Maharaja said that the young prince was gifted, Jensen quelled the panic rising within him. He had no doubt that His Royal Highness was correct and the boy had some degree of talent, conceded Jensen, but it was not for him to be the boy’s guide. There ended that meeting and Jensen could see that his refusal had not pleased the Maharaja. But Jensen knew he could not take the boy on as a student. There was really nothing that he had to teach him. If those paintings were any indication of his skills, then all the boy needed was practice and the experience of blending colours. He thanked his good fortune that the commission was still his despite the obvious royal displeasure. A few days later, just before the Maharaja and his consort were to do their first sitting for him, Jensen received the royal summons again. This time the Maharaja told him plainly that Prince Ravi Varma had set his heart upon receiving instruction from Jensen. It was the royal will that this favourite not be disappointed. So, asked the Maharaja, what could be done that would be unobjectionable to Mr. Jensen but also consider the wishes of the Maharaja’s favourite? From the mulish expression on the royal face, Jensen could see that a complete refusal to entertain that annoyingly persevering boy wouldn’t help him. In an effort to buy time, he asked what the Maharaja thought would be a suitable solution. From the smile upon the royal visage, Jensen realized he had said the right words. The Maharaja said that he appreciated and respected Mr. Jensen for the gravity with which he saw the role of the teacher. It was indeed a responsibility that could not be carried out in the short time that Mr. Jensen would be a guest in Travancore. Instead, the Maharaja suggested Mr. Jensen let Prince Ravi Varma watch him paint and so, glean from that experience, whatever he could. Unable to come up with any credible objection or alternative, Jensen agreed.
That was how Ravi Varma ended up sitting in a corner, notebook in hand, for each of the sittings that the Maharaja and his consort gave Jensen and for the entire month it took the Danish artist took to complete that portrait.
They didn’t know it then but Ayilyam Thirunal and Nagercoil Ammachi were actually sitting for two portraits. The one they knew about was to be painted by Theodore Jensen, whose behaviour did not impress them. To begin with, his obstinacy to not concede to the royal will despite being a paid painter had annoyed Ayilyam Thirunal. Then, he was positively jumpy at the sittings. He complained about the Maharaja and Nagercoil Ammachi giving separate sittings even though the painting was to show them together. Then the light in the room was not to his liking. It was too bright, he said. When it was obscured, he said it was too dark. Nothing seemed to please him. The only person who could have sympathized with Jensen was Ramaswami Naicker because he too had been forced to work under the intense gaze of a silent Ravi Varma. In addition to the unnerving experience of being watched, Jensen struggled with getting his native subjects to fit into the mould of European portraiture. Their refusal to appear together bemused him and made it difficult for him to structure the painting. Then there was the way the material of their clothing fell around their bodies, and finding the exact blend of colours for their complexions.
Ravi Varma watched Jensen at work keenly. He saw how the artist prepared his canvas, how the figures were placed in a grid, and how elements were added to populate the painting. He also saw how he could better Jensen’s painting. There were mistakes Jensen was making without realizing it. For example, he was giving more importance to the Maharaja and struggling to make the plump face with the wide forehead seem less egg-like. However, the person to focus upon was Nagercoil Ammachi. Not only because she was exquisitely beautiful and features as finely drawn as hers were more difficult to capture accurately, but because the Maharaja would pay much more attention to how his consort looked in the portrait. He had few expectations of his own face but the same was unlikely in case of Nagercoil Ammachi.
So Ravi Varma made his own version of the portrait. It became an imaginary competition for him, not just with Jensen but everyone who had opposed him. He had to make this painting perfect, so perfect that the Maharaja would feel vindicated for supporting him, so perfect that no one would ever doubt his talent again, so perfect that it would win over Nagercoil Ammachi. The twenty year old watched the Maharaja’s wife at the sittings, noting the way she moved and the little gestures she made. He observed her expressions and how the light fell upon her face.
In Ravi’s painting, Nagercoil Ammachi, with her sparkling eyes and lush lips, hovered like a nymph around her husband of regal bearing. He drew them in shadows that were perhaps too dense but against that dark background their skin, jewellery, and white attire gleamed in vivid contrast. This was where the challenge lay for Ravi Varma: in the art of blending colours. It was a skill that was crucial in oil painting and one of which Arumugham Pillai had known only the basics, from Naicker. Jensen knew from Ravi Varma’s other paintings that blending was the one weak spot in the young man’s work and that he would be watched with unblinking intensity when he began filling in the sketch. If the subjects had been white, Jensen might have managed to evade Ravi Varma’s eye but the colours he had to create were unfamiliar and often he needed to correct his original blend. The corrections were enough for Ravi Varma to pick up how Jensen was creating the palette that covered the range of caramel tones that matched Indian skin.
After a month, when Jensen presented his portrait to the Maharaja and his wife, Ravi Varma said he had an offering for the Maharaja. A little something to show his gratitude for all the support His Royal Highness had shown him over the past few years. A large canvas was brought to stand next to Jensen’s and when it was uncovered, it too showed Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunal and Nagercoil Ammachi. While the two figures painted by Jensen looked ably executed, there was a vibrancy in Ravi Varma’s painting. The skin looked tactile. The folds of cotton were so well done that one could be forgiven for expecting to feel fabric when touching the rough surface of the thickly painted canvas. Jensen was furious and he made it known that he saw the behaviour of Prince Ravi Varma as discourteous and offensive. But Ravi barely felt the heat of the foreign artist’s displeasure because, just as he had hoped, after scanning his painting carefully, the enchanting Nagercoil Ammachi was smiling at him.
The Painter: A life of Ravi Varma is published by Random House India in October 2009.
Deepanjana Pal studied at St Stephen’s College, Delhi,a nd the University of Warwick. She currently works with Time Out Mumbai and writes on art and literature. She is based in Mumbai.