Raja Ravi Varma’s twilight years 1890-1904, at Bombay
Everybody has a favorite Ravi Varma painting or water color. My favorite is the ‘Milkmaid’ watercolor, and I had written about it earlier. Every time I see it, I think of the girl behind the painting, and many a time, I had stopped to wonder who it was and what her story was. So I started out on a literary search for her, and was initially under the impression that this was one Suguna or Sugandha bai as others had alluded. But as I checked deeper and harder I felt that Sugandha was perhaps a fictional character and then again, the Milkmaid, in comparison was not one of the well rounded buxom girls as was common in other Ravi Varma pictures.
As I studied Varma’s life over a period of time, I read that he did meet a number of girls as he travelled around India, always trying to find the right face for his paintings, some from high society and some from the lowest of societies. And thus the face of a girl bathing at a bathing ghat became the coy modern girl in a painting while a Muslim prostitute’s face could end up in a calendar picture depicting a Hindu goddess. Sugandha bai turned out to be a fictitious character from Ranjit Desai’s novel on Varma and she went on to become the central character in a Malayalam and later a Hindi film. As I perused the topic, I meandered through the side lanes of Girgoan and Walkeshwar at Malabar hill and the turbulent South Bombay of the late 1890’s and early 1900’s.
And that is how I got to studying the story of three of his muses, two of them turning out to be fascinating people on their own. One became a fine exponent of Hindustani music (you can still hear her recordings) and the other turned out to be a socialite in Madras. The third remained elusive and perhaps was the face behind the milkmaid. But to hear their stories, I have to take you to the Bombay as it was at the turn of the 20th century, home to those in rags, home to the rich, home to those with dreams and home to depravity.
By 1890, Bombay was a teeming city, housing some 900,000 people and many of the new
That was the Bombay Ravi Varma and his brother came to like, visit and spend stretches of time between 1881 and 1904. Life was not always benign or calm, for there were the Parsee-Muslim riots in 1893 and then the second wave of plague hit the city in 1896-97. The bubonic plague of 1896 was to decimate the population at the rate of 22 per 1000. The efforts of Dr Viegas and J Tata to reduce its impact were no match for the destructive power of plague, cholera and TB all of which were endemic in South Bombay and the city’s mood, nothing better than desultory, and it was a time when Bombay was termed the Morgue of India. Shops, schools and colleges were closed, bazaars were abandoned and infected people forcefully moved away. But at the same time, the rich enjoyed life as usual, theaters and dance halls full. Singers, painters and other purveyors of art feverishly sought wealthy patrons. Ravi Varma was one among them, albeit a better known and popular artist.
While Malabar hill and Breach candy were frequented by the upper class, the middle class teemed the vicinity of Girgaon. Predominantly Maharashtrian, the place also had a number of dadas and mawalis and virtually all males chewed pan with tobacco, a habit Varma was to soon pick up. Goan immigrants and among them many representing the fields of music and dance as well as the flesh trade lived there. That was the area where the Varma brothers Ravi and Raja were headed to. Their visits became frequent, but off and on between 1881 and 1894.
Ravi Varma had decided to try his fortunes in Bombay after enjoying a fruitful period at Baroda where he had found patronage thanks to Madhava Rao who was previously the Dewan of Travancore. Some of his finest paintings were created during the period when Sayajirao Gaekwad III was his patron. He had done well at the Baroda palace and Gaekwad allowed some of the paintings to be exhibited in nearby Bombay around 1891 where Varma’s mythological series quickly became a sensation. Demand for his paintings were high and Sayajirao suggested that he order oleograph copies of some of his paintings from Germany. Varma instead decided to set up his own press and also take on painting commissions from the wealthy. He commanded high rates (Rs 1500 or thereabouts per portrait) and planned to start a studio and a lithographic press at Kalbadevi. Ravi did wish to go to Europe from what I read, but the fear of losing caste (ocean taboo) made him drop that idea.
It was finally in 1892 that the by now famous 46 year old painter and member of the Kilimanoor Kovilakom took the plunge and moved to live at the Setna lodge (they purchased their own house in Gangadevi road only in 1903) at Girgaon. In those days salons in Bombay imported nude pictures from Germany as lithographs and these were commonplace. This was the business Ravi Varma decided to concentrate in, replacing those pictures with Indian faces (and for that reason he is termed a nationalist painter) and his other reasoning was that he desired his art to be seen by thousands, not just the few visitors to the palaces where his originals were housed. And so the two brothers decided to become entrepreneurs and start a lithographic press. Ravi spoke many Indian languages, but Raja was the one adept in English.
Varma decided that he would put the faces of people and gods in color on these lithograph prints and price them to be affordable to the public. The machinery was imported from Germany and the money he had earned at Baroda, was part of the investment. Remember the Khatau group? Well as it transpires, he consulted some of his friends like Dadabhai Naoroji and Justice Ranade and on their advice took in as a partner the Bombay industrialist, Govardhandas Khatau Makhanji. Soon the machinery arrived and he employed a German named Schleizer to handle the work.
Calendar art soon became a part and parcel of marketing advertisements and Varma’s press created the images with DadaSaheb (Dhendiraj Gobind) Phalke (Strange are the fingers of fate, for Phalke had originally been sent by a rival German group to check out the workings of the successful Ravi Varma press) taking care of the large scale printing at his Laxmi (Phalke’s engraving and printing) printing depot. Soon Varma’s images adorned the walls of houses and shops and were seen on everything, be it matchbox labels, tobacco, liquor, gripe water or Diwali crackers. Readers must note here that even though we mention Ravi Varma, the entire affair was a joint effort by the two brothers working in tandem, Raja and Ravi Varma.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak then leading a revolt against the British had himself painted by Varma (did you know that Tilak was one of the persons behind popularizing the Ganesh festival in Bombay?) and Tilak’s Kesari newspaper promoted Varma’s work. Though Varma made a lot of money, the revenues dropped due to pirate activities and the effects f plague in Bombay. Ravi Varma quickly started losing business and racking up expenses and debts. Bombay and Poona were in turmoil with the plague and Girgaon was badly hit.
Ravi Varma was never a keen businessman and did not take his finances seriously and soon the brothers had arguments with Khatau. Govardhan’s split with the brothers was apparently due to his siphoning off of some of the printed stock and the revenues surreptitiously and this gave the brothers sleepless nights. With the plague, the brothers had to move frequently and were subjected to inspections and the problems of quarantining. Later in 1901 they transferred the studio and press to cooler Ghatakopar, commuting between Girgaon and Ghtakopar by train. But that was also of little use and since Varma had to go back to Travancore (as his uncle had passed away in Travancore) business faltered badly. The brothers had to borrow Rs. 33,000/- from a friend, Dr. Balachandra Krishna, to buy out Makhanji’s shares and eventually shifted the press to Karla - Malavli, near Lonavla. Schleizer and team moved with the press. By 1901, the German purchased the press from Varma who had lost interest in the enterprise, together with copyright for 89 of the original paintings. Very soon Ravi lost his sheet anchor, travel partner and friend, his own brother Raja Varma. Though he returned to Bombay, the zest was gone and soon Ravi Varma went back to Travancore and sadly succumbed to Diabetes.
This however is not an account of Varma’s fortunes and misfortunes, but about three lovely ladies who cast an influence on him in those final years of his life, cut short at the age of 58. These ladies and their countenances or likeliness’s can be seen in so many of Varma’s paintings today. One of them is usually the demure beauty representing many a mythological character or personifying homeliness, another is the face of a more modern Indian while the third is the common girl.
Foremost among them is Anjanibai Malpekar, today remembered as an outstanding exponent of
She talked about Varma and that first meeting many years later, at the age of 89, in 1972 remembering those six years of their relationship vividly, and her interview to a Marathi newspaper provides an insight into Varma’s character. The close to 35 years separating them was never an issue. Was the relationship platonic, physical or just so, stimulating as a muse? We do not know, but we do know that she cast a spell on him and Varma enjoyed it for she figured in many a painting of his. While some of her biographers mention that Anjanibai never posed formally for Varma, it is a fact that she did often. After Varma left back for Travancore, he never painted a goddess again, and Anjanibai aged just 21 became a mistress of the Gujarati businessman Ved Vasanji Bhagawandas in 1903. Apparently she had a big Ravi Varma painting in her home to keep her company and remind her of the old times. Sometime in 1923 she lost her voice after drinking a laced drink but was eventually cured by a sadhu named Narayan, though she never sang in public ever again. Mannadey, Begum Akhtar, Suman Kalyanpur, Pankaj Udhas, Mahendar Kapoor, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Mangeshkar were other luminaries who trained under the Bhendi Bazar Gharana Ustads.
Chawla’s book provides further details - Anjanabai remembered his lovely smile, fondness for tobacco laced paan, for coffee, tea and sweets. She mentions that Varma found her broad forehead similar to one that Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge would have had, and was entranced by her music and sparkling eyes. His eyes became teary often, when she sang, and if it was Shyam kalyan or Gunakali, he would rest his hands on her forehead and murmur his favorite shlokas. He laughed easily, smelled of the khus perfume, had an evocative voice and sparkling eyes, liked dressing in a white kurta or sherwani and sometimes wore socks with slippers. That was Anajanibai’s Ravi Varma.
While at Bombay, and elsewhere, the Varma brothers were always abreast of the happenings in the art scene in Europe and subscribed to papers, books and magazines. It was this thirst for knowledge that led to a friendship with the English painter Frank Brooks who was briefly employed as a tutor for Raja Varma. The Moolgavkar sisters (the ‘lady with a fan’ painting was Brook’s portrait of Rajibai and was commissioned by Ravi Varma himself) were also Kalavants from Goa and one of them Rajibai was a regular at his studio. The brothers continued the relationship with her for a number of years, for Rajibai’s father’s portrait was made by Ravi Varma before raji became a model for him. We see mentions of Raja varnishing the portrait three years later and hear of the death of Raji’s mother and of her infant son. Her sisters were also to figure in some of Varma’s paintings. Rajibai herself can be seen in many of his paintings including the milkmaid, but we see a pointer in Raja’s diary that she probably had a relationship with Varma’s friend Bapuji later on. The round faced woman in many of his paintings is either the pretty and homely Anjanibai or Rajibai in a sari.
From the diary it appears that the brothers were not too forward and even took to boating to gaze at the bathing bodies on the ghats in Walkeshwar. As critics explain, the face, shape and color for a god or goddess in the popular Indian mind was created by Varma. And believe it or not, those very paintings popularized the wearing of a Sari all over India and the clothing of the actors and actresses of early Bollywood.
Was there a Sugandhabai in Varma’s life as alluded by Ranjit Desai in his novel? Doubtful for Raja Varma has not mentioned her at all, but then again, he did not even mention Anjanabai in the diary. Nevertheless, though these three women influenced the paintings of Varma and his life, you can also come across faces of models like Kashi Bai, yet another Kalavant from Goa.
Ravi left the city of Bombay, a city he loved, finally in 1904 and was a shattered man after the death of his brother though he did produce the puranic masterpieces at the Mysore palace during that time. His stays away from Travancore and tiffs with his royal relatives (and Varma’s threat of being excommunicated for his life in Bombay) are all interesting stories, but when he came back, he even renovated the Kilimanoor palace. You get snippets from the diary, that of his visit to the Malayali club in Bombay, and of the brother’s habit of weighing themselves at the railway station often. They were also sick with increasing regularity during the later years and we see that Ravi was intent on retiring at 60, which some say is in line with Hindu practice. Many think that he was a one man factory, but Raja, his brother had a hand in many of those famous paintings, touching them up, doing backgrounds or completing them. Many a famous portrait had even more input from Raja Varma than Ravi. The hustle and bustle of Bombay kept the brothers on their toes with many a sitting going on in parallel as they studied photographs and books from Europe, while at the same time enjoying a lavish life.
Like always Varma had his detractors, some like Vivekanda and Coomaraswamy who mention that Ravi Varma produced trash. Great as they are, I disagree, for after all art appreciation is purely from the eyes of the beholder.
Today you see Ravi Varma copies everywhere, and if you go to Kerala, these prints are so commonplace. Perhaps that was what Ravi wanted, to get his art into as many homes as possible but he also hated the plagiarism. Ravi Varma despaired at a time when copyright was absent, worrying how good art could be protected, and it was finally his friend Gopal Krishna Gokhale who brought out a promulgation protecting art. But all that is gone and you can get Ravi Varma print copies at every gulley around Guruvayoor temple, or the internet for example.
Varma’s studios in Bombay did not survive the ravages of time, but the unit in Malvali, the one which was sold to Schleicher, was passed on to his progeny and recently got sold - lock stock and barrel to one Vijayanath Shenoy who has housed all of it in a museum in Manipal. The trust at Manipal now has nearly 100 litho stones with the impression of Ravi Varma’s paintings.
Ravi Varma’s art and Anjanibai’s music live on……
Art and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1850-1922: Occidental Orientations - Partha Mitter
Arts of Transitional India Twentieth Century, Volume 1 - Vinayak Purohit
Raja Ravi Varma, Portrait of an artist – edited Erwin Neumayer, Christine Schelberger
Raja Ravi Varma – Rupika Chawla
Raja Ravi Varma – the painter prince – Parsram Mangharam
The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality, Volume 40
The Cloister's Pale: A Biography of the University of Mumbai - Aruṇa Ṭikekara
Parsi portraits from the studio of RR Varma – Priya Maholay Jaradi
Before the brush dropped – Documentary on RRV by Vinod Mankara
Photos – from google images and The Raja diaries by Neumayer/Scelberger – acknowledged with many thanks
Varma also had a wooden model which was a base for many of his paintings. He not only painted Hindu subjects but also Islamic and Christian themes. It was Vinod Mankara the person behind a fine documentary, who directed me to the fact that Rajibai was perhaps the Milkmaid. He also mentioned in a newspaper interview - “Ravi Varma would have been known as a prodigious poet, if he had failed as a painter,” states Mankara, who located 500 poems written by the artist. According to him, each painting was followed by a poem that is vouched by the works ‘Ragamalika’ and ‘Manasa yathra.’
The story of how one Ramaswamy Naidu, a court painter of Travancore, became an influence to him will be told another day, and if you observe the paintings done by Naidu, you will also notice the likeness in style.