Ravi Varma and Ramaswamy Naicker - The rivalry

The Painter, his teacher, a rival and a muse

Though I know little about painting, I can certainly say that I like studying the women lovingly brought to life on canvas by Ravi Varma and his younger brother. There are some who would wonder why I brought up his brother’s name in the same breath. Well, they did work in tandem with the younger Raja Varma finishing up with many of the portraits of the elder Ravi, during their heydays. He was no mean painter himself, and is a person whose persona I will bring to light on these pages someday. Ravi Varma himself has been written about in so many books, but there is unfortunately quite a bit of conflicting and incorrect information in some of his early biographies, which were perhaps a little too effusive. Nevertheless, he was a genius and also in many ways just an ordinary person, deeply religious, meticulous in his work, quick to take offense and in later days a mite tired after the onset of diabetic symptoms, for which sadly there were no insulin therapies in those days.

Ravi Varma
Today our whole perception of the physical look of a Hindu god is somewhat due to Ravi Varma and his lithographs. The fine muscular structure of Shiva, the majestic look of Lakshmi, the somber face of Saraswati, Bhima’s physique, Yudhishtira’s pensive looks, Damayanti’s forlorn face, Ravana’s fierce countenance …..you name it, they were created from the faces of ordinary mortals of India, in the studios of Ravi and Raja Varma.. The saree was popularized with his paintings, Ravi was the first to depict to the masses the drapery of many a fine Maharashtrian and Kancheepuram saree.

But how did he get there? How did he learn his basics? The story is quite interesting and I got some detail from Deepanjana’s biography on the artist. Additional detail came from the debut book on the Travancore Royals by the young Manu S Pillai and an exquisite article on Travancore art by Sharat Sundar Rajeev. Was Ravi self-taught? Did he learn painting on the sly? In a previous article, we talked about his later day muses at Bombay, but who was his first muse, who was his first mentor and sponsor? If he learned from a teacher, who was the teacher and what kind of paintings did he do? The answers are very illuminating and throw light into the workings and life at the royal houses of Travancore.

Like most palaces, the rich Travancore abodes had their share of poets, singers, courtesans, writers,
Raja Varma (Brother)
scribes and painters. What was once the so called Kerala mural style of paintings or frescos dealing with mythical characters and legends, which you can still see here and there, were being replaced by the company style or hybrid Indo European style, steeped in very visible subjects and realism, but with a tint of the Mughal. The style of painting which took root in Travancore during Ravi Varma’s younger years however was the so called Tanjore style, itself influenced by the Vijayanagara style, and even the Company style.

If you recall from our discussions around Swati Tirunal and music, there was a steady flow of artisans from the declining Maratha Nayak kingdom to Travancore in the latter decades of the 19th century. The Travancore rajas, patrons of art and music were glad to receive some of those stalwarts moving out from Tanjore, westward. These artists (Rajus & Naidus) or ‘oviars’ were originally Telugu speaking people from the artistically vibrant "Rayalseema" region of Andhra, who moved to Tamil Nadu in the wake of the fall of the Vijayanagar Empire and the establishment of Nayak rule in Madurai and Thanjavur. Some of them famed in art, moved to Travancore, carrying with them mastery over a new medium, oil, in search of patronage, particularly to the courts of Swathi Thirunal (1829-47), and his successor, Ayilyam Thirunal (1847-80).

The encouragement to painting on modern lines in Travancore was given by Swati Tirunal who invited to his court Alagiri Naidu, a native of Madura, considered to be the best painter of the day (Pedda Dasari was another exponent who painted at the courts during this period). Alagiri Naidu, expert on ivory painting was the person who introduced canvas painting in Travancore and it was he who executed the painting of Dewan Subba Rao, and a few other exquisite paintings. Popular during the 1850’s Naidu was instrumental in teaching his methods to Raja Raja Varma, Ravi Varma’s uncle.

Ramaswamy Naicker or Naidu who followed him was an oil painter in the European style, specializing in portraits and served in Ayilyam Tirunal’s court. While some people pass off Naicker’s art as linear (I don’t), examples of which can still be seen in the Sri Chitra art gallery, he was popular and in 1874, at an exhibition in Calcutta, Ramaswamy of Travancore dominated. Naidu carried off the prize for 'the best work by a native artist'.  Looking at his two marvelous paintings “three Nair girls of Travancore” and “mother and child” you can see the influence he had on Ravi Varma’s picturization, especially the curves and depiction of native jewelry.

It was an incident between this Naicker and Ravi Varma that was to become a catalyst to Ravi Varma’s meteoric rise and Naicker’s (Naidu) decline. According to popular tradition, “once in a weak moment he (Ravi Varma) approached Naidu for some guidance, but Naidu only curtly refused.” Later biographers of Varma often point to this incident as a decisive moment in the life of young Varma, for it was when he made up his mind to excel Naidu at any cost. But let us see what a couple of his biographers have to say.

The 13 year old Ravi Varma who had already been dabbling in water colors, was brought to Trivandrum by his uncle Raja Raja Varma in 1862 and was presented to the maharaja Ayilyam Tirunal, mainly to be interviewed as a potential suitor for one of the palace princesses (a point debated by some). Manu Pillai explains - In 1859, less than two years after the adoption the Maharajah decided to get the Rani married and three young suitors were presented to her. One of them was Kerala Varma of Changanassery, the grandnephew of the Maharajah’s father. The other was Kerala Varma from Kilimanoor while the third was a Ravi Varma, also from Kilimanoor. The choice had to be made most carefully. A royal consort would father future Maharajahs and hence intelligence, good looks etc were all essential qualities. Rani Lakshmi Bayi chose the Koil Thampuran from Changanassery. She had rejected Ravi Varma because he was dark skinned and her sister Rani Parvathi Bayi had selected the second person.

His uncle sought a second meeting with the king and it was here that Ravi presented the Raja with three of his handiworks, one of which resembled the new consort of the Raja. The meeting covered many other subjects and the Raja took a liking for the young fella from Kilimanoor and asked him to stay back to live in Trivandrum and learn from the palace stalwarts. Nobody, or for that matter Ravi himself would have imagined that this one meeting would be the forerunner to the buildup of his brilliance, fame and name, but also the fact that he would sire the girls who bore future lineages of the Travancore dynasty.

Kerala Varma Koyil Thampuran (Parappanad royal family) born to a Parappanad Rani the cousin of
Bhageerathy (Wife)
Ravi Varma mentioned above (he was married to Kerala Varma’s mothers youngest sister) was a friend and sponsor. He was the person who presented Ravi his first set of Winsor & Newton oil paints around 1866. Ravi stayed at the Moodathu madom near the Padmanabhaswami temple and observed the painters of the palace and the sculptors at the temple, those were the informal lessons which formed his base. Ravi also found access to the palace collections and libraries, he saw European paintings, especially French art, on the printed medium. Ravi also struck up an acquaintance with Madhava Rao, the dewan, which was to serve him in good stead for the future. Three years passed by and as the young boy started to feel at ease in the palace, the resident painters started to get more wary of the new entrant (with an access to the king), as his paintings started to show more promise. In 1866 he got married to a child princess Bhageerathi from nearby Mavelikkara, but he was not to stay at his brides home for long (for that was custom), and he returned to Trivandrum to get back to a problem which was vexing him, the matter of mixing pigments with oil to create good paintings. It was something he simply could not master, even after some guidance by his uncle.  He requested Naicker’s help and the meeting between the two resulted in naught and left the two as bitter enemies. 

Ravi complained to the king, and Naicker did likewise, to his friend - the raja’s brother Vishakam Tirunal, the Raja’s rival and heir, whom he had always courted. Ravi Varma as you can see had brought about a minor palace crisis which was eventually resolved when Naicker was asked to let Ravi watch him at work. Ravi leaned nothing new, and the aspect of making and mixing of paint was always done in secret, in a neighboring room, well away from Ravi’s prying eyes. At some point, Ravi became friends with Arumugham Pillai, Naicker’s assistant. Whether he was bribed or he acted on his accord is not clear, but Arumugham became a late night visitor to Ravi’s studio to impart special training to him. The story reminded me of Dronacharya and Ekalavya, but left a question. Who was really the teacher Arumugham or Ramaswami? Pillai himself went on to excel at his work and set up the art section at the Napier museum and I would consider Arumugham as Ravi Varma’s guru.

Two events in 1868 were to turn the tide even further. One was the arrival of European painter Theodore Jensen and the other the entrance of a muse (and perhaps romance) in Ravi’s life.

A painter of Dutch origin, who had just finished working a commission for the British royal family, named Theodore Jansen came to India to seek his fortune as a portrait painter. Before moving to Travancore, Jansen had already completed a number of portraits at Poona and Bombay, and many of his works had been exhibited in the special Picture Gallery at the Nagpur Exhibition on 1865-66. Now his task was to create paintings of the Ayilyam Tirunal and his family, especially his consort the beautiful Kalyanikutti amma. It was a turbulent period in the palace, with the Visakham Tirunal scheming in the background, the new royal consort now the Nagercoil Ammachi establishing her will in the household and Dewan Madhava Rao getting estranged from the king. Let’s get to know the beautiful lady.

After the death of Thiruvattar Ammachi his first wife, the Maharajah married in 1862 one Kalyanikutty Amma (born 1839) the daughter of Krishna Menon, a former Dewan of Cochin and Lakshmi Amma. She had been previously married to Punnakkal Easwara Pillai Vicharippukar, a kathakali exponent.

As Sharat Sundar Rajeev, Travacore history buff explains - ‘Kaithavilakam Bungalow’ a.k.a. ‘Bungalow Ammaveedu,’ located in Punnakkal Lane, is the home of one of the prominent families inside the Fort area. The history of Kaithavilakam Bungalow is entwined with the life of Easwara Pillai Vicharippukar, one of the greatest Kathakali exponents of Travancore. Easwara Pillai was a favorite of Uthram Tirunal Marthanda Varma, the King of Travancore. According to popular family tradition, Easwara Pillai had married four times and one of his wives lived in the Bungalow Ammaveedu.

That was Kalyani Kutty. Kalyani arrived in Trivandrum during the 1850’s after eloping with the Pillai. When and how the king met this lady is not clear, but it is rumored that he met her either at Cochin or at Trivandrum and that he was so enamored with her and took to visiting her on the sly. Easwara Pillai as it seems, had no choice but to hand his wife over to the king.

In 1865 she was formally married to the king following three years of ‘kettilamma status or consortship’, and was adopted by the Maharajah into the Nagercoil Ammaveedu after which her full title became Nagercoil Ammachi Panapillai Amma Srimathi Lakshmi Pillai Kalyanikutty Pillai Ammachi.

Nagercoil Ammachi was also a scholar of Sanskrit and a poet in her own right, having authored Rasa Krida, Satya Panchakam, Pativrataya Panchakam, Ambarishacharitram and other works. She learnt English, hobnobbed with dignitaries, studied the Bible and so on, all very uncharacteristic for a Royal consort who should typically remain behind the scenes. Kalyanikutty Amma as we heard previously, was a woman of renowned beauty and a Carnatic composer of merit, as evidenced by her oeuvre ‘Saptaswara Sankirtanam’.

Jensen was now in Travancore to paint the king and this strong willed lady. Meanwhile Ravi approached Jensen to be formally inducted as his pupil and Jensen promptly refused, for this haughty painter had no intention in having any kind of competition. Ravi requested the king’s help again and the king ruled just like he did with Ramaswami naicker, that Jensen let Ravi watch him at work. 

Jensen had a torrid time for over a month painting the king and the Nagercoil Ammachi, for they were not sitting together but the painting had to show them side by side. With separate sittings and a glowering king, he felt very uncomfortable. Ravi on the corner was also doing the same portrait, but in his own fashion. After they were done, Ravi impertinently presented his portrait to the king, and his likeness of Kalyanikutty amazed everybody, with people agreeing that it was a brilliant painting.

It cemented Ravi’s reputation in Travancore and drew him to his first muse, the royal consort Kalyanikutty. Again, we have to rely on rumors that she became a patron of sorts, supporting him after that event and there are many mentions of the consort’s regular visits to Ravi’s studio at irregular hours. In 1870 the painter left on a trip to Mookambika, and that was when he took his first commission at Calicut to paint Kizhakke Palat Krishna Menon’s family.

As the tale goes, he came back and was gifted a Vira Shringala bangle by the king. Soon he rose to fame as a portrait painter and with it came busy days, more rumors etc. At the palace, the things were turning sour, with Madhava Rao breaking off from the king, the king’s tussle with his brother and the strong willed Nagercoil Ammachi’s involvement in state matters. Kerala Varma Koyil Thampuran’s hand in all this was suspected and as a result of all this intrigue, was declared a traitor and banished.

Manu pillai explains the intrigue - The Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal, who ascended the musnud in 1860, was on bad terms with the Elayarajah Visakham Thirunal, who it was rumored had tried to secure the removal of his brother with the connivance of Dewan Rajah Sir T. Madhava Rao. The Dewan had been “retired” with a handsome pension, but the relationship between the Maharajah and his brother remained tense. Kerala Varma, who was a protégé of the Elayarajah, became the Maharajah’s pawn to punish his brother.

Over and above all this it appears Ramaswamay Naicker was behind spreading some of the rumors that Ravi Varma was getting singular praise only because of Kalyanikutty. By 1872, Madhava Rao was retired or dismissed and Ravi Varma who was considered to be close to Kerala Varma was also asked to leave Travancore. Eventually Ravi was called back to Travancore, only to leave again in 1881 after machinations by Naicker and the ill will shown by the new king Visakam Tirunal.

M Kasper writes - Relations between the painter and his Travancore patrons, however, were not always smooth. Ayialyam Tirunaal, Maharaja until 1880, was genuinely supportive, but his brother and successor Visakam was not. He thought Ravi Varma too big for his britches. He was especially miffed once when Ravi Varma happened to get an Imperial citation made out to Raja Ravi Varma, an honorific which the Maharaja felt the artist wasn't entitled to. Ravi Varma was bothered in turn, and thereafter he took to using the title openly, just to get the old ruler's goat. It might be noted that the only gift for which Visakam is thanked today is introducing tapioca to Kerala.

Naicker’s and Ravi’s tussles continued with both competing at exhibitions, and it is debated often as to who won and whose name remained for posterity. Finally Ravi Varma stopped submitting his work for exhibitions, for his fame had spread and there was no need. It was time to spread his wings and move North, with his friend and confidante, his younger brother Raja Raja Varma. In some ways that rivalry was necessary for that provided Ravi the impetus to excel. The rest of the story covering the days before he returned for good, will be taken up another day.

Let me now present an ode to the painter from Subramanya Bharati - Bharatiyar (a rough translation of Subramanya Bharathi's vaazhthupaattu- 'Chandiranoliai Eesan padaithathu)

God created moonlight and the Jataka bird to drink it. He also created gods to consume the nectar, he created Iravata the elephant to match the splendor of Indra, he created beauty in flowers, in the blue sky and on the countenances of women, for the famed Ravi Varma to paint it on Canvas…The master's light... . Has lit the palaces of Kings and the huts of the poor", bringing "delight" to all….

Even though I am great fan of Raja Ravi Varma’s works, the two paintings of Nayar girls by Ramaswamy Naicker are my personal favorites, of late. They are just fascinating, if you spend a few minutes in front of those works and look closely, some might agree. See them here 

But were they better than Ravi Varma’s figures? Well, it depends….

Sharat Sunder Rajeev, "The Durbar Artists of Travancore," in Tinpahar, October 12, 2015,
The Painter Deepanjana Pal
The ivory throne Manu S Pillai
Madras Miscellany By Muthiah S (when art breaks records 9Dec 2002) 

A note for the uninitiated – The Rani of Travancore is not the wife of the King, but the sister or neice of the king. The king’s wife is called an Ammachi or consort. The king’s son does not become king, but his eldest nephew becomes one. All this because of the practice of matriliny in Kerala. Ammaveedus were the residences of the consorts of the Maharajahs of Travancore in Trivandrum. The main Ammaveedus are the Arumana, Vadasseri, Thiruvattar and Nagercoil Ammaveedus. The Ammachi as Samuel Mateer put it…is not a member of the royal household, has neither official nor social position at court, and cannot even be seen in public with the ruler whose associate she is.” For further details refer Manu’s article 

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Haddock said...

Wow... lot of history here.
Never heard of this kettilamma status before.
I have yet to see an actual painting by Ravi Varma.

Maddy said...

thanks haddock,
the kettilamma usage is not quite right, it belongs to malabar. Panapillai amma is more correct. take a trip to Trivandrum, the Napier museum or sri chitra art gallery has a number of them (about 40-50) .

Rammohan said...

Is Ramaswamy Naidu and Ramaswamy Naicker one and the same person?

Rammohan said...

Is Ramaswamy Naidu and Ramaswamy Naicker one and the same person?

Maddy said...

hi rammohan
Yes, to my knowledge, in this context. He was usually known as Ramaswamy Naicker.

Maddy said...

The V&A museum lists his painting with the name Naidu though!