A version of this Q&A appeared in Verve's January 2010 issue.
Four questions for Deepanjana Pal, author of The Painter, a life of Raja Ravi Varma.
One enduring myth you’ve had to bust about Raja Ravi Varma in conversations.
That his name was ‘Raja Ravi Varma,’ when it was, inf act, just Ravi Varma. And I’ll give you another – it’s the idea that he was a bohemian hedonist, when in fact he was someone who woke at four am to offer prayers, was very traditional, and went to bed early. He was concerned with giving the artist’s job respectability; he had to live a respectable and disciplined life. Not quite a Picasso.
His work unselfconsciously resounds as kitsch as well as high art. How did you negotiate those boundaries, as a critic?
At his time, what he was doing was extremely high art. I kept the context of his times in mind as I wrote the book, knowing that feminine beauty, or the urge to touch the silk of a fabric in his canvases, may not seem avant-garde or important at a time when conceptual art is the big thing. But his work was important in paving the way for what we now see as modern art.
Varma’s enjoyed a plethora of homages over the years. Any personal favourites?
I love Pushpamala’s take, both on his Lakshmi and Lady in Moonlight. And I love the anonymous forgery of At the Bath that I’ve used on the book cover. You see this print all over Trivandrum shops, but the original hangs in a private gallery at the Cowdiar Palace and is very different!
Would he have made it on Mumbai’s Page 3 circuit today?
Yes. We’d have loved him.
Verve recommends The Painter for: Sheer readability. Putting the much-mythologised Varma and the tumultuous times in which he lived and worked into poised, balanced prose is no mean feat, and Pal succeeds in painting – ahem – a comprehensive and empathetic picture.