Image contributed by Rukmini Varma, Text by Manu Pillai
In a time when the Indian Subcontinent was still a land of splendid Maharajahs and fabulous courts, Rukmini Varma was born in 1940 into one of its most early royal houses, with an unbroken dynastic lineage of over 1200 years.
Titled Her Highness Bharani Tirunal Rukmini Bayi Tampuran, Fourth Princess of Travancore, her early life was an idyllic fairytale, with all the enchanting auras and ceremonies surrounding a royal princess. Her grandmother, the Maharani Setu Lakshmi Bayi (1895-1985) was the revered matriarch of the house, who had ruled the State of Travancore and its five million people with much distinction in the 1920s. The entire family lived in her hallowed shadows. Rukmini was her eldest and favourite grandchild, and in a dynasty that traced its bloodline through female gene, her birth was of significant importance for matters of succession to the Gaddi (Throne) of Travancore.
Growing up in Satelmond Palace in Trivandrum, art came naturally to Rukmini. Her great grandfather, Raja Ravi Varma, was a master and celebrated painter, known as the Father of Modern Art in India. Some of his most fabulous works adorned the palace walls of Rukmini’s home. Her grandmother, the Maharani, was a patron of many local artists whose works ranging from portraits & landscapes to murals & dramatic scenes from the great epics, were a constant inspiration. But what impressed Rukmini’s attention the most were the hardbound, tastefully produced annual catalogues of all the major art galleries across Europe that her grandmother had collected. The works of great baroque masters like Rembrandt, Rubens, and Caravaggio fascinated her, and as a child she began to experiment with colour.
Observing her growing interest in art, Rukmini’s uncle gifted her with her first full set of brushes and paints on her sixth birthday, ordered specially from Bombay. Her grandmother too, noticing her general inclination towards the arts, appointed dance and music instructors, and in the years to come Rukmini would master forms such as the Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Kathak, and more. With an appreciation of India’s cultural heritage as well as an interest in history, mythology, religion, architecture, she would reveal herself in her works in the years to come.
By the eve of India’s independence from the British Empire in 1947, things began to change in the royal household. Rukmini’s parents began to spend much of their time away from the palace, in the hill resorts of Kotagiri, Coonoor, and Kodaikanal. They also chose to enroll their children in public schools instead of having a train of tutors following them around. The slow lifestyle of the palace was replaced by an instilled regular routine focused on academic achievements instead of art. In 1949, the State of Travancore vanished from the map forever when it was merged with Independent India, and the royal family retired from active public life. The liveried servants, royal guards, and all the ritualistic ceremonies of palace life slowly faded away. Rukmini’s parents and her grandmother, the Maharani, moved to Bangalore. Satelmond Palace and the old world it represented became a mere memory.
For the next two decades painting took a backseat for Rukmini as school and college became more of a priority, followed by a marriage and children- all by the time she was 21 years old. But Rukmini kept her artistic interests alive, and recalls how she would try to recreate scenes from Greek mythology, painting Venus, Aphrodite, Paris, and other characters. Her classmates and friends were quick to ask for these pictures, encouraging her to paint more. Rukmini also excelled in science and despite her father insisting she focus on academics, her grandmother, the Maharani, advised her regularly, to aim towards perfection in her paintings. The encouragement helped- Rukmini chose art and not science.
By the 1960s Rukmini successfully dabbled in a variety of artistic spheres, a time she considers her ‘most creative phase.’ Around the same time Rukmini had also become an excellent dancer. Training under the renowned U.S. Krishna Rao, Chandrabhaga Devi and Uma Rama Rao, she gave several exclusive performances, including for charities. Film directors like Raj Kapoor began to approach her for acting roles, as did people with modelling offers, on account of her exceptional good looks. A then-prominent magazine, Mysindia, for instance, referred to her in 1968 as ‘an Ajanta painting come to life’. Magazine covers, including Femina and The Illustated Weekly of India, began to feature her regularly and she became the toast of Bangalore society.
In 1965 she started her own dance school in Bangalore in the halls of Travancore House, her family home on Richmond Road, which became an instant success. Still the orthodox social pressures and judgement on a ‘princess from a royal family dancing’, resulted in a premature termination of this phase of her career and to the greatest regret of her gurus. The Maharani, for whom Rukmini often performed in private, helped her move on by suggesting an alternative – Painting.
Rukmini returned to painting, an arena where it was felt society judgments were less pressing. Fortunately, soon enough she began to enjoy it actively and took it up with a renewed vigour. By 1970 she had completed her first series of oil paintings, which were exhibited in Bangalore to positive reviews. Her second exhibition in 1973 was opened by Governor Mohanlal Sukhadia of Karnataka State. 34 of the 39 paintings displayed were sold in a matter of days. Her third series in 1974 was inaugurated by the then President of India, V.V. Giri, at the Lalit Kala Academy in Delhi. Rukmini’s art began to bring her serious recognition in India’s art circles (including from Svetoslav Roerich, with whom Rukmini later sat on the Advisory Board of the Chitrakala Parishad in Karnataka).
In 1976, upon the invitation of BK Nehru and Natwar Singh, Rukmini embarked on her first major international exhibition at India House in London, which was opened by Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. Impressed by her skill and ability he asked her if she would paint a portrait of him in traditional Indian attire, wearing a turban and an achkan. They also became friends briefly, with Mountbatten inviting her to fox hunting and picnicking with him on his country estate. The commission of the portrait, however, could not be completed owing to Lord Mountbatten’s tragic assassination in 1979, just before he was due to visit India with Prince Charles and provide Rukmini with three promised sittings.
Subsequent exhibitions followed in Bonn, Cologne, and Neuenahr in Germany, along with invitations from Paris, Zurich, Madrid, and Rome. Queries for her work began to come in from collectors in Europe, America, Singapore, and the Middle East. In 1981 she had another highly successful exhibition in Bombay at the Jehangir Art Gallery and at The Taj Art Gallery winning her the appreciation of M.F. Hussain. The exhibition was a sensation and caused a ‘stampede’ because it included her ‘Flesh and Gems’ series, which had voluptuous female nudes in mythological settings, not meant to trigger ‘erotic fantasies’ but a celebration of the human, particularly female, form and experience.
Throughout her career Rukmini was always compared with her renowned ancestor, Raja Ravi Varma, but, while she followed his concepts of depicting scenes from the epics, there was a substantial difference: Ravi Varma’s women were always luxuriously draped. Rukmini, on the other hand, had no qualms about painting them nude. It was a courageous move for the times and drew in a lot of criticism too from people like Swami Chinmayananda, who commented that Rukmini ought not to have painted nudes based on the epics, which had some religious value and could give offence.
Despite objections, including from within family circles, through the 1980s, Rukmini experimented with nudes. Disillusioned by this prudish conservatism in art, years later she said: ‘I got fed up with all these restrictions. You couldn’t express yourself in the way you wanted. I am certain even Ravi Varma wanted to paint flesh as flesh is, without restrictions…’ Rukmini was going through a phase of rebellion. Interestingly, this corresponded with the time when her commercial success was at its peak, and artists and collectors alike would regularly show up to meet her at Travancore House. Her ‘Pratiksha’ series which included many nudes, was quietly sold into private collections in India and abroad, and was not exhibited anywhere so as not to provoke orthodoxy.
Tragedy struck in 1988 her youngest son, Ranjit, died in an accident at the age of 20. Rukmini, devastated by the event for the next several years did not pick up the brush. She moved out of her grand old house into a private flat to escape attention from the stream of visitors and the media. A separation from her husband too followed. In the mid-90s Rukmini picked up the brush to paint with a portrait of Ranjit (one of the few portraits she has done). Another one followed but she was unable to complete either of them. To the genuine satisfaction of her collectors and well-wishers, however, she slowly began to do other paintings as well. Her lifestyle remained reclusive, though, and she turned down all invitations to exhibit her latest works and did not receive visitors.
Over the last eighteen years until now, Rukmini has been painting in Bangalore, with a dedicated group of private collectors following the progress of her work. She continues to avoid visitors for most part along with requests from the press, even as her work, although much reduced in volume, remains singular in style and excellence. And even today, at the age of 73, she remains a singularly beautiful woman, with such a remarkable past, with so many stories and anecdotes from around the world, that perhaps one needs to dedicate an entire book to recording her life.
Aug 22, 2013 | Categories: 1800s, 1960s, 1970s, Accolades & Awards, Achievements, Artist, Bangalore, Beauty Icons, British Reign, Charity, Classical, Concerts, Dressed for an Occasion, Economic Status, Elite, English Medium, First of a kind, Future icons from the Past, India, Indian Dance, Indian Music, Kannur, Karnataka, Kerala, London, Matriarchy, Mourning, Music, Art, Dance & Culture, Palace, Personal Collections, Pre-1947 Indian Regions & States, Previous, Psychological & Emotional Trauma, Richmond Town, Royality, Sarees, Shikar (Game Hunt), Silk, The Illustated Weekly of India, United Kingdom, Women Empowerment, Women's Clothes | Tags: 1947, 1970s, assassination, Bharatanatyam, BK Nehru, Chandrabhaga Devi, Chitrakala Parishad, Coonoor, Father of Modern Art, female nudes, Flesh and Gems, fox hunting, Governor Mohanlal Sukhadia, Greek mythology, Independence, India House, Jehangir Art Gallery, Kathak, Kodaikanal, Kotagiri, Lalit Kala Academy, London, Lord Mountbatten, M.F. Hussain, Maharani Setu Lakshmi Bayi, Manu Pillai, Matriarchy, Mohiniattam, Mysindia, Natwar Singh, Painter, Pratiksha, President of India, Princess, private collectors, Raj Kapoor, Raja Ravi Varma, Rukmini Varma, Satelmond Palace, Swami Chinmayananda, The Illustated Weekly of India, The Taj Art Gallery, Travancore, Trivandrum, U.S. Krishna Rao, UK, Uma Rama Rao, V.V Giri | 1 Comment »
Image & Text contributed by Nyay Bhushan, New Delhi
This is the only image of my great grand-father, Vasu Deva Sharma, in our family archives. It shows him working as an artist in a photo studio in Berlin. Dressed impeccably in a well-tailored suit, he poses in front of an easel with a brush in hand, with the canvas depicting a portrait of a possibly aristocratic European lady. Vasu Deva Sharma was one of the rare Indians of his time who studied at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London in the 1920s.
Vasu Deva Sharma was born on June 15, 1881 to Pandit Bhagwan Das in Pakpattan Sharif, District Montgomery, Punjab, (now in Pakistan). In 1910, he passed the Senior Vernacular Teachers Certificate Examination (Punjab Education Department) and in 1911 he joined Central Training College, Lahore as a Drawing Professor. The same year he married Saraswati Devi and on December 3, 1912, the couple had a son, Ved Prakash Sharma (my grandfather) and a daughter Ved Kumari in 1914. Tragically, in 1915 Saraswati Devi passed away and as joint families would, his brother Pandit Bhim Sen and sister-in-law Kaushalya Devi helped raise the two children.
In 1920, at the age of 39, Vasu Deva Sharma gave up his job at the Central Training College, Lahore after receiving a scholarship to study at Royal College of Art. He sailed from Bombay to London on the ship Kaisar-I-Hind on the P&O line, and arrived in London on September 25, 1920. (Source : The National Archives, UK – Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960; www.ancestry.com)
Upon his arrival in London he stayed in a furnished apartment at 12, Eardley Crescent, Earls Court, SW. His first term studies at RCA began with a basic course in Architecture and Lettering. His first term student file (which I sourced from the RCA archives in 1995), remarks: “Inexperienced in European design and draughtsmanship. Indefatigable in his studies. Has made rapid progress. Shows great promise.”
His second term began with Painting and it included studying Art teaching methods for provincial Art schools in Britain, The study also had him travelling to other parts of the country, away from London.
My father Kul Bhushan, (an active researcher on Vasu Deva Sharma’s legacy) recounts an interesting anecdote by a family relative that reveals information on his final RCA presentation. Apparently Vasu Deva Sharma wanted to paint an iconic scene from Indian history – Maharana Pratap‘s battle against the Mughuls and to obtain authentic proportions of Maharana Pratap’s horse and the Mughul Emperor’s elephant, he visited the London Zoo and obtained special permission to measure a horse and an elephant!
In 1923, his final year at RCA, he moved to another accommodation, the Sikh Boarding House at 79, Sinclair Road, W.14, alongwith some fellow students. As for his progress in his final year studies, the remarks in his student file state: “Plodding, ambitious of improvement, industrious, this Indian student has taken full advantage of the methods and initiative a European School of Art can offer.”
He graduated with an A.R.C.A. – Associateship in ‘Decorative Painting’, Royal College of Art. The graduation ceremony was held on July 20, 1923 and diplomas were presented by Sir Montague Barlow, Minister of Labour. Vasu Deva sent his graduation cap and gown to his then widowed sister-in-law Kaushalya, as his ‘earnings’.
In 2012, I managed to source the graduation photo of his class from RCA which included names of now renowned British art icons like sculptors Sir Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and even more interestingly, his fellow graduates included two other Indians – Uday Shankar Choudhry and the famous painter-engraver Mukul Dey from Calcutta (now Kolkata).
Following graduation, Vasu Deva embarked on an extensive tour of Europe to study original works of art in museums. Not much is known apart from the fact that the travels spanned Scandinavia, France, Germany, Italy and Greece. While his family’s support funded his travels, it is very possible that he also worked as a commissioned artist to earn an extra income. But to imagine a traveling Indian artist in Europe at such an important time in the continent’s history makes my great grandfather’s story a fascinating adventure.
This picture (circa 1925) was taken by a German photographer named Karl Alexander Berg with his studio address at Joachimstaler Strasse in Berlin, Germany. Looking at the stamp under the photograph one can conjecture that Berg was appointed to the German Royal Court.
In 1927, Vasu Dev returned to Lahore. By sea cargo, he sent around 30 suitcases and boxes full of art books, art reproductions, art materials, studio cameras, complete studio equipment and hundreds of other art objects, garments and personal effects. Interestingly, the photography equipment he brought was for his son (my grand-father, Ved Prakash Sharma) who later opened a photo studio in Lahore called Omega Photo Art Studio.
Vasu Deva Sharma joined Chief’s College in Lahore as an arts professor while practising as a professional artist for commissioned portraits. According to some family sources, he was also commissioned by Indian royal families, such as the Royals of Chamba, in North India.
In 1929, he began constructing a bungalow at 30A Empress Road, Bibian Pak Daman, near Shimla Hill, Lahore. For furnishing his bungalow, one of his students at Chief’s College – a Prince of Chamba – gifted him a railway wagon full of the best timber around. In addition to making furniture, Vasu Deva made seven easels to teach art to his students at home and he gifted away some. A cupboard made from this wood still stands in a family relative’s home in New Delhi. It is important to note the very significant connection between the then RCA president Sir William Rothenstein (from 1920-35) and Indian art. Rothenstein took a keen interest in Mughal paintings. He traveled extensively to British India to research Indian art and in 1910 established an India Society to educate the British public about Indian arts. According to my father’s recollections, Rothenstein traveled again to India in 1944. He visited my great-grand father at his mansion (that also housed his studio and artworks), in Lahore to see how his former RCA student was doing. As a six year old boy, my father recalls that this was a major event for which Vasu Deva also summoned his son Ved Prakash, my grandfather, to come from Pakpattan to Lahore and welcome Rothenstein.
A year before the partition of India and Pakistan following the end of British rule, Vasu Deva Sharma who suffered from Diabetes, slipped into a coma with paralysis and passed away on February 6, 1946, at the age of 65.
Soon after his death, his son Ved Prakash was appointed manager of Punjab National Bank in Ahmedabad and he and his family moved to Gujarat just before the nation wide violent partition riots of August 1947. The few belongings that the family members in Lahore could save were Vasu Deva’s original RCA diploma and this photograph from Berlin. It is understood that the mansion was ransacked and looted and they were unable to salvage the artworks and invaluable artefacts which were left behind in the mansion.
My father Kul Bhushan visited Lahore in 1977 and went to Empress Road to see the family home. By then, it had been turned into a housing estate with many apartments. But he noticed that the original marble name plate outside the house was still there, mentioning Vasu Deva Sharma’s name in English with his RCA degree mentioned below. Today the site is a commercial building with no hint of the past and no trace of the name plate either.
As a filmmaker and a photographer, one of my main projects these days is to search for any surviving artworks by Vasu Deva Sharma which could be in the UK, Europe, Pakistan and India. I would be very interested, if anyone may have any information on that. For more information that I have found on him you can visit here.
Jun 10, 2013 | Categories: 1920s, 1947 India Pakistan Partition, Abandonment, Achievements, Arranged Marriage, Arrivals & Departures, Artist, Bombay to London, Certificates, Chief's College, Decor, Degrees, Diabetes, Drawing, Dressed for an Occasion, Education, English, Fashion & Trends, First of a kind, Furniture, Future icons from the Past, German, Germany, Gujarat, Hair Styles, House of their dreams, India, Interiors, Lahore, London, London, Masters, Men's Clothes, Migration, Noteworthy Journeys, Omega Photo Art Studio, Pakistan, Personal Collections, Photo Studio, Photographer, Photographic Techniques, Pre-Independence, Previous, Props, Relocation, Research, Royal College of Art, Ship, Shoes, Specialised Clothing, Studio Backdrops, Studio Portraits, Teacher, Travel, United Kingdom, Wartime Separation, Western Clothes, Widower, World War I, World War II | Tags: 1920s, 1923, Artist, Barbara Hepworth, Berlin, Bombay, Canvas, Carpet, Central Training College, Chief's College, Earls Court, Easel, Education, Emperor Akbar, Kaisar-I-Hind, Karl Alexander Berg, Kul Bhushan, Lahore, Maharana Pratap, Mughal Empire, Mughal Painting, Mughal paintings, Mukul Dey, Nyay Bhushan, Omega Photo Art Studio, Painter, Painterm Germany, Painting, Pakistan, Pakpattan Sharif, Photographer, Portrait, Punjab National Bank, Royal College of Art, Sculptor, Sikh Boarding House, Sir Montague Barlow, Sir William Rothenstein, Studio Portraits, Uday Shankar Choudhry, Vasu Deva Sharma | 4 Comments »