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Re-evaluating a Legacy

Shukla Sawant

Edited by Rupika Chawla
2010, pp. 360, price not stated.


The work of an art restorer is a painstaking affair. Often confronted with a painting covered with soot and grime accumulated over time, bringing a painting to life once again can take months, even years. It involves extensive research into the artist’s social circumstances, reconstruction of working methodology, delving into literary sources to unearth thematic concerns and hunting down the material history of the object under scrutiny. Rupika Chawla’s splendidly illustrated volume Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India challenges normative approaches to the study of art history in ways that are both compelling and unprecedented, precisely because it is a labour of love that has grown out of a long term relationship with the artist’s work as a conservator. This exhaustive look at the work of Ravi Varma, who occupies a central position in the cannon of Art History in India, is a radical departure from the several other books that have been published on him in recent years. The volume works as a counterpoint to professional art historical accounts which often tend to highlight only those facts that validate entrenched theoretical positions, frequently leading to flawed conclusions. Making comprehensive use of advances in conservation technology such as pigment analysis, X-Rays and reflectography to examine brush work, imaging sequences and invisible under-drawings, the writer offers a microscopic examination of Raja Ravi Varma’s work, raising substantive questions about existing art histories and their misconceptions. Chawla organizes the eight chapters of her book thematically, beginning with an overview of life in 19th century Kerala. This preamble offers a close reading of the complex web of caste and kinship relations that structured Ravi Varma’s early life. The social dynamics of the period are brought to the forefront through an examination of life in Kilimanur where he was born and later the royal court in erstwhile Trivandrum, once the artist entered into the inner royal circles through marriage. The chapter also investigates Ravi Varma’s growing interest in oil painting and academic realism to which he was introduced, through the works of painters like Alagiri Naidu and Ramaswamy Naidu from Madurai and the Danish born British artist Theodore Jensen, as well as the collection of paintings in the royal palace. At a time when technical skills were trade secrets that could give an artist a competitive edge in acquiring royal patrons, the court intrigues and networks that accounted ...

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