Raja Ravi Varma’s great-great granddaughter, Rukmini Varma, has not only carried forth his artistic heritage, but also carved a niche for herself in modern art, writes Poonam Goel
Rukmini Varma has never found it a burden to follow in the footsteps of her great-great grandfather, legendary artist Raja Ravi Varma. Her first solo exhibition was held in 1973. Thirty-five years later, in 2017, her solo showcase titled Opulence & Eternity was held at Bengaluru’s Gallery G. The response to her work was so overwhelming that it was as if she had never been away from the limelight.
“I had never stopped painting,” says the septuagenarian artist, who took a sabbatical from public exhibitions after a personal tragedy in the 1980s. “It was just that I spent more time in meditation, prayer and spiritual pursuits, while painting was desultory. I spend more time painting now,” she shares, and adds that it is the will to paint that keeps her going. She fondly reminisces about the vibrant artistic atmosphere in her home: “Academic realism reached its peak during the Victorian period and Raja Ravi Varma drew inspiration from it, even though he had no definite schooling in its methods. My grandmother possessed a stellar collection of books on it, which she had received from the Royal Academy of Arts, London. At a very young age, I was fascinated by the images in these books and would spend hours poring over them!”
Just as it inspired Raja Ravi Varma, mythology inspires Rukmini too, though she likes to call her style “visionary realism”. She rarely uses models for her paintings, and only as reference figures for initial understanding. After that, skin tones are developed from memory – the reason why she uses the word visionary. “My methodology stems largely from imagination and I have always had a keen colour memory. I studied my own skin tone and that of those family members who were closest to the type I required for a particular painting. I observed them for long hours and was able to reproduce the tone from memory.
I still do this, and most often have no actual references. In some of my large canvases, where detailed human figures have been required, I have often had my son Venu pose for me, donning the garb of a mythological character, just to get the placement and lines right. Thereafter, I have had to rely on my visions and memories,” she says. The human figures in her compositions feature a range of skin tones – yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, vermilion, alizarin crimson, cobalt blue and Venetian red.
Rukmini’s paintings are abundant with splendour and metaphor, marrying legend with history and mythology with drama. Drawing from Raja Ravi Varma’s palette, she uses minimal colours and unique shades. Allegorical imagination is the hallmark of the artist’s work, wherein she highlights the attractive qualities of her human figures and underplays their defects, at times even eliminating the latter, and celebrates beauty as eternal in its divinity. Even at the age of 77, Varma paints almost every day and is elated that she is able to carry forward Raja Ravi Varma’s artistic legacy.
“His work was so universally appealing that it was adopted everywhere – the greatest tribute to a painter,” she says. In fact, at present, her son Jay is undergoing advanced training in academic realism in Philadelphia, the US, and is planning his first exhibition in the near future, continuing in his mother’s and great-great-great grandfather’s footsteps.
The author is an art enthusiast and the views expressed in the article are her own