“It is incredible that a self-taught artist should have risen to the high standard of work displayed in the paintings of Rukmini Varma…Work of this high quality is rarely to be seen these days.” ~ Lord Mountbatten (1976)
Rukmini Varma is the descendant of Raja Ravi Varma, the greatest painters in the Indian Art history. While, Raja Ravi Varma was widely recognized for his saree clad women paintings and drawing women from the mythological stories, Rukmini Varma is highly acknowledged for her nudes and larger than life paintings. A self taught artist her “Flesh and Gem” series in an exhibition at Jehangir Arts Gallery in 1981 almost created a stampede.
The Early Days
Born in 1940 in the royal family of Travancore, Rukmini Varma is the 4th Princess of Travancore titled Her Highness Bharani Tirunal Rukmini Bayi Tampuran. She is the great grand daughter of Raja Ravi Verma and grand daughter of Setu Lakshmi Bayi who ruled the state of Travancore. Since Maharani was a great patron of arts and artist, collecting all sort of paintings both from local artist and European galleries, the images painted by Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Rubens always fascinated Rukmini as a kid. She began experimenting at an early age and this made her earn a full set of brushes as a gift from her uncle.
Rukmini’s Other Traits
Rukmini Varma was a good dancer as well, having trained in various dance form like Bharatnatyam, Mohiniattam, and Kathak. She started performing at various events including charities. Soon, many film directors including Raj Kapoor approached her. However, Rukmini politely refused all. She was also offered modelling assignment.
In 1970, Rukmini had completed her first series of paintings in an exhibition in Bangalore followed by another one in 1973. Here, out of 39, 34 paintings were sold in matter of few days. Impressed by her work, Natwar Singh and BK Nehru invited her to participate in an international exhibition which was opened by Lord Mountbatten at India House at London. Mountbatten, the last viceroy was so impressed by Rukmini that he wanted her to paint him wearing traditional Indian attire. However, this couldn’t happen because roughly 3 years later he was assassinated. Soon, she held exhibitions at all the major hubs all over the world such as Paris, Rome, Madrid, Zurich and Germany.
Rukmini Varma faced many criticism for painting nudes from epics and mythological series, she therefore had to sell the entire Pratiksha series in private groups because she was being objected from exhibiting the series to avoid provoking the orthodox thinking. However, her paintings if you see is not to evoke any erotic fantasies but to celebrate humans, especially women in their most graceful form.
The love story of Nala, the Nishada King and Damayanthi, the princess of Vidarbha kingdom is well known in the mythological series of Mahabharat. Although, Raja Ravi Verma has painted lot of paintings on these two characters, Rukmini Varma’s Nala Damayanthi was highly appreciated for her skill of painting translucent dress along with the detailed ornamentation.
Mother & Child
One of the most controversial paintings from Flesh and Gem Series, Mother and Child was admired for the skin and lighting tones. The work of jewelry was so exquisite that one of the observers asked if it was painted from real gold.
Mohini Beguiling Bhamasura
Lord Vishnu took the form of Mohini in order to kill Bhamasura. This happened when Bhamasura, the biggest devotee of Shiva tried to be over smart by using the boon from Shiva on Shiva himself. Yes, Bhamasura fell in love with Lord Shiva’s wife Parvati. He wanted to use Shiva’s boon of turning anybody into ashes by just putting his hand over their head. Lord Vishnu helped Lord Shiva by taking the form of Mohini. Rukmini’s Mohini in the painting is nude.
In the painting, the apsara Maneka sent by gods is seen to be seducing the sage Vishwamitra to end his tapsaya.
Currently, Rukmini Varma resides in Bangalore and paints. Her paintaings is limited to few private collectors as she keeps herself devoid of visitors. After lot of requests from friends, well wishers and family, she agreed for a Tumblr and Facebook page, which became the prime source of my article.
With Inputs from Rukmini Varma
By: Deepti Verma
Image Source: Rukmini Varma Facebook