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Images of Indian life...captured on canvas

Hema Nair writes about the Sri Chitra Art Gallery and its collection of well known paintings

Situated in Vellayambalam,  Trivandrum, in the company of a museum and a zoo is the Sri Chitra Art Gallery.  It is home to numerous paintings by various artists, but mainly Raja Ravi Varma

Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) was born in Kilimanoor, Kerala.  The first signs of his talent emerged when, as a young boy, he would persist in covering the walls of his house with a variety of images.  It was from this that his uncle, the artist Raja Raja Varma, realised his nephew's talents.  Raja Ravi Varma studied oil painting in the Royal palace at Trivandrum, continued at Mysore and Baroda, and went on to be one of the most prominent artists to emerge from India.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Ravi Varma's old palace in Kilimanoor, meet his great grand niece, Bhavani Thampurati, and was shown the studio where the artist created many a masterpiece.  Bhavani Thampurati now reproduces Varma's work, and three such pieces can be found in my family's home in Camberley.

So, having developed a personal attachment to the artist, and his work, it was great to be able to see the original paintings.  As you walk into the gallery (after shoes have been removed), the first painting to greet you is a portrait of the artist himself by Mangalabai Thampurati, followed by many pieces of Varma's own work.  One of my first observations as I looked at all the paintings, was that they were given no protection apart from a "Do Not Touch The Paintings" sign, that could easily go unnoticed.  Even in many galleries in England, paintings are not covered in glass, but there tend to be guards in every room who are swift to tell you that your contact with the exhibits should not be hands on.  Although this will not stop anyone who wishes to damage a piece (as has been shown with Marcus Harvey's portrait of Myra Hindley at the Royal Academy), which at the time of writing under restoration after having eggs and ink thrown at it), it does offer some protection.  One painting by Varma had a knife put through it, and it would be a shame to see his work, which has survived many years, get ruined due to inadequate measures of preservation.

The paintings I saw could almost be divided into two categories large, elaborate pieces, and smaller pieces that were almost like sketches in paint.  The larger pieces tend to be very grand, painted in oil paint with meticulous detail, and with the paint blended in so that the brush strokes are not visible.  One of my favourite paintings of this kind is one titled "Poverty".  A mother is sat with three children.  One child, a baby, is lying asleep across her lap.  Another, a young girl, is looking up with a frightened look of hope in her sad eyes, and last child, a boy, is studiously itching what might be mosquito bite on his elbow, adding almost an element of humour to the picture.  It is a simple, yet powerful image.

My personal preference would be Varma's smaller pieces, often created with quick brushstrokes in oil or water- colour, giving the paintings more life.  His series of paintings of 'Dance Poses" illustrate this, using quick brushstrokes in oil to give action to piece, as if he had caught the dancers in a moment of time.  I also found that his smaller paintings carried more emotion. "Rest" depicts a woman leaning against a post, her head on her arm.  The basket beside her tells us that the forlorn and weary look she wears on her face is due to the hard work she has been doing to earn her moment of "rest".  "Milkmaid" is a small water-colour painting.  Her soft eyes, and the way she clutches her sari to her face, gives her a sense of innocence and purity, which is enhanced by the way that Varma has let the twisting of her sari down her body, slowly disappear.

Also on display is a range of other work including pieces from many areas around India, Bali, Persia, Tibet and China, including classic Tanjore paintings- images painted onto god leaf.  There is also a selection of Modern Art on display. Although I didn't find these paintings as impressive, there was one piece that I loved.  "Two Nudes", an oil painting by P.T.Mathew, contains two images cleverly combined.  At a glance, it looks like a huge dark blue rockface with a white waterfall cascading behind it.  A small person stands on the rockface, and there is a bird in the sky.  Look harder, and you will see that the bird is the eye of a white face (the waterfall), and what appeared as a jagged blue rockface forms a well sculpted face.  It forms the picture of a white man and black woman kissing.

A visit to the gallery is well worthwhile to see Raja Ravi Varma's paintings for yourself, as well as a range of Indian art that so rarely gets showcased in England.

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