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Rukmini Varma, the Princess painter makes a comeback with her show Opulence and Eternity

It’s been 33 years since she has made any public appearance. The fourth Princess of the erstwhile state of Travancore, her highness Bharani Tirunal Rukmini Bayi Tampuran, has been a recluse leading a quiet, spiritual life, away from the public glare. But now, the Princess, more popularly known as Rukmini Varma, the painter (and great-great granddaughter of master painter Raja Ravi Varma), is set for a grand return.

On January 25, 2017, the 79-year-old Varma will present her new collection of paintings, Opulence and Eternity, at Gallery-g in the city. A collection of richly painted subjects — both legendary and historical figures (one of these subjects is her grandmother the Maharani Setu Lakshmi Bayi). “Ever since I started painting as a child, I get visions of fantastic men and women clad in jewellery, walking down palaces and temples. And mind you, I get these visions when I am awake, not while I am sleeping,” the Princess painter tells us categorically. She further elaborates, “Visions of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and the likes is what I have painted. I had started work during the early ’70s but left them incomplete. It was only when Gitanjali (Maini, founder, Gallery-g) insisted that I exhibit these paintings, that I completed them over the last four to five months this year.”

Raised in the Satelmond Palace in Trivandrum, Varma was highly influenced by her surroundings that included artefacts, palace interiors and works of great baroque masters like Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Rubens. “It was Rubens’ work that influenced me the most. He placed a lot of importance on skin tones,” says Varma, who is known for the skin tone detailing in her work too.

Meeting Husain
Though her last show — Flesh and Gems — displayed at the Jehangir Art Gallery was back in 1981, Varma hasn’t stopped painting. She says it’s equivalent to breathing for her. Prod her more about the 1981 show and how newspapers had reported that it had almost caused a stampede, she laughs and says, “that’s because I had painted nudes.” It was at the same show that the modern art master MF Hussain was besotted by her work. “He met me at the gallery and professed his amazement about the skin tones I had created. We spoke for a long time but I didn’t know it was Hussain. Only after he left, when someone told me, I realised who he was,” she recalls.

After this show, Varma chose to lead a secluded life. She renounced her regular life to enter an ascetic phase. “I thought my spiritual life and my regular life would be in conflict.” She went deeper into it after she lost her third son in an accident. Only after years of dealing with trauma, she has been able to recover and is set for her comeback show. January 20 onwards. AtGallery-g, Lavelle Road. Details: 22219275.

— Ayesha Tabassum

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