Friday, September 19, 2008

Raja Ravi Varma’s most expensive painting.

Raja Ravi Varma (The Kaiser -I- Hind medal granted in 1904 could be seen)

In October 2007, Bonhams, the UK auctioneers auctioned off a wonderful oil on canvas done by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906). Though estimated to fetch around £50,000 to 70,000, its bidding ended only at £602400, the equivalent of Indian rupees 5 crores.

It was bought by Neville Tulli, Chairman of Osians, an auction house in Mumbai.

The painting was titled “The Maharaja of Travancore and his younger brother welcoming Richard Temple-Grenville, 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, Governor-General of Madras (1875-80), on his official visit to Trivandrum in 1880”.



The Maharaja of Travancore and his younger brother welcoming
Richard Temple-Grenville, at Trivandrum in 1880

The painting depicts the welcoming party at Trivandrum, for the 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, Richard Temple-Grenville, who was Governor-General of Madras from 1875 to 1880. Accompanied by his aide-de-camp and British army officers, he is seen received by Visakham Tirunal, the younger brother of the Maharaja of Travancore, who was to succeed his brother in May 1880. The Maharaja, Ayilayam Tirunal (ruled between 1860 and 1880), is seen standing behind him. The building behind them bears the conch shell, the symbol of the state of Travancore, as well as a welcoming message for the Duke. A figure in white could be seen looking out at the spectator from amongst the group of noblemen framed by the window to the left of the Maharaja. It seems likely that this is Ravi Varma himself, alluding to the practice of painters from the Renaissance onwards of inserting themselves into the action.

Ravi Varma was often invited to state occasions by British high officials and the Indian nobility, often recording their activities on his canvases, notably the investiture ceremony of the Gaekwad of Baroda in 1881, and the elephant kheda operation in Mysore on the occasion of the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1906, the year of Ravi Varma's death.

This scene of the reception of the Duke of Buckingham in Travancore would probably have been completed by Ravi Varma and his brother Raja Raja Varma subsequently and presented to the Duke in 1881.



Richard Temple-Grenville, 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos

Richard Plantagenet Campbell Temple, 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos (1823-1889) was the Governor of Madras between 1875 -80. After having his education at Eton and later at Oxford, he joined the army and rose in cadre to become a Colonel. Subsequently he became a conservative MP in the British parliament.

He held various important government assignments and in 1867 was appointed the Secretary of State for the Colonies. When Disraeli returned to office in 1874, the Duke was appointed Governor-General of Madras and arrived in India in 1875. As the Governor of Madras , he was created a Knight Grand Commander of the Star of India. The Buckingham Canal, a 420 km long salt water navigation canal, running from Vijayawada to Villupuram District is named after his honour.

In 1880 he returned to England, and became Chairman of Committees in the House of Lords, in 1886.

Richard Temple-Grenville inherited the Stowe estate in Buckinghamshire from his father, the 2nd Duke, who had died bankrupt. While returning to England, he reportedly had carried with him two paintings by Ravi Varma viz. Shakuntala Patralikhan and ‘Hindoo Woman', and a third unattributed painting titled 'The Maharajah of Travencore' . Buckingham had bought Varma's painting, Shakuntala Patralikhan (Shakuntala's Love Epistle to Dushyanta, inspired by Kalidasa's epic poem), which was entered at the Madras Fine Arts Exhibition in 1876. He had sat for his official portrait by Varma in 1878, a portrait commissioned by the British administration for Government House in Madras.

The duke died in 1889 without any male heir. As per the English custom, since he died without any male issues, the Dukedom of Buckingham and Chandos became extinct.

(Note: Similar to the Nampoothiri households of yore in Kerala where the eldest son only married from the same community and inherited the property, among the aristocratic British, the inheritance of Lordship was only through the eldest son. Most men coming to India were second sons or the children of second sons or clergymen, who would not inherit family property there, or whose parents couldn't afford to set them up in Britain.)

Twenty five years back, during our honey-moon days while visiting some of our relatives spread far and wide in Kerala, I and my wife Sindhu, stayed at Mavalikkara with Ravi Varma a cousin who was related to the great artist and who had in his possession an original sketch book of Raja Ravi Varma. I remember having gone through this rare book with a lot of curiosity. It was a note book with full of pencil sketches done by the illustrious master. I wonder where that book could be now!

Dubai, 19th September 2008.