Kerala celebrated Raja Ravi Varma’s 167th birth anniversary recently. Organized by the Lalitha Kala Akademi in Kerala at Ravi Varma’s birth place, Kilimanoor in North East of Trivandrum District, in the newly inaugurated Art Gallery, there were more political speeches than scholarly re-inventing of Ravi Varma for the posterity. In the social networking sites, I happened to see that one of the famous auction houses predicts a hike on the prices of Ravi Varma’s works. It has been doing the rounds for a long time; the rarer the works the dearer the prices. Ravi Varma is a vintage item not only in his works but also in legends pertaining to him. But vintage things are static too; they remain the same, exuding the beauty across the audience but leaving nothing to wonder because the legends remain the same. To make the vintage into contemporary, you need more than political will and political speeches. It needs creative art history with a lot of imaginative historians working around the legend. Ravi Varma’s detractors are his own sycophants. They repeat the same intellectually polished romantic renditions around Ravi Varma’s art and life, making him more and more a dead artist than a historical artist who could live through generations through constant memory making.
(display hall at the RRMM)
Raja Ravi Varma must be turning in his grave. That was exactly what I felt when I reached Kilimanoor on a hot afternoon. I asked the private bus conductor where the gallery was. He asked a few other people to finally tell me that it was somewhere. He promised to drop me there at the gate itself. He qualified the place as where some ‘sculptures’ were kept. I had seen a newspaper report that detailed the presence of sculptures in the gallery compound and ever since I was curious about them. The gallery is built in a 1.66 acre property which has two undulating decks. On the first deck we have this gallery, done typically in Kerala traditional architecture style. Before I could attend to the details of this architectural wonder, I thought of going inside the gallery and see the works of Raja Ravi Varma. I should say I was deeply disappointed. If Ravi Varma had come with me, he would have broken down instantly not only out of grief but also of shame.
(Sita Andardhaanam- Sita goes into the earth- another 'high quality' print in the museum)
This Ravi Varma Memorial Art Gallery, which was inaugurated by the present cultural minister Mr.K.C.Joseph (Congress) and amply helped in making by the current MLA, Mr.B.Satyan (CPM) on 29th November 2014, is a disaster artistically and architecturally. Lalitha Kala Akademy claims that forty ‘high quality’ prints of Ravi Varma’s oil paintings and oleographs are displayed for aesthetic enjoyment. The very first sight of one of the works presented at the beginning of the gallery was so insulting to the memory of the artist that the ‘high quality’ prints had not even gone through proper color correction. The frames are expensive and the printing is done cheaply. I am not an expert in printing. But I can say for sure that these are below average prints and something has gone terribly wrong in the tendering, vendor-ing, executing and displaying. One could feel like asking any expert in printing where exactly the print job has gone wrong. Is it in getting the right printer or in the shoddy dealing? I am sure my dear friends, Kaattoor Narayana Pillai who is the chairman of the Kerala Lalitha Kala Akademy, Vaikom M.K.Shibu, secretary of the Lalitha Kala Akademy and Mr. Francis (who was the Chairman when this job was commissioned) would give me an answer to these questions.
(The Ravi Varma Museum/Gallery building)
The gallery strangely resembles the Guild Gallery in Alibaug near Mumbai. The spatial arrangement is more or less the same but the difference is while the Guild Gallery showcases the works of the contemporary artists with studied care and lighting, here in Ravi Varma Memorial Gallery in Kilimanoor, the poor quality prints are mounted in ‘wonderful’ frames and displayed without considering any chronology or curatorial discretion. One may wonder why, Lalitha Kala Akademy and the cultural department of Kerala is so callous in executing something which could have been a permanent tourist attraction and a historical centre as Ravi Varma’s birth palace is a few paces away from this memorial gallery. While asking around, I got the feeling that the Ravi Varma family is not that impressed by the job that the LKA has done. But there is not even a complaint book to register my complaint.
(G.Shankar, the architect who designed this museum)
The architecture is another disaster. The building and the development of the premises is said to have incurred an expenditure of Rs.1.37 Crore so far. The architecture is done, as I said before in typical Kerala style and is designed and created by one of the famous ‘low cost’ architectural firms, namely Habitat led by a highly reputed architect G.Shankar. This architect is famous for his environmental friendly green architecture. But I want to ask Mr. Shankar what he has exactly done to this building. The building has a tin roof which is covered with a rubberized asbestos tiles which provides insulation and a cover at once. One may wonder is this how one reputed architect envisions a museum which is supposed to house the internationally reputed art works? Or did he think that the museum is going to house only prints of Ravi Varma and those prints need only a decorative shed? Mr.Shankar should give an answer to these questions. If I go by the Arnab Goswami way, the Nation demands an answer from you Mr.Shankar.
(Shilpi Rajan made this Ravi Varma portrait in cement. I am not going to believe it is Ravi Varma)
I could see around ten sculptures in the museum premises. P.S.Rajan, who is known as Shilpi Rajan has created a portrait of Raja Ravi Varma in cement. One of the journalists asked him what he was thinking when he was making a ‘kshatriya’ artist’s portrait. The question came from the fact that the sculptor hails from a backward caste. His answer was simple: I am a sculptor, I saw sculpture Ravi Varma in my mind.’ I was curious to see the sculpture and I have to register my protest here, with all due respect to the sculptor that it is not a sculptural portrait at all. By making this sculpture the sculptor has demeaned the image of Ravi Varma that millions of people carry in their mind. But Rajan could escape from this situation only by quoting Sree Narayana Guru, who while consecrating a Shiva idol in a temple told the opponents that he was consecrating an Ezhava Shiva (a backward caste Shiv). Rajan could say that it is a Dalit Ravi Varma and make his way out of the possible controversy. But I am sure there would be no controversy as not many are hugely interested.
(Valsan Kolleri's sculpture)
Out of the sculptures I could see the works of Onix Paulose, Augustine Verghese, Saju Mannathur, Rajan PS, Jyotilal T.G, Jayan AK, Sudhakaran NK, Sanu VR, Raveendran MV and Valsan Koorma Kolleri. The parameter for selecting the sculptors to work here was that they should be an Academy Award winner. If so the works of Valsan Koorma Kolleri and Saju Mannthur stand distinct for different reasons. Valsan’s abstract work evokes curiosity about its form and stature. Saju Mannathur is a trained mural painter and his sculpture is the portrait of Nala from Nalacharita, which is quite impressive. An acclaimed sculptor like Jyotilal T.G does not seem to have done justice. The other works may be good, but they do not stand a chance within Ravi Varma’s vicinity. The nation asks another question; Why did the Akademy refuse to make any consultation with acclaimed artists and art historians?
(Work by Saju Mannathur)
Ministers and MLAs speak of the possibility of this place becoming an international heritage centre. Whenever there is a mention of the word international, I feel like checking the lavatories there. I went there and the scene I saw there was appalling. For the whole 1.66 acre of land and buildings, there is only one toilet, which is made along with the green room of an amphi-theatre. It is gloriously dirty and the door is without a latch. I think G.Shankar, the architect should explain this also. Or does Kerala deserve only this much?