We have in our Delhi flat a small, strange, black & white print of Krishna titled ‘Shri Krishna in Om’. There is nothing remarkable about this print, except that, on the right side of the picture, at the bottom, there is a legend which says: ‘S S Brijbasi & Sons, Bunder Road, Karachi.’ On the left side, you can read, if you look carefully, the words, ‘Made in Germany.’ Add to this information the fact that the print was accidentally discovered by my wife, when she was rummaging through her mother’s old cup-board in Tirunelveli, and you have before you some delicious nuggets of history.
That this print is at least of pre-independence vintage there is little doubt, but it must also be pre- World War II. The British were traders all right, but surely they weren’t trading with the Germans when the Luftwaffe was flattening the British towns. Brijbasi & sons must have doing roaring business in Karachi as their prints were selling in such southerly places as Tirunelveli. Just for fun, I googled their name and I found an oleograph from them on sale for the grand sum of $125. The oleograph that I have wouldn’t fetched me this much as it is in black and white. And it is not as maudlin as the ones usually preferred by pious housewives.
More than all this, it is not a Ravi Varma.
Ravi Varma is justly famous for the unique Indian world he had created through his grand, opulent paintings of Indian legends. As A Ramachandran says in his brilliant essay on Ravi Varma, he represented them in his paintings as frozen moments of literary descriptions like Shakuntala stealing a glance at Dushyanta, pretending to remove a thorn from her feet. Even though he borrowed his vocabulary from European art, his language acquired a distinct south Indian flavour as if an educated south Indian was narrating the Indian stories in English with south Indian accent.
One of the perennial joys of admiring a Ravi Varma is to observe the dress of the women he had painted. For instance, there is a grand painting of his in the Mysore art gallery titled Jatayu Vadham – the slaying of Jatayu. Unlike his usual, staid, stationary paintings, this one is full of movement. Ravana’s left hand is around the waist of Sita. In his right hand is a sword which swings backwards after cutting one of the wings of Jatayu. It is about to descend again on the hapless bird. The air is breathing menace and spewing feathers. Sita doesn’t want to witness this ignominy. Her face is not fully visible. Her hands are, which are full of purple bangles. She is wearing a lovely mango-coloured sari and a bright red jacket with a zari border. Ravana is not abducting the ancient Sita. He has in his vile grasp, an innocent south Indian housewife.
There is another painting of his that greatly amuses me. Rama has just broken the famed Siva’s bow. The king Janaka watches his future son-in-law with surprise and, perhaps, joy. But what I love in this paint is not the act of valor but the building that frames King Janaka and his attendants. With arches and a half-hidden dome, it is pure Mughal.
The street where I lived as a young boy was full of Brahmins. Their houses always had scores of bright Ravi Varmas adorning the wall. The one that loved most was the one depicting the descent of Ganges on the flowing tresses of Siva and disappearing in them. I desperately liked to possess this print. The problem was not that it was expensive. I could get it free from a friend whose father was rearranging the wall-portraits of his rather capacious house. The problem was with my household. Ours was a pure Vaishnava family where the act of adoring the wall of your hall with a picture of Shiva would be considered a cardinal sin – at least by my rather stern, hectoring grandmother. With my father’s silent consent, I worked out a compromise. I hung the picture on the wall of my room upstairs, away from the prancing eyes of my grandmother.
Years later, I was visiting Penang. My host who took me an incredibly beautiful temple dedicated to Lord Subramania. It was like visiting a rich Chettinadu house, with raised platforms to relax in the front and long corridors that led to the sanctum sanctorum. The corridors had some sinuous pillars supporting the roof (wooden, if I remember correctly) and in the space that covered the walls that rose up to meet the roof hung row after row of Ravi Varma oleographs.
Yes, he was there. The majestic Siva with flowing locks. He took me back to my uncompromising grandmother.