Published: 22nd April 2021
Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan: Raja Ravi Varma's art should be as recognisable to children as da Vinci's Mona Lisa
Author Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan talks about her latest book Price with a Paintbrush: The story of Raja Ravi Varma and why she thinks children should know more about the artist
Raja Ravi Varma is regarded as one of the greatest and most celebrated Indian artists, whose work, primarily from the 19th century, portrayed a rich and unique Indian sensibility. Therefore, it is rather unfortunate that a large number of India's children remain unaware of this extraordinary artist. It is with this intention that author Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan chose to pen a children's book based on Varma's life and art. "The story in the book allows the child narrator to think about her own artistic production and readers who are artists themselves will have an opportunity to think about their own creativity," says Srinivasan about her book Prince with a Paintbrush: The story of Raja Ravi Varma.
And it is not just his story that the book contains. Vividly illustrated by Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology graduate and toy designer and illustrator Rayika Sen, this book promises to enrich youngsters about the beloved artist. Excepts from an interesting chat with Srinivasan:
What drew you to the life and paintings of Raja Ravi Varma and made you write a book on it?
The idea of a book collection on Indian artists had been percolating in my mind for a while. I had planned to do a series with poems to accompany the art in the public domain. So many children I spoke to were familiar with artists in the western canon, but couldn’t recognise the art of well-known artists from India. Here was a famous 19th-century Indian painter who blended European aesthetics with Indian images and connected the world more than a century ago, and yet so few children seemed to know him! I thought there was no better time to address this lapse. Fortunately, Vidhi Bhargava of Red Panda endorsed the idea and proposed an illustrated biography for young readers. I remembered the Raja Ravi Varma lithographs hanging on the walls of our family tharavad in Kerala, and began writing this book.
Do you think children will be able to comprehend the intricacies of such paintings?
The purpose of the book and the first step was to introduce Raja Ravi Varma’s art so that it was as recognisable to children as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Monet’s Water Lilies. Ravi Varma’s use of colour and realistic renditions of portraits have been “copied” in old Bollywood posters and in Amar Chitra Katha comics that follow this approach. His art is visually appealing and his paintings have been characterised as “a burst of colour”. Children are also likely to be drawn to the stories from the Indian epics and the Puranas that were represented with such dramatic detail by Ravi Varma in his paintings.
What can the children expect from a book dealing with such a celebrated artist?
This book includes fun facts and vibrant illustrations and shares the artist’s story and art journey with young readers. The book also tells an interesting story about a beloved Indian artist who travelled the length and breadth of the country at a time when travel was not easy, and who also represented various regions of the country in his art. And, as this is an illustrated biography, young readers will be introduced to forms of artistic expression that are culturally and historically specific. The frame story in the book allows the child narrator to think about her own artistic production and readers who are artists themselves will have an opportunity to think about their own creativity.
Why do you think youngsters and children, for the large part, remain unaware of such works of art and the artists?
There’s a Hindi saying, Ghar ki murgi, daal barabar, which comes to mind. It’s easy to ignore or dismiss that which is easily available. So we are often drawn to the “foreign” as something to aspire toward. But if the current buzz about this book is any indication, there is a renewed interest in our own treasure trove of art and writing. And the west is as interested in Indian art as we are in western artists. A friend recently wrote a piece for Zenga, an online magazine in the American market about the new Raja Ravi Varma museum coming up in Thiruvananthapuram.
How was it like working on the book? How long did you take to write it?
I enjoyed writing the book and living with this story. Once I had done my research I had to think about how to frame the book so that the biographical story would be entertaining and interesting to children. The writing came swiftly. It’s not a very long book and did not take long to pen.
Where did the research for the book take you? Any funny/interesting anecdotes you learnt about during your research?
So much comes up during research. For instance, I learned that Ravi Varma’s sister used to paint as well but marriage and domestic responsibilities kept fame away from her. Also, it was interesting to learn that during the last years of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th century, Ravi Varma was so well regarded as an artist that a post office had to be opened in Kilimanoor where he was born because letters and requests for paintings came flooding in for him from various corners of the country.
The book has a page of fun facts about Raja Ravi Varma. I hope that readers will want to pick it up for the answer to this question.
Can you tell something about the book's narrative technique and which part of Varma's life it essentially deals with?
The book is a short children’s biography of the artist. It traces his life from childhood to his death but the purpose is to introduce his artistic style and his art to readers so that they become familiar with Raja Ravi Varma’s work and legacy.
Which book are you reading currently? Which author would you consider your biggest inspiration?
I’m currently reading a novel called At the Edge of the Haight by Katherine Seligman, which is set in San Francisco and explores homelessness. It’s written with the taut narrative of a mystery but is a commentary on the overlooked and underserved in many cities in America. I read quite widely and across genres. I’m inspired by any writer who uses words well to evoke emotion or tell a good story.
Did you read a lot of books growing up? How did those help you write this one?
Yes, I grew up in an era where books were our primary form of entertainment and information. It allowed us to travel using our imagination, expanded our vocabulary, and helped us escape from the routine of every day. I loved to read and have always been a reader. Of course to write a children’s book one needs to read age-appropriate books. As a parent and now a grandparent I’ve had lots of opportunities to read children’s books which inform my own ideas.