Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan on Culture, Writing and Raja Ravi Varma

When other kids were busy playing hopscotch with friends, seven-year-old Ravi Varma was painting on the walls of his house. Spotting his nephew’s artistic talent, his uncle Rajaraja Varma took him to the court of the Maharaja of Travancore to study and practice art. The rest, they say, is history.

Known as the father of modern Indian art, Raja Ravi Varma wowed the world with paintings that adapted European art techniques like realism to create an entirely local expression. It is his art that gives Hindu gods their most popular imagery, seen today in calendar art and posters. 

He also established the first lithographic press in India, which created prints of his mythology-inspired paintings, in particular scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. It was a big step towards making art affordable for everyone.

This magnificently illustrated biography by Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan will help young readers discover the life and works of Raja Ravi Varma, the artist who was born into royalty but earned the title of ‘Raja’ for his creativity on canvas.

Preeti Chaturvedi in conversation with Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan about her book “Prince With A Paintbrush : The Story of Raja Ravi Verma”

In this digital age where kids from initial years develop a liking for video games and foreign superheroes, having Raja Ravi Varma as the subject of a children’s book is very unusual. How and why did you make this choice?

There are many ways that children can be entertained and a vibrantly illustrated biography provides a fair bit of visual stimulation as well. There’s so much to rediscover in India’s heritage, and sharing the story of an artist whose art is so magnificent and detailed, and whose style is so prevalent in so many aspects (calendars, fashion, jewelry) in the public sphere today, and yet who remains unfamiliar to children, was a narrative worth telling. And the number of children I’ve engaged with on zoom and elsewhere after the release of the book, confirm my belief. The kids I’ve met online claim that they have now realized that biographies (real stories) can be as much fun to read as a fiction book of mystery or adventure. An artist who inspires others is as much of a superhero as a warrior who saves damsels from dragons. My intent was also that readers develop new perspectives and experience their own self-discovery about art with this book. A pedagogical mindset has informed all my children’s writing in some way or another. In fact, my books for children have always had a dual purpose: to entertain, but also to inform and educate.

The book is about the journey that made Ravi Varma, the Raja Ravi Varma that everyone knows. It is interesting to see how the protagonist reacts to the revelation of facts about him. How did you structure her personality? What is the story behind her character?

I’ve deliberately framed the book in such a way that the child who discovers the artist is also drawing conclusions about the effect of Ravi Varma’s style and creativity on contemporary art. She sees the parallel between the vibrancy of the color in the paintings and the dramatic exposition of Ravi Varma’s technique in Bollywood posters and Amar Chitra Katha comic books. By allowing the painter’s life biography to be unraveled by the child narrator, I was able to inhabit a child’s perspective and curiosity, and that narrative style has ensured children’s engagement with the text.  I’ve had wonderful reviews from young readers who were surprised that the biography that they thought might be dry and full of facts was so much fun to read. The style I’ve used allowed for a parallel narrative which is an interesting technique to liven traditional illustrated biographies.

In the story, the protagonist is amazed to see how Raja Ravi Varma had many supportive people around him and had the resources that allowed him to spend so much time perfecting his art. Do you think that even now, art as a career is only accessible to those who can afford to take that chance?

It is true that wealth affords flexibility and opportunity that is harder to come by if one has to burn the midnight oil to put food on the table.  But there are so many stories of people who have risen to the top in their professions because of their talent and hard work. Vincent Van Gogh, for instance, only sold one painting during his lifetime. Often he had to choose whether to spend his limited funds on food or paints to craft his work. Yet, as we all know Van Gogh’s original art sells for millions today. Famed artist M.F. Hussain also started out painting cinema posters early in his career. To earn additional income, he supposedly worked for a toy company designing and building toys. Today his art fetches the highest price of all Indian painters in art auctions.

I would encourage anyone with a passion and an interest to pursue that interest. As my mother always says “where there’s a will there’s a way.” The path may be paved with a few impediments but art can certainly be a career for anyone with the skills. And today artists have many opportunities beyond the life of painting on canvases. You could be a book illustrator, a digital artist, a graphic designer, and more.

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The book takes up a rather serious task to educate children about the life and works of the celebrated Indian artist. Do you think children will be able to comprehend and appreciate it?

We do children a disservice if we think that they will not be able to comprehend the book. In my experience, if the information is presented in an interesting and engaging manner children love to learn. Prince with a Paintbrush: The Story of Raja Ravi Varma is a captivating narrative told in an engaging manner with pages filled with art and illustrations that will make readers return to the book again and again. I have framed the biography from the perspective of a young narrator who seeks information and this allows for children to see themselves on the pages as well. The questions the narrator asks, and the excitement she feels, are the questions and the reactions that the readers will ask/feel themselves.

There are so many facts about Raja Ravi Varma that the book talks about. Which one was your favorite? Which one is not included in the book but you still find it interesting?

The opening of a post office in Kilimanoor just to accommodate all of Ravi Varma’s mail is a delightful detail that amused many young readers. While I had seen prints of Raja Ravi Varma’s puranic scenes and paintings from the epics over the years it is only in writing this book that I discovered that his portraits commissioned by the maharajahs and other nobility are what secured the artist’s finances and helped build his reputation as an artist throughout the country. Another fact that I have not mentioned is that two of Raja Ravi Varma’s granddaughters were adopted into the Travancore royal family, and their descendants are the present royal family of Travancore, including the latest three Maharajas (Balarama Varma III, Marthanda Varma III and Rama Varma VII).

What was the thought process behind the color scheme and the sync between the story and the illustrations? How did you and Rayika Sen realize the story in these colorful illustrations?

Rayika’s art is excellent and adds to expand the narrative just as it’s meant to do as this biography is also a  picture book. Rayika and I worked on different continents and we never met, but she understood from the start that her illustrations were meant to complement the artist’s art and her illustrations for this book do just that. She took elements of Ravi Varma’s imagery and embellished pages of text with those colors and style elements. I also wanted her to illustrate the narrator’s thoughts and questions and she supported the questioning tone of the young girl by drawing in thought bubbles which are a modern device familiar to young readers.

What is one key takeaway from your book that the young readers should keep in mind? Any similar book recommendations for them.

I would like children and adults to realize that a biography of a well-known and well-regarded artist from another century can also be an entertaining story. I’ve added a page of “fun facts” for readers to further their enjoyment as well. I don’t have any specific book recommendations in this genre but I hope that children will always read widely in the subjects that interest them.

Get his book on your nearest bookstore or on Amazon.

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