Two Artists Paint the Last Days of the Raj



Raja Ravi Varma: A royal painter

Raja Ravi Varma’s portrait of Chamrajendra Wodeyar X, on the cover of Rupika Chawla’s book

I’m fresh off the boat from Oxford’s annual book fair. Normally too jaded to respond to a banner screaming ‘80% OFF!’ I went because a cousin swore that the beyond-budget coffee table books were really going cheap. I was pleasantly surprised that this was true for many books I actually wanted. Typically, “How to Rid Raagi of Round Worm’ is what’s dumped on the ‘80% less’ table. One gem from the loot was Rupika Chawla’s ‘Raja Ravi Varma, Painter of Colonial India.’ Sumptuously illustrated and rich in historical detail, I’m enjoying it thoroughly. It reminds me of another artist who painted colonial India.

While googling Gandhi for an Independence day or October 2nd story some time ago, I’d discovered an American artist who’d spent a prolific few months in India. No one I knew had heard of him, and even the Internet has surprisingly few references to  Hubert Stowitts. Rarely do you hear of such talent – he was the first American ballet dancer to ever perform with Anna Pavlova, the celebrated star of the Bolshoi Ballet. While touring South America with her, he helped out as a set designer. And just when he was at the top of his profession, he kicked off his ballet shoes to go off to Europe to study painting.

After becoming a much-in-demand portraitist in Paris, he’d arrived at Calcutta in 1929, via Indonesia, where he’d spent months painting the traditional dancers. He then wasted three months chasing British bureaucrats for permission to exhibit. A lucky meeting with a Maharaja saved him, so his Indonesian and Chinese paintings were exhibited to rave reviews. Then, much like the Varma brothers, he moved from the court of one princely state to another, crisscrossing India, painting prince and pauper (as well as Gandhi and Nehru). He was particularly obsessed by what he saw as dying craftsmanship. So the coppersmith, the gold leaf worker, the potter, etc were painted virtually life size. And his exhibition, on ‘Vanishing India’ travelled through Europe and the US in the 1930s.

Stowitts' painting of a gold leaf artisan

Stowitts’ painting of a gold leaf artisan

Ironically, he even visited Travancore, Ravi Varma’s home state and the Maharani (who could very well have been Ravi Varma’s own grand daughter) asked Stowitts to paint a couple from the Kaniker tribe, which was then close to extinction and has now vanished. Raja Ravi Varma died young, while still in his 50s. So it is tempting to wonder how a meeting between him and Stowitts would have played out, had the Indian lived to be 70+.

Stowitts' coppersmith

Stowitts’ coppersmith

Check out Stowitts at the website of the museum dedicated to him in California. The site is a labour of love by art historian Anne Holiday, who’s also working on his biography:


From the Libraries of the Departed

Check out the cobbler stitch! And don't miss the 'Om' above the title!

Steinbeck’s “Cup of Gold.’ Check out the cobbler stitch! And the ‘Om’ above the title.

The 3 books are the size if tiny 'pocket book' paperbacks, except the binding is on the shorter side. And inside, the text is in 2 cols.

The 3 books are tiny ‘pocket book’ paperbacks, except the binding is on the shorter side. And inside, the text is in 2 columns.

I’m back at that point in my life when I frantically look around for the genes that I can blame for my various shortcomings. One more cupboard of clothes or crockery will have to be emptied to make way of growing piles of books on tables, the floor, on the bed… Thankfully, I have not one, but four grandparents to blame for this disease! My siblings and I must surely have been the most pampered to spend summer holidays with grandparents who had libraries. This is apart from the innumerable book shelves that overflowed in all the rooms of my parents’ home. And the flavour of the collections in all the houses was different.

I’ve got a few books from my Mysore Thatha’s library. And they each say a lot about him. That though he was a brilliant engineer who rose to the very top of his profession and commanded the utmost respect from all his contemporaries, he was always broke. Most of the books of his I’ve seen, have been bought in second hand stores.

Then, since his family moved around all over south India (Madras Presidency) and his precious books had to be packed and repacked, he felt they needed structural re-enforcement (he was a civil engineer). As a kid, I watched open-mouthed as Thatha took out his mini-leather suitcase that had his sewing kit (he sewed on his own shirt buttons and darned his own socks!) and a few ‘cobbler’s tools’. With a thick cobbler’s needle, he’d drive in three holes into the left edge of a paperback and deftly use a kind of blanket stitch that you see on shoes, to strengthen the binding against all eventual transfers up and down south India.

The books shown here are ‘Armed Services Editions’ that were brought out by the US government and distributed free to their troops all over the world during WW 11. Mysore Thatha had told me that during the war, there’d been acute shortages of everything – food, metals, medicines and even paper, which is why these editions were miniaturised.

The books I have are extremely fragile, and have lasted this long only because of Thatha’s cobbler stitch. Also, he covered each book in brown paper the way school kids do. It’s touching to remember how much he worshiped his acquisitions…above the title of every book, Thatha always wrote ‘Om’ in Kannada. When I googled ‘Armed Services Editions’ (ASE) I was surprised to discover the adventurous lives these books had led, before retiring peacefully to a Mysore library.

The ASE represents the most mammoth book printing effort in history. Between 1942 and 1947, the US-based ASE printed 123 million paperbacks, covering over a 130 authors from every genre. It was a time when people only bought hardbacks, so some clever product designer figured out a way to use the rotary presses that printed the monthly paperback digests, for the ASE effort. The armed forces worked with (or twisted the arm of) publishers and eventually managed to bring out each book at the cost of just 6 cents! The books were shipped out to Europe, the Pacific and Asia, across the theatre of war, to be distributed free of cost to US servicemen. And they were produced to be read and thrown, so as not to flood the US book market, post-war! Yet they lived on, in Thatha’s library in Mysore, and now in mine.

I found a fabulous virtual exhibition on the ASE at the University of Virginia’s website, set up by an enthusiastic undergrad in the 1990s. It’s really about the dawn of the paperback, as we know it. Check it out.

Flip over Thatha's handiwork for the real cover

Flip over Thatha’s handiwork for the real cover Though these editions are tiny, very few of them are abridged.