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.
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+.
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: