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:


The Perks of Being a Sportsperson



The best part of sports, for me, was the food! When I was in school, I was forever hungry. And during sports practice, or during track meets and tournaments, there always seemed to be a lot more good food going around. The absolute icing on the cake was the hamper that our school packed and loaded onto the bus when we headed out for inter-school matches…cutlets, rolls, fat sandwiches, flasks of hot tea…!

Then there were the rivalries with particular schools. We wouldn’t mind being beaten by School X, but hated it when School Y beat us! Or how winning a tournament had no value, if through the league matches, we never got a chance to beat arch rivals School Z ourselves.

What about all the classes that we could happily miss! The bruises, cuts and scratches that we came back to school with, proudly flashing them like badges. The stories that I still remember, and that we repeat over and over amongst us old school friends, even though its been decades since we left school.

My book, ‘No 9 on the Shade Card’ is my first novel for young adults. And it’s all about life on and off the sports field. It’s been published by Rupa’s new children’s imprint ‘Red Turtle’. And is out in stores, on Flipkart and available for download as an eBook from Kindle, etc.

It’s also about all the hurdles that one girl has to cross while chasing her dreams of becoming a champion. Strangely, none of those hurdles have anything to do with fitness levels, improving speeds, building stamina, or the high level of competition. What she has to grapple with are barriers within her own home. Her grandma’s obsession with her being dark (and hence unqualified to spend any time outdoors!), her own worries about practicing in a public ground that’s getting taken over by a gang of weirdos…the strange phase that her once-great relationship with her brother is going through… Hope you like it.

Here is a link to my post on Red Turtles’s blog. You’ll discover a bunch of other interesting books just out:

Discovering that Akbar hated studying



History had never been my favourite subject in school. So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed researching the Vijayanagar Empire, while writing about Tenali Raman. So when Puffin commissioned a set of historical biographies, I was quite happy to write about Akbar. I loved discovering the non textbook facts about him. We might have all admired him in school, if they’d only told us how much he bunked his lessons! I might have remembered the names of his innumerable sons, if I’d only known that they were all drunkards! So if you like the interesting parts of history, maybe you’ll like ‘Akbar, the Mighty Emperor’. The biggest surprise for me was how many interesting, intelligent and powerful women there were in Akbar’s life.

The stunning cover painting is by Harshvardhan Kadam.

Here’re a couple of links to reviews of the book: