Playing Cards

Micro-history, Art History

Playing Cards

Gordhandas, Kishor N.


No art is more popular in India than calendar art, and calendar art, here is dominated by the colorful reproduction of the many Gods and Goddesses in the Hindu pantheon and scenes from religious myths and legends. Today the art- form has developed in several different styles, but in all of these the influence of one man can be found, and he is the renowned painter, Raja Ravi Varma of Travancore, a prince of a Kerala Royal family. It was Raja Ravi Varma who first gave the Hindu Goddesses faces and forms of unsurpassed beauty and grace. Indian art will always be indebted to the painter who though born a prince, carved a niche for himself as a prince of painters. But though Raja Ravi Varma is remembered today for his immortal paintings of Hindu Religious themes, few know that he pioneered the process, the western art of oil painting in India.

Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) was born in Kilimanoor Palace, 40 kms. From Trivandrum and was the son of Umamber Thamurathi and Neelkandan Bhattathiripad. As a boy of five or six, Ravi Varma filled the walls of his home with the pictures of animals and vignettes from everyday life. His uncle, the artist, Raja Raja Varma, discovered in him the signs of a genius in the making. He was taught Malayalam and Sanskrit at home and to these were added drawing. At the time he was 14, he had secured the patronage of the Maharaja of Travancore. The Maharaja himself an avid art lover, got Ravi Varma to move to Trivandrum; set up a studio for him and supplied him with European art books. It was during the year 1866 that Ravi Varma married Poororuttathinal Thampratti, from the Mavelikkara Royal Family. There was only one person who knew the technique of oil painting – Ramaswamy Naicker of Madurai. Ravi Varma
once approached him to illustrate certain aspects of oil painting, but Naicker, recognizing a potential rival in him, refused to help.

This rejection strengthened Ravi Varma’s resolve to become an oil painter of greater repute. Before the oil paints were brought for him from Madras, Ravi Varma had been painting with the indigenous paints that his uncle Raja Raja Varma prepared from leaves, flowers, bark and soil.

In 1868, Theodore Jenson, a portrait painter form abroad, visited the King Ayilyam Thirunal. It was a practice, in those days with the European painters to come down and paint the portraits of Indian Rulers, for which they were paid handsomely. Soon Ravi Varma painted the portrait of the Governor of Madras.

The day the portrait was unveiled, European painters were also present. They were taken by surprise at the beauty and excellence of the painting. Governor had said, “I have had to sit before a famous European painter 18 times for my portrait. Yet he was not able to capture me at least half as well as young Ravi Varma has done; that, painting a portrait can be as done as this, is also a fact I realize after Ravi Varma has painted my portrait”. Between 1879 and 1880, Ravi Varma was busy painting portraits. Letters with requests for paintings arrived from everywhere.
This small town of Kilimanoor was compelled to open a post office. One biographer had said, while European artists could only transcribe the likeness of Indians, Ravi Varma could reveal their character. Delighted by the young man’s skill, the Maharaja awarded him the Vira Srunghala (Bangle of Valor), Travancore’s highest decoration, the first time a painter had been honored with.

The ruling royal family was torn under with dissention between Aiilyam Thirunal and his brother and heir apparent, Visakham Thirunal. Ravi Varma never interfered in any of the administrative matters. Ayilyam Thirunal, for unknown reasons, turned cold to him.

Sensing this Ravi Varma moved to his wife’s house in Mavelikkara, and stayed there till Ayilyam Thirunal realized his mistake and called him back. Ayilyam Thirunal, died on May 1880, and Visakham Thirunal ascended the throne. Soon after he shifted Ravi Varma’s studio to Moodath Madam.
He had never been a well wisher to Ravi Varma. His paintings were ordered to be dumped in the house and were left to disintegrate in the cobweb-ridden corridors.

Ravi Varma’s carrier now took off. For the next three decades, he was in great demand, with everyone from Businessmen to Maharajas, vying to commission him. For a bunch of 14 paintings purchased by Maharaja of Baroda in 1888, these paintings fetched Ravi Varma Rs.50, 000.00, an astronomical sum for the time. The way Ravi Varma worked was very interesting. While he was busy painting, anyone was free to enter the studio and converse with him. He would be chewing pan, inhaling a pinch of snuff and wiping his nose with the tip of his dhoti, before taking up his brush. He also used to accept the suggestions of some art lovers if he found the same worth implementing.

Raja Ravi Varma was orthodox in the sense, he wore Yajnopavita, the sacred thread, the purvasikha, the tuff of hair over the fore-head and earrings, had his daily ritualistic bath after which he smeared his forehead with sandal paste and sacred ash, observed all the rites of his religion and shunned meat and liquor, but he never did indulge in the malpractices of his times, like untouchability. He was a very moral person, upright in his conduct, compassionate and generous to a fault, and absolutely incorruptible.

On his return from the tour of the country, Ravi Varma, fresh from his travels, plunged into painting. “Sahantanu and Matsyagandha”, “Nala Damayanti”, “Arjuna and Subhadra”, “Draupadi Vastraharan”, “Harishchandra and Taramati”, “Vishwamitra and Menaka”, “Sitaswavayamvaram”, “Keechaka and Sairanthri” were some of the many paintings done during this period. Ravi Varma desired these paintings to be displayed at the Thiruvananthapuram Museum for the people of Kerala to see them, before these were sent to Baroda. In his paintings, Raja Ravi Varma idealized women, often making his subjects more graceful than they actually were.

Though he painted women of many communities and classes, Ravi Varma had a special fondness for depicting the sari-clad Maharashtrian women of Bombay where he lived for many years. He found the sari – then not worn in Kerala and many other parts of India – with its striking colors and graceful folds especially appealing. It is said that the popularity of Ravi Varma’s paintings helped make the sari the national dress for all Indian women.

From 1897 onwards, he painted two pictures a year for Travancore State, when ‘Damayanti’, ‘Shakuntala and Draupadi’ took new life and a fresh beauty. The last major commission was to design the picture gallery for Mysore’s Jagmohan Palace and paint a series of Puranic pictures for the palace which was then being built. But the years were beginning to run out. He began to paint less and experiment more. Ravi Varma returned to Kilimanoor to undergo Ayurvedic treatment, and was advised not to go on long tours. During 1902, Ravi Varma remained in Travancore for eight months. In October he visited Raja Ravi Varma Lithographic press for the last time.

The Madras Art Exhibition of 1904 was the last of the shows for which Ravi Varma sent pictures directly. His health was deteriorating. On returning home from Madras, he received news of his brother Goda Varma having passed away. Raja Raja Varma, his uncle, fell seriously ill with an advanced stage of intestinal ulcer and died soon after. This came as a shock to Ravi Varma. He was so shattered that he stopped accepting commissions and only completed his pending work. Now a despondent Raja Ravi Varma turned to experimentation. A visit to the famed Mysore Khedda operation where elephant herds were trapped, led to an experiment in impressionism. But Mysore Khedda, perhaps his last painting hangs unfinished in the Trivandrum Gallery.

He too was ailing and at the age of 58, on October 2, 1906, Raja Ravi Varma breathed his last.

Long queues of people were at his house wanting to see the last darshan of Ravi Varma, the artist. At the time of his death, Ravi Varma was indisputably India’s best known and most honored artist.

But long years after his death, when many more in India caught up with Western Art and its standards, critical opinion turned against him. His European style was condemned, his work described as mediocre or second-rate as compared to that of Europe’s artists. His Gods and Goddesses derided for their earthiness. His popularity, however never waned and in recent years, some critics also have begun to reassess him.
And it cannot be denied that he brought art into the mainstream of Indian life; he earned respectability again for the artist and he revived India’s ancient traditions. No artist could ask for greater recognition, no artist could have achieved as much.

Having written this much on Raja Ravi Varma, his life and his works/paintings, I would like to state here that till now, many articles on Raja Ravi Varma, his life, his paintings have appeared from time to time in papers, various well known magazines, along with nice colour pictures of his paintings etc, and many exhibitions of Paintings of Raja Ravi Varma have been held on various occasions in New Delhi, Mumbai, Baroda, Trivandrum etc., but after so many years, majority in India have not heard nor seen the Raja Ravi Varma Playing Cards on mythological, and historical themes, even though these playing cards were printed in Raja Ravi Varma’s Printing press in Lonavala!! This could be perhaps because the playing cards manufactured at the above press were printed after the death of Raja Ravi Varma in 1906. It is said that Raja Ravi Varma sold his press to his German technician in 1901 for a paltry sum of Rs.25, 000.00 which also included the rights for 89 of his paintings. I have made a mention about this in my articles in a couple of magazines and papers, along with some pictures of some of the Court cards of these packs.

No one exactly knows how many different Playing Card Packs with Raja Ravi Varma Trade Mark have been printed and in how many print runs.

The majority of cards seem to have been printed between 1910 and 1915, and a few also have been printed a few years before 1935. My contacts at Lonavala, Karli and with some known persons have been futile.

There are Playing Cards with standard faces on the Court Cards that I have with me and also one in the Collection of Cary Collection, Yale University Library, USA. But the few interesting colorful Playing Cards that I would like to share with the readers are historical as also mythological Playing Cards, the artwork of which must have been done by some colleague of Raja Ravi Varma.

Here are some interesting details of the two packs, pictured here.

The Mythological Playing Cards:-
This pack of Gods, Goddesses, Kings and Queens show the following figures and Characters, suit wise: – on K (Kings), Q (Queens) and J (Jacks):

DIAMONDS Suit shows: Nala Raja, Damayanti Rani, and Raj Hans

SPADES Suit shows : Shri Ranmachandra, Shri Sitadevi and the Monkey God Hanuman;

HEARTS Suit shows : Harishchandra Raja, Taramati Rani and the Sage Vishwamitra;

CLUBS Suit shows: Raja Dushyant, Rani Shakuntala and Sutradhar.

The wordings – legend written underneath on all the court cards of this pack are in Hindi. The Court cards here are single-headed.

The Historical Playing Cards:-
This pack has Historical figures/characters reflecting the Mogul period on the Court cards. These are, suit wise:

Tamarlene (1336 – 1405) and Noor-Jehan Begum:

On Diamonds — King and Queen;

Akhbarshah (1542 – 1605) and Motee Begum:

On Spades — King and Queen;

Shah Jehan (1582 – 1666) and Taj Mahal Begum:

On HEARTS — King and Queen;

Aurangzeb (1618 –1707) and Zenat Mahal Begum:

On CLUBS — King and Queen.

Jacks of all these four suits show respective Sainik with armours and without any names written underneath. The Court cards here are double-headed – with reversible figures.

The wordings – legends written underneath the Court cards are in English. The Printing of both the above packs seem to have been done by chromolithography – 8 to 10 colour printing.

All the above non-standard Packs of Cards have on their Aces of Spades, Trade Mark as RRV (Raja Ravi Varma); yet at the bottom of each Ace of Spades it is mentioned Ravi Varma Press; On one Ace: Karli, Bombay and on the other Ace: Karla, Lonavla.

The first two packs – Mythological and historical RRV Playing Cards are with a French Historian and Playing Cards collector from Paris, France. He sent me the colour pictures as also colour slides and photos of court cards of these packs. He wanted to know from me the meaning and details about each of the pictured character on Playing Cards. This was around 1992-1993. Later he wrote an article on these playing Cards in French for a French Bulletin and I wrote here for an English paper.

There might be one or more such playing cards, still, somewhere in India or abroad with some private collectors. But why there is no knowledge about this among Indians here, although the packs were printed in Bombay? These playing cards printed in India during the early part of the Twentieth Century are not to be seen or found in India, even at some curio shops and Museums, but are found with some private Collections and in a few Museums abroad! It is also very likely that some packs must be somewhere with some people here in India. Are there any readers who have one or some of these or any other Raja Ravi Varma Playing Cards, and who know something more than what is written here?



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