A studio that once was...

inSight

A studio that once was...

The Laxmi Vilas Palace in Baroda was Maharajah of Baroda’s dream of a modern palace. One that was not only crafted with exquisite Indian craftsmanship, but that had avant-garde amenities of a 19th century palatial European home with elevators and modern interiors. Nineteenth century Indian elite was exposed to modern western influences, and so was the progressive state of Baroda.

The Laxmi Vilas Palace, completed in 1890, is one of India’s most modern and largest of all the princely palaces. It is especially known for its exquisite Venetian Murano mosaic floors, irreplaceable Puranic stained glass, and its sophisticated craftsmanship, an amalgamation of many cultures. It receives numerous visitors every year due to its proximity to the city of Ahmedabad.

It is an absolute must-visit for anyone who wants to experience what standing on an original Venetian mosaic flooring beneath a vividly painted ceiling feels like whilst wandering around Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings. Especially the original six-foot-tall painting of Laxmi, the prints of which adorn most of our homes. The Laxmi Vilas Palace grounds houses many other historic buildings and ruins. One of which is the largely derelict studio of the world-renowned Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma.

The journey

Raja Ravi Varma first came to Baroda to paint the portrait of the late Maharaja Sayajirao’s investiture. It was through his invitation that Ravi Varma would later move to Baroda to complete portraits of the Gaekwad royal family. Maharaja Sayajirao had given him a place to live on the campus of the palace grounds, a large well-lit studio in which he could do his painting.

He was one of the first painters to visit the Baroda court. Ravi Varma would paint a few of his most celebrated mythological paintings here, some of which would be printed and would surface in almost every South Indian home.

For more insight into Raja Ravi Varma, walk into the Laxmi Vilas Palace grounds towards the Fatehsingh Museum and walk a little further beyond; this should lead you to a clearing where a small derelict, cottage-like brick structure will come into picture. This was once where Ravi Varma lived and painted in a two-story house connected through a corridor to his studio with large windows.

What’s left now is only the remnants of the pitched roof studio with a doorway on its gabled end, and it stands in stark contrast to the grandeur of the palace. Piles of rubble line the broken boundary wall and people walk across nonchalantly, and occasionally lone men feeding the monkeys linger around.

A few Islamic ruins from an earlier era dot the vicinity and might have been used by Ravi Varma to compose some of his paintings. There is no signage that acknowledges the painter and his studio, nor is there a pathway directing you towards it, only a bleak clearing indicating a previous existence.

The four walls of the studio still hold together in a rectangle even though some have significant structural cracks. The roof has collapsed because of the dilapidation of the structural wooden rafters, and there are creepers growing into the interior. His studio remains in a state of ruin amidst recent news that his painting Damayanti sold for Rs 11.9 crore at Sotheby’s, New York.

Tourism potential

Baroda is a bustling city, which is now preparing for its new airport, and has a huge potential for tourism owing to its proximity to Ahmedabad and the World Heritage Site of Champaner. Many tourists come to visit the palace, yet hardly any visit the studio. There are many stakeholders making efforts to initiate conservation works to restore the studio, though none have been successful so far.

There are, however, a few royal family trusts in India that have been hugely successful in their heritage conservation efforts, namely the Mewar Trust at the Udaipur Palace, and the Mehrangarh Trust at the Jodhpur Palace, both of which have installed state of the art facilities at the historic palace.

The studio today represents an irreplaceable era in Indian art, and therefore should be safeguarded in order that our future generations understand the significance of Raja Ravi Varma and the surroundings in which he painted his beautiful portraits and mythological paintings in 19th-century India.

Viewer’s pleasure

If one wants to get a feel of the litho stones produced by Raja Ravi Varma, the best place to visit is the Hastashilpa Heritage Village in Manipal, which houses more than 100 litho stones with the impressions of Ravi Varma’s work; original colour prints; packets of special colour ink powder imported from Germany; printing machinery and other accessories used in the famed Ravi Varma Press.

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